|Legal Opinion: |
Text of Document: In accordance with your request, I have reviewed the facts of the situation you presented in light of the applicable law with respect to giving adequate public notice of a open meeting. State law governs what constitutes an open meeting, the requirements of adequate notice to the public prior to such meeting, and the consequences of not conducting a meeting in accordance with the legal requirements of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, T.C.A. § 8-44-101 et seq. I’ve included copies of all the relevant statutes in the Act, but since your request deals mainly on the issue of adequate notice, I am concentrating my analysis on that subject.
T.C.A. § 8-44-103 provides as follows:
(a) Notice of Regular Meetings. Any such governmental body which holds a meeting previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.
(b) Notice of Special Meetings. Any such governmental body which holds a meeting not previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution, or for which notice is not already provided by law, shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.
(C ) The notice requirements of this part are in addition to, and not in substitution of, any other notice required by law.
What constitutes adequate public notice depends on the totality of the circumstances. In Memphis Publishing Company v. City of Memphis, 513 S.W.2d 511, 513 (Tenn. 1974), the Tennessee Supreme Court declared that, "[a]dequate public notice means adequate public notice under the circumstances, or such notice based on the totality of the circumstances as would fairly inform the public." See also Neece v. Paris Special School District, 813 S.W.2d 432 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1990).
Simply translated, this means that "adequate notice" depends on many factors, such as the size of the town or city, whether it has a newspaper of general circulation, or a radio station, etc. Thus, for a small city which may not have a newspaper or a radio station, adequate notice has been found by the courts when notices of the upcoming meeting are posted at city hall, the courthouse, the post office, even libraries and grocery stores. Since it obviously takes more time to disseminate information in this manner, a city that relies on posted notices only needs to leave more time for giving notice than one that has a daily newspaper and radio station.
What is the effect of action taken at a meeting in which a violation of the Open Meetings Law occurred?
Tennessee Code Annotated, § 8-44-105 prescribes the effect of a meeting at which inadequate public notice is given:
Any action taken at a meeting in violation of this part shall be void and of no effect; provided, that this nullification of actions taken at such meetings shall not apply to any commitment, otherwise legal, affecting the public debt of the entity concerned.
Under this provision, almost all action taken by the Board would undoubtedly be null and void; that provision means what it says. Also, the Open Meetings Law can be enforced by "any citizen of the state," in the circuit and chancery courts (and other courts having equity jurisdiction), "which have the "jurisdiction to issue injunctions, impose penalties, and otherwise enforce the purposes of this part."
Please let me know if you have any further questions in this regard.