As the Tennessee Valley Authority board gathers in Chattanooga Wednesday, Feb. 13 to consider the future of its coal generating fleet, the panel's key committees will discuss the agenda for Thursday's public board meeting in secret.
U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, the newly elected Knoxville Republican, wants that changed.
In his first bill drafted since taking office last month in Washington D.C., Burchett is introducing legislation to require committee meetings of the TVA board to be noticed and open to the public as local governments are required to be in Tennessee.
TVA board meeting in Chattanooga Wednesday and Thursday
* Public listening session from 3:30-5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Chattanooga Convention Center, meeting rooms H-J
* TVA board meeting at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the Missionary Ridge auditorium of TVA’s Chattanooga Office complex, 1101 Market Street, in downtown Chattanooga
"Both in the state legislature and as mayor I focused on increasing openness and transparency in government, and this bill continues those efforts at the federal level," Burchett said in a statement about his proposal. "While I understand that TVA has reasons for not wanting to open all meetings to the public, as an entity created and protected by Congress, the public deserves to know the Authority's business is as open and transparent as possible."
Under the proposed "Tennessee Valley Authority Transparency Act of 2019," meetings of the TVA Board would be required to be held in public, properly noticed, and make available minutes and summaries of each meeting."
Currently, the 9-member TVA board meets four times a year for public board meetings, which are held following public listening sessions and private committee meetings of the board. TVA also submits detailed financial reports each quarter to federal regulators for public review and is subject to federal rules for government agencies, which allow citizens to request documents and specific information about most TVA activities.
"TVA works hard to be transparent while serving nearly 10 million people across seven states," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said in response to Burchett's proposal. "In addition to public meetings on a host of topics and the TVA Board of Directors' public listening sessions and business meetings, we offer numerous public comment periods associated with potential policies and actions, provide simple instructions for submitting Freedom of Information Act requests, and file detailed financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission."
But TVA does not make detailed information about its board actions available in advance and most of the deliberation among directors about policy questions, including its potential decision Thursday to phase out another two coal-fired power plants despite opposition from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is done in private sessions and in private committee meetings.
"TVA under the current board and staff has drifted so far away from the norms of transparency and public engagement that they have taken the public out of public power," said Dr. Stephen Smith, executive vice president of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group which has objected to TVA separating its public listening sessions from its board meetings.
The TVA part-time board is appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate and, in the past, a TVA Congressional Caucus also helped oversee TVA and conducted hearings on TVA activities. The caucus is no longer active since TVA no longer directly receives any federal appropriate dollars.
Last week, Burchett and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, wrote to TVA demanding answers about TVA's contract with Jacobs Engineering. The contractor helped clean up the coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston coal plant but TVA disclosed that it might hve to help pay for inadequate measures used by Jacobs to protect workers involved in the cleanup. TVA says it is preparing a response to the Congressional request.
"We're glad to see the Congress taking more of an interest in TVA activities, but there needs to be more transparency in how TVA operates," Smith said.
Unlike most private electric utilities that operate in states with Public Service Commission regulatory oversight, the TVA board is largely free to set its own rates and policies.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340