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Tennessee Executive Order Allows Virtual Meetings Amid Virus

A host of online meetings are now taking place in Tennessee following an executive order by Gov. Bill Lee to allow local governments to meet electronically during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

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(TNS) — The Cumberland County, Tenn., Board of Education will meet Thursday, tackling a variety of issues that were delayed from the March 19 meeting canceled amid concerns of spreading the COVID-19 virus.

The board will make use of technology to conduct its meeting while keeping gatherings to 10 or fewer people. The board will use Zoom video conferencing technology to allow board members to discuss items. There will be no physical attendance from the public, though the meeting will be live streamed on the school system’s Facebook page.

The agenda includes discussion of how to proceed with the search for a new director of schools. The board received 11 applications last week with four local candidates. Other items on the agenda include school closure plans, with Cumberland County schools closed through April 24.

Also on the agenda are bids for sidewalk repairs at Stone Memorial High School; adoption of English-language arts, criminal justice and culinary arts textbooks; the 2020-’21 school calendar; and an agreement with Avalon Center to provide the Life of Point curriculum in the school system.

The online meeting follows an executive order by Gov. Bill Lee to allow local governments to meet electronically during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

The order suspends portions of Tennessee’s Open Meeting Act, often referred to as the Sunshine Law, to allow leaders to continue handling essential government business without requiring leaders to be physically present, especially as current guidelines call for gatherings to be limited to 10 people or less.

The order also requires local legislative bodies to make “reasonable” efforts to ensure public access.

“At all times, but most especially during times of crisis, trust and credibility are the government’s most precious assets,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

The order comes after the Tennessee General Assembly was unable to come to an agreement on legislation to waive some of the open meeting rules.

Crossville City Manager Greg Wood said last week the city would also move to electronic meetings.

No meetings of the Cumberland County Commission are scheduled at this time.

Under Lee’s order, local governments must continue to meet meeting notice, quorum attendance and voting requirements.

“Governing bodies are urged to provide the public with clear notice of the meeting agenda and how the public can access the meeting electronically at a time and location reasonably accessible to all members of the public,” the order states.

Local governments must make an effort to provide live electronic access, but if that isn’t possible, they must make a clear audio or video recording available as soon as practical — no more than two business days — after the meeting.

The order remains in effect until May 18, when it will expire.

Fisher said the order offers key safeguards for public transparency.

“Many states across the country are beginning to issue guidelines for complying with the open meetings act when physical presence of the governing body and the public could interfere with the containment of COVID-19,” Fisher said. “The order issued by Gov. Bill Lee offers the clear guidance needed as we move into unchartered territory.”

©2020 the Crossville Chronicle (Crossville, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.