Grainger County commissioners met Monday for their first socially distant meeting in an effort to comply with guidelines forbidding gatherings of 10 or more people. Five commissioners attended the meeting in person, while the other 10 joined via conference call on speakerphone.
When Governor Bill Lee signed Executive Order No. 16, it was with the intent to provide government entities the ability to conduct essential business without having to meet Tennessee’s physical quorum requirements. The temporary change of law allows government entities to meet for necessary business, such as essential budget issues and needed action to respond to the COVID-19 virus, without the danger of potential exposure to the virus.
Monday’s meeting didn’t include essential business. Everything on the commission’s agenda could have been postponed, at least a month, to the May meeting, without causing any disruption to county business. Commissioners don’t get paid if they don’t meet, so perhaps the necessity for the meeting didn’t have anything to do with county business.
Whether the business conducted was necessary or not, the meeting did accomplish some things. Commissioners probably wouldn’t stage a meeting on their own time to see how effectively they could meet via electronic means. The April meeting allowed those organizing the meeting to learn what could be improved about the process.
If meetings must be held by electronic means in the future, discussion between commissioners will need to take place. Having met in the new format will help them as they attempt to conduct business via electronic means during future meetings.
Meeting via electronic means also resulted in more professional behavior by eliminating murmured discussions between commissioners, and forcing all commissioners to pay attention to the business at hand.
However, the potential for Sunshine Law violations still exists. Commissioners who are hidden from view could use other means to communicate with each other without any oversight from the public or media. Some commissioners could be pressured by others to vote a certain way on agenda items, without anyone knowing.
Grainger Today suggests the Commission employ video conferencing to avoid such possibilities. While Grainger County isn’t necessarily the most technologically advanced county, broadband internet is available for installation at the Justice Center. Commissioners who don’t own a computer or smartphone could arrange to use a computer at a county office to attend video meetings if they don’t have one available for use at another location.
It could be done.
Hopefully meetings won’t have to be held by digital means for much longer. It’s difficult to predict, since information about the COVID-19 outbreak seems to change constantly. Until meetings return to an in-person format, commissioners must increase their technological aptitude.
With only three months to create the county’s FY 2020-21 budget, it’s possible multiple meetings held via electronic means will be necessary. Everyone should be willing to do their part to make these meetings as accessible and open as possible.