Tennessee State Board Accused of Violating Open-Meeting Laws

The Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville. (Kaldari via Wikipedia)

(CN) — The ayes had it, according to the email sent at the time by the executive director for Tennessee’s Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

State Representative Joe Towns Jr. was on the hook for more than $66,000 in civil penalties, according to a Daily Memphian article attached to a recent lawsuit. Allegedly, the Democrat representing an area near Memphis did not file campaign finance reports during the 2018 election.

But the matter needed to be resolved before the lawmaker could qualify to make his re-election bid.

An apology from Towns and some updated campaign disclosures later, the Daily Memphian reported, and Towns’ counsel proposed to settle the penalties by paying only $22,000.

Young, claiming to act in a duel capacity as executive director and legal counsel to the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, reached out to the six-member Tennessee Registry of Election Finance to ask if they would accept the settlement proposal.

What happened next prompted a lawsuit at a time when governments across the country have turned to Zoom calls and figure out solutions to how to hold socially-distanced meetings in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

“The Registry Board has now voted via email 4-2 to accept Representative Towns’ counsel’s settlement proposal,” Young wrote in an email the morning of April 2, adding that the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office had given him advice on the matter.

The matter was resolved, according to Young’s email. “Please all stay safe out there in these troubling times,” he wrote signing off.

Later that morning, Tom Morton, a member of the registry, wrote a one-line message from his iPhone: “This was a roll call vote the results of which with details should be made public.”

On Wednesday, a group of Tennessee journalists, newspapers and television stations filed an 11-page lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court alleging the emailed vote taken by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance violated the state’s open meeting laws.

The meeting was secret, the vote was secret and the public did not know it was going to happen beforehand, the complaint said.

“The only details that have been made public are the fact of the email vote and the ‘official tally’ of the email votes. The Registry Members’ emails constituting the vote have not been made public and other details about the email vote – including who moved to accept the settlement and who seconded the motion – are also not available to the public,” the complaint said.

The group is represented by Paul McAdoo, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The complaint asks the court to find the email vote violated the law and to issue a permanent injunction preventing the registry from violating open meeting laws in the future.

Both Young and the Attorney’s General Office declined Courthouse News’ requests for comment.

On March 20, Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order in response to the Covid-19 outbreak lifting the requirement that governing bodies did not need to be physically present to make up a quorum. The meetings still needed to “remain open and accessible to public attendance by electronic means,” Lee’s order said.

However, the registry board did not follow the executive order, said Deborah Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government in a phone interview. Her group is one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

And when Fisher asked for records of the vote, her request was refused because of attorney-client privilege, she was told.

Because the attorney general;s office allegedly approved the process of voting by email, it raises questions about how the office interprets the state’s open records laws, Fisher said.

“If you have the state interpreting the law this way, that means that it could spread to other state boards. It could spread to local governing bodies,” she said.

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