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Johnson City, Kingsport leaders to skip public notice in arranging dinner

Max Hrenda • May 16, 2014 at 11:08 PM

Elected officials from the governing bodies of Johnson City and Kingsport are planning to meet for dinner, but the public isn’t invited.

When asked why not, a Kingsport city official said it was because they weren’t required to invite them.

In an email communication with Press staff, Kingsport Community and Government Relations Director Tim Whaley said Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips suggested that Johnson City and Kingsport leaders meet for dinner as “an informal manner to begin building the personal relationships necessary to foster cooperation and move the region forward by working together as a whole.” Whaley said that the dinner had no agenda, and that it would not serve as a forum for opinions on potential actions to be discussed.

Whaley added, however, that the public would not be notified as to when or where the dinner would occur, or what, specifically, would be discussed.

“No notice will be provided,” he said.

According to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act — or Sunshine Law — the public must receive “adequate notice” of any meeting of any governing body. As justification for not providing that notice, however, Whaley cited a 2012 opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, which states that public officials are within their legal rights to eat together and discuss public business without the presence of the public, so long as no policy decisions were wrought from that discussion.

“The private discussion of public business at a meal by two or more members of a governing body could present the potential issue of whether a chance meeting, or informal assemblage, was used to decide or deliberate public business,” Cooper said in the written opinion. “While two or more members may share a meal together in which public business is discussed, such discussion should not constitute deliberations.”

Tennessee Press Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson said that, under the auspices of this opinion, the cities’ officials would not be in violation of the Sunshine Law if they met for dinner without the public’s presence, provided they adhered to the standards Whaley detailed in his email.

“There has to be deliberation on a particular matter and discussions in that secret meeting that led to an official decision for there to be any chance of a violation,” Gibson said. “Governing bodies can go eat together as long as they don’t do what the email told you they weren’t going to do.”

According to one Johnson City commissioner, the dinner is what it has been advertised to be — a chance to become more acquainted with neighboring city leaders. Commissioner Jenny Brock said she was invited to the dine with the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen “a couple of months ago” at the MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center in Kingsport. Brock said the dinner had been scheduled to take place “sometime in June,” and added she was unaware of any plans to discuss any particular issue or action item.

“It’s just more of a neighborly get-together,” Brock said. “It would be like me inviting people over to my house for dinner. I don’t see it as anything more than that.”

While Brock said she expected the dinner to be a social event, she added that while she is not familiar with laws concerning the issuance of public notices, she would have expected the public to be notified of the dinner.

“I don’t really get into those kinds of things,” she said. “I would assume there would be public notice.”

Brock added that, if it was her decision, she would provide public notice of the dinner. Despite the lack of public notice, however, Brock said she was unaware of any motivation to exclude the public from any policy decisions.

“I don’t feel that way,” Brock said. “I feel like it’s a friendly dinner. It may be turning ... questionable, administratively, about how it has been handled, and I can understand that.”

More questions may follow, however, should similar circumstances present themselves for Johnson City’s next city-to-city meeting. Brock said the commission is planning a similar event with the leaders of Bristol, Tennessee, as well.

Press staff left messages with Brock’s colleagues on the commission — David Tomita, Jeff Banyas, Clayton Stout and Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin — to discuss their perceptions on the proposed Kingsport dinner. Those messages were not returned.

Follow Max Hrenda on Twitter @MaxLHrenda. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpresshrenda.

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