Tennessee media groups, watchdog sue over vote by email

Published 1:57 pm Thursday, April 30, 2020

Associated Press
NASHVILLE (AP) — A group of media and watchdog organizations on Wednesday sued the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance over a vote that took place by email in early April.
The complaint says Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Bill Young sent an email to the six members of the Registry on or about April 1 asking whether they would approve an offer by state Rep. Joe Towns to pay $22,000 to settle a debt of $65,000 owed to the Registry and $1,100 owed to the Tennessee Ethics Commission.
Registry members voted 4-2 by email to accept the settlement, according to the lawsuit. Only the vote tally has been made public, but not the emails themselves.
“Because the Registry’s vote occurred via email, rather than in a properly noticed public meeting, its actions violated the OMA,” or Open Meetings Act, the complaint states.
The plaintiffs, which include The Associated Press and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, are asking a judge to declare that the email vote was a violation of Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act. They also want a permanent injunction on future violations, and they are asking the court to retain oversight of the issue for a year, requiring semi-annual reports on compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
Young, in an email, said it is the Bureau’s policy not to comment on pending litigation. The state Attorney General’s Office also had no comment.
“The Open Meetings Act plainly states — and courts in Tennessee have upheld — that all votes by a government body must be public,” plaintiffs’ attorney Paul McAdoo said in a statement. McAdoo is a Tennessee-based staff attorney for the Local Legal Initiative.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said she was especially concerned by the vote because Young told The Tennessean he consulted with the Attorney General’s Office about it beforehand.
“I’m concerned about how the Attorney General’s Office is interpreting the law,” she said. “I think it needs to go before the court.”

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