Dangerous Bill Could End Full Transparency of Local Governing Boards if Not Amended

Tennessee Bill Would Allow Local Governments To Hold All Meetings Electronically And For Those Officials To Vote Via Telephone, Eliminating Public Access To Those Meetings Or Votes.

Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Published April 6, 2021

The Tennessee Conservative Staff –

House Bill 509 is set to be heard by the State and Local Government Committee today. If this bill continues to advance, it will pave the way for local government to hold all meetings electronically and for those officials to vote via telephone, eliminating public access to those meetings or votes.

The bill, sponsored by Representative Clark Boyd, a Republican from Lebanon, would allow local utility authorities to meet through by electronic means instead of in person. According to Boyd, the bill is meant to make allowances for individual members who are quarantined or could not attend for another reason, not for the entire board.

As written, the bill does not provide any limitations on when or why a member could choose to meet electronically. There are also no specifications regarding how to provide public access to the meeting if the entire body chooses to meet electronically for some reason.

Representative Darren Jernigan of Nashville voiced concerns over the public being unaware of how members of the board voted.

“You’re not going to know how your person voted,” Jernigan said. “If you are at the meeting you can walk up and ask them.”

The bill does require a roll call vote of all members who are patching in via phone. This would provide some public awareness of how each member voted on an issue.

Representative Rebecca Alexander, a Republican from Jonesborough, also voice concerns regarding a section of the bill that allowed telephone conferencing for only some members, provided that a representative group met physically as well.

Jeremy Elrod, lobbyist for the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association responded that they hoped the ruling would be “used lightly.” He also stated that an entire board could choose to meet fully via electronic means, but they would have to file a report with the Secretary of State’s office and that information would be provided in an annual report to the General Assembly.

Boyd supported the transition, stating that the bill would actually increase transparency for utility administrations because electronic meetings could be broadcast for the entire public to “see the all-remote meeting.”

This does not seem to be the case, according to the wording of the bill. As currently written, the bill does not require that the meeting to be done via a platform such as Zoom, where the public would have access from their homes. It only requires that phone or video access be provided. The wording would allow boards to set up a speakerphone or video viewing area at a government location, making it more difficult for individuals to access.

Senator Richard Briggs, a Republican from Knoxville, has previously spoken out in support of allowing electronic meetings for government entities. He believes a number of issues can come from an elected official being unable to attend a meeting.

“His constituents, basically, are disenfranchised. They don’t have a voice in how laws are passed, and how things that could affect their districts are done,” Briggs stated.

The bill does require that utility boards continue to follow rules regarding public comments. Individuals would be allowed to submit written comments and the board would be mandated to read those on to the record, but they would not be required to allow individuals to address the board in real-time, in person.

T.C.A. 8-44-108 already provides an allowance for state boards to meet electronically if there is a need for action that could not be met before individuals could gather in person. This was done because state boards have members in various regions who cannot always meet in a central location within a reasonable amount of time.

HB 509 is different, though, because physical location is not an issue for local utility boards. Additionally, state board members who meet electronically are not allowed to receive a per diem for that meeting. HB 509 has specific wording that provides that utility board members would still receive compensation for electronic meetings.

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