- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2020

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A Tennessee judge ruled on Friday the state’s Registry of Election Finance violated open meetings law when it held a vote by email on the eve of an election filing deadline.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle rejected the state’s argument that the vote was inconsequential and therefore unnecessary to be taken in public.

According to court documents, Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Executive Director Bill Young sent an email to the six members of the Registry on April 1, asking whether they would approve an offer by state Rep. Joe Towns to pay $22,000 to settle a debt of $65,000 owed to the Registry and $1,100 owed to the Tennessee Ethics Commission.

Registry members voted 4-2 by email to accept the settlement. Only the vote tally was made public, not the emails themselves. 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. It later came out that 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 Associated Press, the Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government were among the media and watchdog groups to sue the Registry on April 29. They sought a declaration that the panel violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. They also wanted the judge to supervise the Registry for a year in order to prevent future violations.

In her Friday ruling, Lyle declared the email vote was a violation but said the supervision was unnecessary. The Registry effectively cured the violation when it held a public meeting on July 8 to redo the vote, Lyle said. She also noted the email vote was not part of a pattern of ongoing violations.

The state had attempted to argue there was no violation of the Open Meetings Act because the Registry vote was merely advisory, and only the state attorney general has the power to accept a settlement offer. The state asked Lyle to rule that inconsequential decisions are not subject to the Open Meetings Act.

Lyle declined to draw such a line and also disagreed that the vote was inconsequential, saying even if the vote was advisory “the Registry had a weighty role with respect to the settlement.”

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Director Deborah Fisher said after the ruling that it was important to take the case to court because it was the attorney general’s office that had advised the Registry to conduct the vote by email.

“I was very pleased with the court telling the attorney general, ‘No. You’ve got the law wrong,’” Fisher said. “Because they did have the law wrong.”

To accept the state’s argument that the vote did not have to be taken at a public meeting because it was inconsequential would have created “a huge loophole in the Open Meetings Act,” Fisher said.

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