A view of the Tennessee state Capitol in downtown Nashville. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
Tennessee’s Registry of Election Finance violated open meetings law when it voted by email to reduce a state lawmaker’s fines in April, a judge ruled Friday.
Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle rejected the state’s argument that the vote was inconsequential and therefore unnecessary to be taken in public.
“Even though it’s the attorney general who has the authority as the litigator, the litigating attorney, to decide whether to accept or reject a settlement, certainly the registry’s input is a weighty one,” Lyle ruled from the bench Friday. “The public is relying on it to use its independence to assist with election violations.”
The secret vote, first reported by The Tennessean, involved a settlement of penalties that could have kept Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, from being eligible to run for office — on the eve of the eligibility deadline.
Towns faced more than $66,000 in penalties owed to the registry and the state Ethics Commission for failing to file certain documents.
But his penalties were reduced to $22,000 in order to become eligible to appear on the fall ballot after the registry took votes via email. The vote was taken the night before the election filing deadline, and Towns likely would not have been able to file as a candidate without a settlement of his debt.
Rep. Joe Towns, Jr., D-Memphis, sings “It’s a Wonderful World” during a break as the House of Representatives waits for the session to start back up May 2, 2019, in Nashville. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)
Secret vote counts as meeting
The behind-the-scenes decision, which was released only as a vote tally of 4-2, raised questions over whether the agency violated Tennessee’s open meetings law and a recent executive order from Gov. Bill Lee.
In April, Bill Young, the executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, asked members of the registry to vote via email on accepting the reduced penalty for Towns.
Young said the action was allowed under Lee’s executive order giving state bodies the ability to conduct some business virtually during the coronavirus pandemic. He said he consulted with the attorney general’s office, who agreed that it was allowable because the panel was simply voting on a settlement and had no discussion.
But the vote prompted the lawsuit from a coalition of media organizations.
Details released in the lawsuit revealed Towns also threatened to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s campaign finance laws if the panel did not accept his settlement offer, according to court documents.
The state argued against the violation claim because the vote was advisory, and only the state attorney general has the power to accept a settlement offer, asking Lyle to rule that inconsequential decisions are not subject to the Open Meetings Act.
She declined to do so, disagreeing that there was a “clear bright line” and confirming that the vote qualified as a meeting, and therefore was included in the law.
The media organizations who filed the suit on April 29 include the USA Today Network-Tennessee, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, the Tennessee Press Association, the Daily Memphian, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the parent companies of WBIR, WTVF, WSMV, the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, Gould Enterprises and the Associated Press,
They sought a permanent injunction that would prohibit the registry from violating the open meetings law in the future while asking the court to oversee the panel for a year.
Lyle decided that although the registry had violated the law, they had taken steps to remedy the violation by holding a public vote on the matter July 8, and that the email vote did not indicate a pattern of violation.
She denied the injunction that would have required the registry to be supervised.
“It was important to come forward and file the lawsuit because even though there was a cure, there are questions about the interplay between the registry and the Attorney General,” Lyle said.
The Attorney General’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment.
“We’re happy with today’s ruling,” said Paul McAdoo, Local Legal Initiative staff attorney for Tennessee, who represented the plaintiffs. “The finding that the vote violated the Open Meetings Act and that the cure did not moot the case was an important ruling for open government and transparency in Tennessee.”
Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach reporter Mariah Timms at [email protected] or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.
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