Lawmakers consider changes to Sunshine Law

Robert Houk • Mar 17, 2020 at 5:35 PM

As the Tennessee General Assembly works to suspend its session at the end of this week, legislators are being asked to amend the state’s Open Meetings Act to allow local governments to conduct their business remotely during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Officials with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government are urging lawmakers to be very careful in making any temporary changes to the Sunshine Law.

“We have to make sure there are safeguards in place,” Deborah Fisher, executive director of the TCOG, said Tuesday. 

Fisher said one bill under consideration would give county and municipal boards the power for their members to meet electronically by dialing in on a conference line or joining via a videoconference.

The proposed legislation, which has had input from TCOG, the Tennessee County Services Association and Tennessee Municipal League, would allow local governing bodies to comply with the Open Meetings Act by providing electronic access to the public for its meetings if boards decided they needed to prevent citizens from physically attending because of COVID-19.

Fisher said open government advocates want to make sure boards can’t use electronic meetings to take up controversial issues that should be taken up at a time when the public can participate.

“We are supportive of local governments taking up essential business, but if there are items that need to be delayed, then they should be delayed,” Fisher said.

She said the state comptroller’s office is also pushing passage of a teleconferencing bill that lawmakers are expected to consider later today. 

State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said Tuesday his colleagues are hoping to pass a “bare-bones” state budget and recess before the weekend. He said lawmakers are dealing with “multiple” issues, including discussing remote government conferencing, as they work to wrap up the session.

He said legislators are dealing with “unprecedented issues” as a result of COVID-19.

“We have no idea as to how this will impact us,” he said. “Things are so fluid now.”




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