T-G editor honored for story on secret city meetings

Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Times-Gazette editor Terence Corrigan at work at his desk early Wednesday morning.
T-G Photo by John I. Carney

"On three occasions in October the Shelbyville city council, the city manager and local law enforcement officials met in closed-door sessions without any public notice of their intent to hold a special meeting or what the reason for the meeting was."

That was the lead paragraph of a story headlined "City: We can hold secret meetings" published in the Nov. 19 Times-Gazette.

When contacted in November for the story, Shelbyville City Manager Shanna Boyette said the city does not have to keep any record that an executive session was held or notify the public of their intent to hold a non public meeting. "This was an executive session (covered by) attorney-client privilege. Per state of Tennessee law no notice or record has to be kept of an executive session," is how she explained it to Times-Gazette editor Terence Corrigan who wrote the story.

TPA honor

Corrigan's story about the meetings was recognized this month with an award by the Tennessee Press Association in the 2017 Public Notice Journalism Contest. The contest is conducted to recognize "journalists that use public notice, or the lack of required public notice, to raise awareness of its importance." Corrigan will receive his 1st place award at the Press Association's July convention. His story was forwarded on to the national Public Notice Journalism Contest. The winner of the national contest will be honored at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

Corrigan said, the city's explanation for "why they think its legal to hold secret meetings runs counter to what 35 years of experience covering local governments" has taught him.

Corrigan referred to Tennessee law: "The general assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret."

"In every state, there are a few exceptions to openness, such as meeting with attorney's to discuss litigation," Corrigan said, "but for a government body to think they can arrange a meeting - open or closed session - and not even notify the public they are going to hold a meeting runs counter to American values."

State law

Tennessee State Law says in plain language what is required for notifying the public about special meetings:

"Any such governmental body which holds a meeting not previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution, or for which notice is not already provided by law, shall give adequate public notice of such meeting."

However, Shelbyville city attorney, Ginger Bobo Shofner, wrote in a Nov. 13 memo to city manager Shanna Boyette that "public notice of such meetings (called executive sessions) is not required."

Knoxville attorney Rick Hollow's take on Shelbyville City Council's unannounced meetings was also without equivocation. ""A meeting is a meeting," he said. "Whether you call it an executive session or call it a meeting, whatever you call it. If the entire board or a majority gets together that's a meeting. Call it whatever you want to."

"When a majority of the city council gets together for any purpose related to public business it's a meeting," Corrigan said. "Yes, they are allowed meet in an executive session with the city attorney to discuss possible litigation but they can't convene that meeting unless they notify the public that they are going to meet. It's a simple concept; in the U.S. we don't allow legislative bodies to conduct public business in secret, unannounced sessions."

Unlawful

The city argued that its seven hours of closed door sessions on October were lawful under the legal principle of attorney/client privilege. Under that principle, the council is allowed to meet behind closed doors with its attorney to discuss litigation or possible litigation. Hollow, however, argued that because the council brought police into the meeting they destroyed the privilege which only holds water in a meeting between the attorney and the client, outsiders are not allowed - police are not the client, only the city council is the client.

Corrigan also argues that the meetings "did not pass the smell test." "I do not believe that the council only gathered information from the attorney about potential lawsuits for seven hours," he said. "It's just not credible."

In a memo to city manager Boyette, city attorney Shofner did express a glimmer of hope that Shelbyville might recognize, without a lawsuit to force them, the importance of openness in government, Corrigan said.

Shofner recommended that the city's administration come up with a consistent procedure for how to handle executive sessions and "commit to following the same procedure in all cases if possible and circumstances warrant."

"Shelbyville is hoping to attract new businesses but one thing business leaders are looking for is well-run local government run above board," Corrigan said.