Gov. Lee will not extend order allowing government bodies to meet electronically
Gov. Bill Lee will not extend his executive order allowing local governing bodies in Tennessee to meet electronically to conduct business after it expires June 30.
Comptroller Justin Wilson notified government officials in a memo Tuesday that Lee has indicated to his office that beginning on July 1, officials must return to in-person public meetings.
A spokesperson for Lee did not respond to a request for comment. Lee issued the original order March 20 because of the coronavirus pandemic and extended it to June when it was set to initially expire May 18.
With few exceptions, governing board members must be physically present to participate and vote, the Comptroller's office said in the memo obtained by The Tennessean. Meetings must be held consistent with the requirements of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.
For months, governing bodies across the state have gone virtual as they continue to do businesses during the ongoing pandemic. But it hasn't come easily.
Locally, Nashville's Metro Council has repeatedly struggled to vote on issues, especially difficult with a large 40-person body. And in Chattanooga, the city council's first meeting was marred by attendees who sent racist messages targeting Black council members and staff.
In addition, a coalition of media organizations, including The Tennessean and the other USA TODAY Network newsrooms in Tennessee, is suing the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance for taking a vote via email.
Neither the Open Meetings Act or the governor's executive order allow voting by email.
Last week, Nashville council members passed a budget after a slow start and multiple breaks to get technology to cooperate. Officials had ruled out moving council operations into a bigger building as Metro IT determined the hard-wired voting and microphone system couldn't be moved.
Vice Mayor Jim Shulman said council members will make a full return for its July 7 meeting. Plexiglass, which he said would be funded by the federal CARES Act funds, will be set up between each council member's desk. The public will be allowed to sit in the back gallery, with stickers marking proper social distancing.
"We had thought this might be happening so we've been trying to think ahead so we'd be ready," Shulman said Tuesday. "It's important to remember that the pandemic is not going anywhere. We have to do this safely and transparently. "
With government business taking place electronically, so have public hearings, with the residents calling in to speak on items on the agenda. Shulman said he will working with council office to address public hearings.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher called it the "right thing to do" for governing bodies to return to in-person business.
"I think governing bodies can meet safely following all the precautions we’ve asked the general public to follow — masks, social distancing, extra cleaning," Fisher said. "They could do temperature checks or meet in larger rooms. It will depend on the governing body. Some are in parts of the state where there are very few cases."
Local government bodies, Fisher said, should also continue to extend options for the public to watch and engage in alternative ways, including livestreams and call-in options for public comments.