Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee stepped up Friday when he issued an executive order that governments are allowed to meet online for the next several weeks, but they must continue their responsibility to keep citizens in the loop — coronavirus or not.
Lee's order mandated those meetings remain at least somewhat open. There was already at least one bill that would have done this last week, but Tennessee lawmakers during their marathon budget session couldn't reach agreement about the provisions.
So Lee settled the issue with his very reasonable order.
The governor's mandate says that until May 18 each government may meet online, but each also has to make a reasonable effort to livestream that meeting. If that's not available, the local body has to record the meeting with clear audio or video and put it online within two days of the meeting.
The order requires local governments to stay in accordance with the state's Constitution, and to tell the public ahead of time that the meeting will be held electronically, as well as provide clear instructions on how residents can access the livestream and the recording.
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and newspapers like this one hail the governor's move as the right thing to do.
"We at Tennessee Coalition for Open Government are very pleased with this outcome. The order allows essential government business to continue. We need to give governing bodies across the state tools to do this," TCOG officials wrote in a statement. "The order includes several key safeguards for public transparency that we think are important and reasonable considering the COVID-19 epidemic."
This is a good and necessary thing.
We are in new territory. City councils, county commissions, hospital boards — even library boards and courts — are trying to figure out how to carry on essential government business in a public setting while also protecting the public as well as our public servants. But public spaces tend to be small with closely placed seats — precisely the kind of situations health officials are telling all of us we should avoid during this COVID-19 outbreak.
Good job, Gov. Lee. We and the citizens of Tennessee thank you.