published Monday, January 20th, 2014

Public denied access to UT athletics board meetings

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A decision by the University of Tennessee to start denying public access to athletics board meetings is raising questions.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports UT officials previously allowed the media to attend meetings, but decided to stop that policy last year.

Since then, it has begun meeting more frequently, it has cut its membership by more than half and it has stopped keeping minutes of meetings.

UT officials say the board meetings are exempt from state open meeting laws because the board is only making recommendations and not "making decisions."

"There are some things that you can discuss more freely and there are issues that come before us that we need to be thoughtful about and to give counsel to the chancellor and the athletics director," said Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for communications and a member of the board.

Tennessee Press Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson said the moves raise questions.

"If the group discusses something or deliberates something that is going to ultimately go to the full board of trustees, then that's a potential problem," Gibson said. "If this group has no authority and no power to do anything, then why the need for all the secrecy?"

The athletics board has also reduced the number of documents and reports it distributed to members.

UT officials said copy reports are no longer needed because the chief financial officer, top academic advisers, compliance staff and others give firsthand presentations to the board.

"I have regular meetings with the chancellor one-on-one, and we see each other in a variety of venues on ongoing basis," athletics board chair Don Bruce said. "It's really informational. It's not a policy making board."

The next board meeting is set for Wednesday. The newspaper said it asked to attend, but the request was denied.

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