Funny how Friday was just a few days ago. But still Metro Council member Eric Crafton pulls a Ronald Reagan.
There was a private gathering of council members who convened to discuss the proposed Metro budgetthe one that would have Nashvillians paying significantly more in property taxesand an alternate budget, one less generous, but that would still ask taxpayers to reach further into their pockets. But Crafton suffers from that ailment that occasionally plagues politicians who are caught skirting the rules: a particularly hazy memory. He "may remember" the gathering but can't recall when it was (probably "around lunchtime"), who was there or what was discussed. He says the group wasn't having a "meeting" but instead was just "sharing research" with each other.
Thus, he says, what happened was not a violation of open meetings laws. Yet, it feels so familiarlike the annual tradition in which certain factions of this city's legislative body gather in secret.
He offers this defense: "If it's the one I'm thinking about, I think Diane Neighbors was there, and Jim Shulman was there." That's as if to say that, certainly, the square Ms. Neighborsthe do-gooder East Nashville "progressive" who chairs the council's budget and finance committeewouldn't be involved in a secret meeting, would she?
Well, sort of. "I was there to meet with [Metro officials], and I discovered a meeting starting to begin in the council chambers," Neighbors recalls. "The group got up and started walking into a committee room. Then I decided I wanted to hear what was being said, so I walked into the committee room."
This is the woman who has to broker compromise and generate consensus about the budget that will keep the wheels of this city government in motion. So, asked to offer more details, she continues without editorializing about the appropriateness of the assemblage. "They were talking about a proposal," she says. "I think they had decided that a zero property tax increase would be impossible to achieve and were discussing what would have to be funded in order to maintain status quo and what percentage of an increase would be necessary."
Crafton says they "probably" speculated about the mayor's proposed budget and discussed the so-called cost-of-living budget that colleague Charlie Tygard and others are crafting.
Tygard says they were just waiting around for Metro finance director David Manning to show up. "There was a whole variety of topics discussed," Tygard says. "Budget. Parking. Fan Fair. Kerry Wood pitching at Greer Stadium. You name it, we talked about it."
Butsurprisehe maintains the gathering was legal. "There was no deliberation. There were no decisions made. There were no votes taken."
State law, meanwhile, says that no "chance meetings, informal assemblages or electronic communication shall be used to decide or deliberate public business..." On this matter, the Tennessee Supreme Court, citing Black's Law Dictionary, elaborates further: "To deliberate is 'to examine and consult in order to form an opinion...[T]o weigh arguments for and against a proposed course of action.' "
The answer in last week's case may depend on whose story you believe. One thing is certain, though: the Tennessee Open Meetings Act is broadly written and liberally interpreted, by design. As such, the Metro law department gives conservative advice, forbidding email and phone conversations between council or committee members about public business. And certainly any weighing of arguments or discussion that leads to opinion formation is supposed to happen in a formal meeting, announced beforehand and subject to public scrutiny. Every step of the legislative thought process is supposed to be visible and on record.
"If [a council member] calls me and says, 'What can we do to keep taxes low? You got any thoughts and ideas?,' we toss around ideas," Tygard says. "I don't know how I could do that in a public forum with 39 other council members."
To be sure, it's a challengeeven more so for the atypically large Metro Council. "We're not professional politicians. Nobody gives us any guidance, and we try and do the best we can," says Crafton, ignoring considerable Metro resources at his disposal. "Saying, 'I wonder what would be a number that was reasonable,' or, 'Based on your research, what would that be?'is that wrong? Is that illegal?" (He notes that he would be happy for the Scene to answer that question for him.)
Here it is: "I wonder what would be a number that was reasonable" is a perfectly legitimate phrase to think out loud. But if anybody answers, it's probably illegal.
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