A judge in Tennessee ruled in favor of the Associated Press in a court decision and found the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance made a “consequential decision” by conducting a vote through email, thus violating the state’s Open Meetings Act.
The ruling is being considered the first major victory for the Reporters Committee’s new Local Legal Initiative program, formed earlier this year to assist newsrooms and empower investigative and enterprise reporting.
In April, attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Tennessee news media and open government organizations, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The lawsuit alleged the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it voted by email to approve a $22,000 settlement with Tennessee House Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, to resolve outstanding civil penalties levied by the registry.
The registry is a state agency that enforces campaign finance laws. At the time, Towns owed more than $65,000 in outstanding civil penalties.
Towns made the offer to settle $65,000 in fines he owed to the registry and $1,100 he owed to the Tennessee Ethics Commission. Under the terms of the agreement, Towns was required to pay the full amount he owed to the Ethics Commission, but he is required to pay the registry $44,100 less than what he originally owed.
However, members of the registry sent the agency’s director votes on whether they would approve of Towns’ $22,000 settlement in an email. The public was notified only that the email vote took place and that the official tally approved the settlement 4-2. No other information was given to the public.
The media coalition represented by the Reporters Committee includes the Associated Press and its reporter Kimberlee Kruesi; Chattanooga Publishing Company [the Chattanooga Times Free Press]; Gannett GP Media, Inc. and its vice president and editor Michael Anastasi; Gould Enterprises, Inc.; Meredith Corporation and its chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley; Memphis Fourth Estate, Inc.; Scripps Media, Inc. and its investigative reporter Ben Hall; TEGNA, Inc. and its news directors Lisa Lovell and Jeremy Campbell; the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters; the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, Inc.; and the Tennessee Press Association.
Paul McAdoo, staff attorney in Tennessee for the Reporters Committee, told the Times Free Press that when he had heard about the email vote, his radar went off.
“That’s one of the things that generally most open meetings laws don’t allow,” McAdoo said. “Votes need to happen in public meetings. That’s just kind of a foundational piece of open government.”
Attorneys with the registry argued communications fell outside the scope of the Open Meetings Act because the members didn’t have the legal authority to accept or reject the terms of Towns’ settlement offer.
“To hear that a night before a deadline there was a last-second email vote, as someone who works with the media and is in favor of open government, that was pretty disturbing,” McAdoo said.
On Oct. 8, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle issued a written order in favor of the plaintiffs in Associated Press v. Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
In her ruling, Lyle wrote the registry “violated the spirit and requirements” of the Open Meetings Act by deciding by an email vote whether to recommend settlement with Rep. Towns.
McAdoo said the decision gives the new program a good bit of momentum.
“Obviously it’s good precedent,” he said. “We got a strong ruling that hopefully state government will pay attention to. I also think it shows how coalition building can be really helpful in the media in Tennessee.”
Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement the case is a clear example of why the new legal initiative is necessary in Tennessee and elsewhere around the country.
“The public’s ability to attend government meetings is essential to ensuring that people are informed about what public officials are doing on their behalf, and are able to hold them accountable,” she said.”This is an important ruling for open government in Tennessee.”
Contact Patrick Filbin at email@example.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.