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‘Bathroom break’ politics are unacceptable — and illegal

With the Washington County public schools’ budget on the ragged edge, the Washington County Commission’s budget committee met on August 5, at the County Mayor’s office.
After about 45 minutes of uneventful discussion concerning how and where additional monies could be found to help the cash-strapped school system, a recommendation was made to take a “bathroom break.”
With little hesitation, there was a mass exodus from the public meeting room by commissioners and budget committee members, a school board member and the county accountant.
The nine men must have taken care of nature’s call quickly, for they were observed shortly after leaving the meeting room, chatting in the hallway just outside of the meeting room.
With the exception of two budget committee members ­— C. B. Kinch and Gerald Sparks, who apparently didn’t need to visit the facilities — the group remained out of the room for 25 minutes.
Amid joking remarks about leaving the seat up in the bathroom, the group finally returned to the table.
County Mayor-Elect Dan Eldridge reconvened the meeting by suggesting using an extra $100,000 of TVA money to help the school system’s budget — an idea that had not been mentioned once prior to the “bathroom break.”
Ultimately, the commission found ways to give the school system an additional $254,000 – money which will probably save a number of sports and personnel positions in the 2010-11 year.
While we’re sure school officials and county residents are relieved the committee found additional monies for the ailing budget, the entire discussion concerning the funding issues should have been conducted openly, in the presence of the public in attendance and the media.
Taking nearly half an hour for private conversation under the guise of a marathon potty break is unacceptable — and illegal.
The Tennessee Open Meetings Law says very plainly that an official meeting – every minute of it – must be open to the public and press
We checked with the Tennessee Press Association’s legal department, and received confirmation that the Washington County officials who took part in any out-of-room discussions concerning public issues were in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Law.
For those officials and others unfamiliar with that law, excerpts follow:
Chapter 44, Public Meetings 8-44-102. “Open meetings…All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times…. (A) The members of any public body which consists of two (2) or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy of administration…and strategy sessions of a governing body under such circumstances shall be open to the public at all times. (E) (c) Nothing in this section shall be construed as to require a chance meeting of two (2) or more members of a public body to be considered a public meeting. No such chance meetings, informal assemblages or electronic circumvention of the spirit or requirements of this part.”
So now it’s time for the chuckling, winking, and potty breaks to end. Our officials need to be taking care of their business the right way – in public.