Sullivan official wants to rescind vote on changes to Sunshine Law

J. H. Osborne • Dec 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Commissioner James “Jim” King says he’ll seek to rescind — or throw out — a Sullivan County Commission vote earlier this week concerning possible changes to the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Tennessee’s “Sunshine Law” prohibits two or more members of an elected body from discussing public business in private.

A special committee of the state legislature has been looking at ways to change the law — including loosening the restriction that as few as two members talking business is a violation.

King, of Kingsport, has said he recognizes the need for the state’s Sunshine Law, describing it as “a good thing” and “essential.”

But King said he thinks it’s just “good common sense” that there are times when two elected officials, such as county commissioners, would better develop and understand ideas if they were able to discuss them.

“I don’t see any harm in that,” King told the Times-News on Wednesday.

Last month, King introduced a resolution that the County Commission send a message to Nashville that Sullivan County would support a change in the law to allow two officials to meet and discuss public business in private, so long as two didn’t equal a quorum. In other words, they’d have to be members of a body with at least four members.

When King’s proposal came for a vote by the full commission on Monday, several commissioners said they’d like to see it expanded — so that the number of elected officials who could legally discuss public matters in private would only be limited by whether or not those meeting constitute a quorum.

A quorum is the minimum number of members of a body required to be present for business to be conducted. It is usually a majority. For the 24-member Sullivan County Commission, for example, 13 members constitute a quorum.

As the discussion unfolded Monday, King agreed to accept an amendment to his proposal that would send a message to state lawmakers that Sullivan County would support increasing the number of officials who can meet privately to any number less than a quorum.

Within 24 hours, however, King decided that was a mistake.

“After the commission meeting yesterday, I have come to the realization that I made a mistake by accepting a proposal ... to amend my resolution on the Sunshine Law from the original wording, which would allow two members to discuss matters outside of a (public) meeting as long as those two did not constitute a quorum,” King told the Times-News on Tuesday.

He will seek to have Monday’s vote nullified, King said.

“It is my intention at this point to bring my original resolution up again, asking that the vote (Monday) be rescinded,” King said. “Fortunately, what passed is only a recommendation to the state legislature, and in my opinion, has no chance of passing in the legislature.”

King said he realizes he may not be able to get other commissioners to agree to revisit the issue — after all, only one commissioner voted against the amended version.

And, had King not accepted the amendment, his fellow commissioners could have taken a separate vote to add the amendment without his approval.

Before the vote Monday, some commissioners said the current law is too restrictive because if two members can’t talk about issues, there is no way for them to even find a co-sponsor for proposals.

County Attorney Dan Street quickly took the floor to say state courts have ruled the current law does in fact permit that sort of discussion between two members.

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