Dickson County Mayor Bob Rial recently held a conference call with the 12-member county commission about the coronavirus and denied that the discussion violated Tennessee’s open-meetings law.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher said the conference call appeared to meet the definition of a meeting under state law. Such meetings are subject to public-notice and public-access requirements that the county didn’t follow.
Rial confirmed that the call was held March 27. All 12 commissioners were on the call, according to two of them.
On April 3, County Attorney Brian Ragan said there had been no official meeting about COVID-19.
“There’s not been a special called meeting of the commission itself,” Ragan said.
Fisher, though, said the conference call should have been considered a meeting.
“This is a really easy question,” she said. “Yes, it was a meeting. There’s no question. It was clearly a meeting that was called.”
The rules for public meetings are set forth in the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. The law was modified by Gov. Bill Lee in an executive order March 20, allowing governments to hold meetings remotely and electronically in keeping with social distancing, but the county still appears to have broken the law as modified by the order, Fisher said.
The county failed to take at least three steps that Fisher said are required for meetings under the law as modified by Lee’s order.
The county didn’t give public notice of the meeting; it didn’t make “reasonable efforts” to give the public live remote access; and it didn’t post a recording of the meeting on its website within two business days.
The Dickson Post sent Rial an email citing the law and stating that the county appeared to have given no notice of the conference call and no public access to it. Rial sent a reply suggesting the call wasn’t legally a meeting.
Rial’s April 6 email response said in its entirety:
“Over the past several weeks, my office has been in regular communication with county elected officials and department heads to best respond to the challenges of COVID-19. In an effort to keep the county commissioners apprised of some of the actions taking place by various county offices, I spoke with them by phone on March 27th. There was no deliberation by commissioners during this call, and no votes were taken on any matter. It was simply an informational call. These are unique and challenging times, and all county officials are doing our best to respond to these matters in the most timely and effective way possible.”
Fisher said that if officials were discussing coronavirus-related issues, those talks amounted to deliberations.
One commissioner said food assistance for the public was discussed. Another said the work schedules of employees, including time off, were discussed.
Rial didn’t say whether the call was recorded.
Disputes involving the open-meetings law are resolved in the courts. The parent company of the Dickson Post, Main Street Media of Tennessee, is considering whether to file a complaint regarding the conference call.
“We understand these are extraordinary times and know that public officials are focused on responding to the coronavirus and its impacts as best they can,” said Dave Gould, publisher of the Dickson Post and owner of Main Street Media of Tennessee.
“However, now more than ever government transparency is of the utmost importance. Our elected officials cannot use this crisis as an excuse to hold closed meetings. The governor issued an executive order that accommodates the need for officials to meet electronically, but they must do so in a way that does not violate the state’s open-meetings law.”
On the county government’s Facebook page, Rial has made clear his intent to help area residents from the effects of the coronavirus. Unemployment has skyrocketed from social distancing mandates.
However, as of the morning of April 6, Rial hadn’t announced specifics on aid or responded to messages seeking comment on any spending of county funds.
In a March 31 Facebook post, Rial said he’s working with local non-profit organizations “to determine how the funds set aside by the Dickson County Commission” can help those most in need.
There were no references to any amount of funds or actual spending in that post, nor in an April 3 post.
Ragan, the county attorney, said that in the county’s annual budget there are “a number of different funds” that Rial could tap to provide community aid. He said Rial “has a lot of discretion” on how to use the money without specific commission authorization.
Rial declared a state of emergency March 27 and said the county’s Emergency Operations Plan is in effect.
The regularly scheduled County Commission meeting set for April 6 was canceled.
Courts also adjusting
Circuit Court Clerk Pam Lewis emailed a statement to the Dickson Post saying: “Pursuant to the Order of the Dickson County Government, the Dickson County Courthouse is closed to all the public and staff except Elected Officials.”
The county offices are on the ground floor of the building housing the Dickson County Circuit and Chancery courts.
The Tennessee Supreme Court on March 25 issued an order allowing many court proceedings across the state to take place electronically. However, it listed several exceptions, saying parties must continue to appear in person in some instances.
Lewis said there were no in-person court proceedings “at this time,” so unelected officials such as assistant prosecutors, defense lawyers and the general public wouldn’t be seeking access to the upstairs courtrooms.
The Supreme Court’s order doesn’t address access to electronic proceedings by the public, which includes the media. Lewis said there are no means for the public to monitor these proceedings.
“Sorry but electronic court proceedings will only be done between the Judge, the Attorneys, and the client,” she said in an email.