The General Assembly passed Public Chapter 175, Acts of 2009, which permits local government officials to participate in meetings via an Internet forum. This law expands a pilot project in Knox County by making the option available to city/town governing bodies and school boards. Codified at T.C.A. § 8-44-109, the law permits governing bodies and school boards to “allow electronic communication between members by means of a forum over the Internet”, if specific requirements are met. Before permitting such Internet discussions, the governing body must:
1. Ensure that the forum be “available to the public at all times other than that necessary for technical maintenance or unforeseen technical limitations;”
2. Provide “adequate public notice” of use of the forum;
3. “Control who may communicate through the forum;
4. Control the archiving of the electronic communications to ensure that the electronic communications are publicly available for at least one (1) year,” and access to the archived communications must be “user-friendly for the public; and
5. Provide reasonable access to members of the public to view the forum at the local public library, the building where the governing body meets or other public building.”
The law further requires that such Internet forums “shall not substitute for decision making by the governing body in a meeting.”
Before city/town officials may hold such Internet chats, the governing body must file a plan with the Office of Open Records Counsel (hereinafter "OORC"). The plan is then evaluated by Open Records Counsel, who will report whether or not the plan complies with the requirements above within thirty (30) days. If the plan fails to comply, Open Records Counsel will provide written comments to the governing body. No Internet forums are allowed under the law until the OORC issues a report of compliance.
Plans for Internet forums should be submitted to Ann Butterworth, J.D., Open Records Counsel, 505 Deaderick Street, Suite 1600, James K. Polk Building, Nashville, Tennessee 37243-1402. Ms. Butterworth may also be contacted through the official website for Open Records Counsel: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/openrecords/.