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County may have violated Sunshine Law

Washington County’s compliance with the state Sunshine Law was questioned during the Feb. 21 meeting of the Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee.
The Tennessee Public Meetings Law, commonly referred to as the “Open Meetings Law” or the “Sunshine Law,” is one of the most comprehensive open meetings’ laws in the country.
The statute declares that all public policy and policy business decisions must be made in meetings that are open to the public.
The Public Meetings Law applies during meetings of what is considered a “governing body” under the act, and when there is deliberation of that governing body toward a decision.
A governing body is defined as “the members of any public body which consists of two or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body” on policy or administration.
According to the adequate notice of public meetings requirements, the Feb. 21 meeting of the CIA would be considered a special meeting, which is “a meeting not previously scheduled by statute, ordinance or resolution, or for which notice is not already provided by law.”
The Feb. 21 meeting was a called meeting scheduled because a representative from Humana could not be present at the regular monthly meeting of the CIA on Feb. 7.
According to the minutes of the meeting, “Chairman (Mark) Ferguson stated Humana could not attend and asked about a meeting time for a workshop with Humana. The committee agreed to meet on Monday, Feb. 21, at 5:30 as a workshop date. (Washington County Executive Assistant) Sherry Greene will take care of appropriate notices.”
The notice from Greene states, “The Commercial, Industrial & Agricultural Committee of the Washington County Board of County Commissioners will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 21, 2011, at the Washington County Courthouse, 2nd floor courtroom at 100 E. Main St., Jonesborough, for the purpose of a Humana Workshop.”
On Ferguson’s invitation, Jon Manfull, a consultant not connected with Humana, spoke on the merits of having an insurance broker following Humana’s presentation. That, according to Tennessee Press Association Counsel Rick Hollow, is theoretically a violation of the Sunshine Law.
“The addition at the meeting of a non-agenda-item at a called meeting of a governing body of a public body is a highly questionable act under the Tennessee Court of Appeals,” Hollow said.
Ferguson said he called Michelle Stewart, of the Washington County Highway Department, after the Feb. 7 meeting to ask her opinion on having an insurance broker.
According to Ferguson, Stewart said Washington County needs someone to assist with the benefits and offered to contact other counties about their plans.
“I then called Jon and asked him to come back; that’s how he got there,” Ferguson said. “If that’s a violation, I guess I’m guilty.”
Commissioner Ken Lyon objected twice while Manfull was speaking, making reference to being in non-compliance with the Sunshine Law, but Ferguson did not stop the meeting.
“All I was trying to do was keep things on the right basis and follow the correct procedure,” Lyon said. “If you start slipping on little things, it becomes a habit. These laws are in place for a reason.”
While Mayor Dan Eldridge did not comment during the meeting, at which he was present, he later told the Herald & Tribune that “Ken was absolutely right.”
Eldridge added he would have opposed any attempt to call for a vote on the issue based on the fact that it was not on the agenda.