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Governments to conduct public meetings electronically

Robert Houk • Updated Mar 24, 2020 at 10:43 AM

While local government officials are working out the technical details for conducting important public business remotely, the Washington County Board of Education will livestream a special-called meeting today on YouTube.

The 5 p.m. meeting will be held behind closed doors, with only board members and specific staff members physically in attendance. The session is being streamed at  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDnmnXQAmOV6q16q0xrEpPA/live. 

School officials said an audio recording of the meeting will also be available upon request.

William Flanary, Washington County’s director of schools, said Monday he needs the Board of Education to give him guidance on payroll matters pertaining to hourly employees while schools are closed for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order last week allowing governing bodies to conduct “essential business by electronic means, rather than being required to gather a quorum of members physically present at the same location, if the governing body determines that the meeting electronically is necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of Tennesseans in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said he and IT officials met Monday to determine the amount of access county commissioners and the public have to electronic conferencing platforms now available.

The idea, he said, is for commissioners to conduct only the business necessary to maintain “essential government services” without meeting face-to-face. Grandy said issues of “general public interest,” such as a resolution on refugee resettlement that had been scheduled for this month’s canceled commission meeting, will be deferred to a later time.

“We hope to test these platforms at committee meetings new week,” the mayor said. “It it doesn’t work for five members, it won’t work for a meeting of all 15 commissioners.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the governor’s order to temporarily amend the state’s Sunshine Law includes “several key safeguards for public transparency that we think are important and reasonable” in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prescribed conditions for electronic meetings are:

• The meeting must be open and accessible to the public by electronic means. Each governing body must make reasonable efforts to ensure the public access to the meeting via electronic means is live access, but if the governing body can’t provide such live public access despite reasonable efforts, the governing body must make a clear audio or video recording of the meeting available to the public as soon as practicable following the meeting, and no longer than two business days after the meeting.

• Governing bodies are urged to provide the public with clear notice of the meeting agenda and how the public can access the meeting electronically at a time and location reasonably accessible to all citizens.

• All meetings shall be conducted in a manner consistent with the Tennessee Constitution, Article 1, Section 19, which states in part: “That the printing press shall be free to every person to examine the proceedings of the Legislature; or of any branch or officer of the government, and no law shall ever be made to restrain the right thereof.”

Grandy said meeting electronically will help keep commissioners on track in preparing a county budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. The mayor said the state Comptroller’s Office has indicated it does not intend to delay the timeline for local governments to meet the deadline for setting a new budget.

He said the message from the state is that counties and municipalities should follow the lead of the Tennessee General Assembly. State legislators recessed last week after approving a new $39.8 billion state budget.

Despite some cuts, the budget includes $5 million the governor has allocated for the Ashe Street Courthouse redevelopment project.

The next scheduled meeting of the Johnson City Commission is set for April 2. City Manager Pete Peterson said Monday officials are still determining how city commissioners should conduct their regular business electronically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peterson said the city will likely defer a decision on the pending $12.5 million school funding inter-local agreement with Washington County until the outbreak ends.

Press Staff Writer David Floyd contributed to this article.

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