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It’s illegal for public officials to vote by E-mail in meetings

The Open Meetings Law requires votes to be in public and not by e-mail. It has been proven in a court of law.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs ruled recently that the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance violated the Open Meetings Act by holding an email vote – outside a public meeting and without public notice – to approve a settlement with a lawmaker, substantially reducing his outstanding fines. The finance board did this with advice of the Attorney General’s Office.

Hooray for Hobbs who gave public accountability a boost and set the Attorney General’s Office straight on the Open Meetings Act.

I have only run into this situation twice during my years of reporting. In both cases, the voting was rescinded and another vote was taken.

The Open Meetings Act unambiguously requires that all votes by a governmental body be by public vote with no secret votes allowed. It requires that all decisions—and deliberations—by a governing body “on any matter” be done in a public meeting. 

It also specifically prohibits the use of electronic communication to “decide or deliberate public business in circumvention of the spirit or requirements of” the Open Meetings Act.

Earlier this year, the Attorney General’s Office advised the Registry’s executive director how to get a vote — without a public meeting or notice of a public meeting — from the six member Tennessee Registry of Election Finance –  on whether to accept a settlement offer reducing fines against state Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis. 

Towns, a perennial violator of the campaign finance disclosure laws for years, needed to pay his outstanding fines so that he could get on the ballot for reelection to his seat. The deadline was the next day and he wanted his $65,000 in fines reduced by more than two-thirds.

This is usually something the board considers in an open meeting. But Bill Young, the director for the Registry, said there wasn’t time, and he followed the Attorney General’s Office advice on how to ask board members individually to email their votes, which they did.

Later it came out that some board members did not appreciate such pressure. The Registry board’s longtime chairman, Tom Lawless, who voted no in the secret email vote, has said publicly that he thought the email vote violated the Open Meetings Act.

He was right, and a judge confirmed that on Friday.

So, first, the Attorney General’s Office gave advice that plainly is at odds with multiple parts of the statute. 

If I ever run across this situation of governmental board members voting in a meeting by e-mail, I will certainly call their attention to it that it is illegal.

I’m glad the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government keeps a watch on such illegal actions.

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