Tennessee panel hasn't posted regular meeting notices

Tennessee panel hasn't posted regular meeting notices

January 21st, 2012 by Associated Press in News

NASHVILLE - A state commission that recently was in court over allegations it crafted an immigration policy in secret hasn't regularly posted notices of upcoming meetings on its website during at least the past two years.

The Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission is the primary regulatory body for Tennessee law enforcement and usually meets monthly. Its duties include developing standards for law enforcement agencies statewide and certifying and decertifying officers.

An Associated Press review found there was no link to the commission's meeting notices from its primary Web page at www.tn.gov/commerce/let/post.

Meeting notices from three months in 2010 and one in 2011 were posted in another section of the state government's website, but they were difficult to find. One of those notices was not posted until after a meeting had started, according to the posting date and time listed at the bottom of the notice. Another was posted less than 24 hours before the meeting it announced.

A few days after AP asked questions about whether POST was complying with the legal requirement to give the public adequate notice of meetings, notices of upcoming meetings appeared on the commission's main Web page.

A POST spokesman would not discuss how the commission provides notice of its meetings, citing a lawsuit that recently forced the commission to overturn a jail policy it had created at meetings that were not announced to the public.

State law requires that public bodies like the POST Commission provide "adequate public notice" of meetings but it does not specify how far in advance of a meeting the notice must be posted or where it must be posted. A few legal rulings on the issue have not offered very concrete guidance either. That means it is up to the individual government panels to determine how to comply with the vaguely worded mandate.

The Tennessee Higher Education Committee, for example, posts its meeting dates on its website a year in advance. Then about 10 days before the meetings, it sends email notices to the press, college presidents and lawmakers and posts a paper notice in Legislative Plaza. Executive Secretary Lovella Carter said she does not know how that policy was developed, but it already was in place when she began working for the committee 16 years ago.

Frank Gibson, the public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, said the posting of meeting notices is more than just a technical requirement. It's important.

"The government can have a tremendous impact on people's lives, from deciding whether to let a gas station open on the corner from where you live to raising your taxes. The legislature, when it passed in Sunshine Law in 1974, recognized that the public has a right to know what is going to be discussed."

The issue of the POST Commission's practices came to light after the group was ordered by the state legislature to develop a process by which local jailers could question detainees about their immigration status.

Although immigrant rights advocates were deeply interested in that process, there was no public notice of the meetings where the new policy was created.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Director Stephen Fotopulos told the POST Commission at its monthly meeting last week that from his perspective "the process fell into a black hole."

A lawsuit filed in December claimed the immigration policy was invalid because it was made in secret.

State attorneys never disputed the assertion that the POST Commission violated Tennessee's Sunshine Law. Instead, the commission agreed to rescind the immigration policy at its meeting last week.

Both parties then agreed to dismiss the suit, but POST Commission spokesman Christopher Garrett said he still would not answer questions about how the group notifies the public of meetings because the judge had not yet formally dismissed the case.

He provided a written statement that reads, in part, "We have revisited the policy to incorporate steps to be able to demonstrate the posting of meeting notices in the future."

Monthly meeting notices exist for the POST Commission, but they do not appear to be written for the general public. For instance, the June 2007 notice states, "Please call the Park Vista to confirm your reservation. Please tell them you are with the sheriff's group." The note refers to an upcoming meeting in Gatlinburg, although that is not stated on the notice.

Other notices have similar statements that appear written for the commissioners, not the public, like one from December 2007 that says, "Commissioner Wyatt has again offered to provide lunch after the POST meeting. Please plan to attend."

Copies of the notices were provided to The Associated Press after an open records request.