Chattanooga news media protest closed meeting

Chattanooga news media protest closed meeting

February 23rd, 2012 by Staff Report in News

Document: Letter to Rick Smith

Letter to Rick Smith.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press and WRCB-TV wrote a letter to local and state education officials Wednesday about concerns over a local meeting that should have been open to the public.

Both news organizations sent reporters to a meeting at the Chattanooga Convention Center where Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was to talk with Hamilton County Board of Education members about grant applications for a program to turn around struggling schools. Seven board members were at the meeting, as well as several members from the public.

However, the meeting, described as a board work session in an email to the media, was closed to others. State Board of Education spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier, a former Times Free Press education reporter, told journalists the meeting was not open to the public. Work sessions typically are open.

A round of finger-pointing between local and state officials ensued, with each side blaming the other for the decision to close the meeting.

Time Free Press Managing Editor Alison Gerber and WRCB News Director Derrall Stalvey signed the letter, which was sent to schools Superintendent Rick Smith, the school board, Huffman, Gauthier and Gov. Bill Haslam.

"Public officials must remember that their business is the taxpayers' business," Gerber said. "Public business must be conducted in the open so our elected representatives can be held accountable for their decisions."

The letter states, in part:

"Regardless of who asked for the meeting to be closed, it is evident that there was some direct or indirect pressure put on local officials to keep reporters away. We hope that you do not plan to conduct business this way. By excluding the media, you shut the public out of the process, a process that stands to transform three of our public schools."

The news organizations urged Smith and other recipients, and their staffs, to review the state's Open Meeting Act requirements "so that we can all serve the public better with transparency in government."