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Gov. Bill Lee Issues Order for Open Meetings During COVID-19 Emergency

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Governor Bill Lee issued Executive Order No. 16 to ensure government operations continue to function openly and transparently during the COVID-19 emergency while taking measures to protect the health and safety of citizens and government officials.

The order allows governing bodies, by following certain conditions, to meet electronically and provide electronic access to the public during the COVID-19 emergency.

“We at Tennessee Coalition for Open Government are very pleased with this outcome. The order allows essential government business to continue. We need to give governing bodies across the state tools to do this,” said Deborah Fisher of TCOG.

The order includes several key safeguards for public transparency that we think are important and reasonable considering the COVID-19 epidemic.

The order allows governing bodies to meet and 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” subject to certain conditions.

The 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 cannot 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 in no event more 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 members of the public.

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.”

Many states across the country are beginning to issues guidelines for complying with the Open Meetings Act when physical presence of the governing body and the public could interfere with the containment of COVID-19.

The order issued by Gov. Bill Lee offers the clear guidance needed as we move into unchartered territory.

TCOG will continue to work on this issue. There are literally hundreds of governing bodies across the state. Some are large or have the capacity and experience in providing live audio or video feeds of their meetings. Some are not, and don’t even maintain a website.

“We urge Tennesseans — and particularly Tennessee companies and individuals with expertise in technology — to offer their services to local governing bodies as a way to try to maintain open government to the largest extent possible during this period,” said Fisher.

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