Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order on Friday that gave much-needed relief and guidance on how governing bodies may conduct meetings electronically in light of a need to contain the spread of coronavirus.
The order contained key provisions TCOG sought, including that governing bodies be allowed to conduct "essential business," make reasonable efforts to provide live electronic access to the public and provide the public with better notice of the meeting agenda and how the public can access the meeting.
This order lasts eight weeks, expiring May 18, 2020.
At all times, but most especially during times of crisis, trust and credibility are the government's most precious assets.
Now is the time for governing bodies to implement available technology as quickly as possible to allow live access and public participation in meetings.
Already, we are starting to see this happen across the country.
Here's an example of a Northampton, Mass., City Council meeting agendafor a March 19 meeting. The public has the ability to call in or video-conference in using their computer, and provide comment during the public comment period as is customary in many meetings.
Now is also the time for governing bodies to post agendas of upcoming meetings on their website, with links to board packet information.
Some governing bodies in Tennessee post agendas to their website now; several do not. These notices of meetings and agendas need to be available in a public place in enough time before the meeting so citizens have a chance to see it.
If a government does not have a website, the answer is simple. They should create one or find a partner who will post such information on a website for them. They also should take steps to actively advertise to the public their meetings. This means reaching out to local media, using social media and tapping as many means as possible to share what they are doing.
Instead of asking what is the least required in sharing information with the public, approach it another way: what is the most that can be done?
Governing bodies with less of a transparency culture need to learn quickly
The Governor's Executive Order No. 16 covers all governing bodies in Tennessee, from the smallest to the largest, the most rural to the most urban. County commissions, city councils, boards of aldermen, school boards, state boards and commissions, public health boards, election commissions, public utilities, parks boards. The list goes on.
Those that already have a culture of providing enhanced access to meetings — such as live streaming meetings on the internet and posting meeting documents online — will likely easily make the leap to electronic meetings that allow full participation by the public.
Others, with less culture or experience with technology, may face a learning curve.
If you live in a community where electronic access to public meetings is not good over the next few weeks, reach out to your governing body to see what you can do to help. Let them know there are tools available. Advocate for quick adoption.
Tennesseans — particularly Tennessee businesses and individual with experience — need to lend a hand to assist their local governing bodies get up to speed.
Government bodies should not take up business that can be reasonably delayed
Just as citizens are being asked to defer nonessential business, so should governing bodies.
The governor's order allowing electronic meetings acknowledges that governing bodies must continue to carry out "essential functions, including, but not limited to, considering annual budgets or special budgetary items in response to COVID-19 or measures providing regulatory flexibility or other means to treat and contain COVID-19 ..."
Much of their business in the next few weeks will be of high interest to many members of the public, including individuals and businesses.
For all other business — now is not the time to take advantage of the public's inability to attend and participate at public meetings if those decisions can reasonably be postponed.
Local government response to how they conduct meetings electronically — will be a test, both culturally in terms of commitment to transparency, and technologically.
We join the National Freedom of Information Coalition in their Statement on Government Coronavirus Emergency Transparencyand Public Access, which encourages government to "take this opportunity to leverage technology to make governance more inclusive and more credible, not to suspend compliance with core accountability imperatives in the name of expediency."
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit which provides education and advocacy for the public records and open meetings laws.