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Records: City-county task force meetings are open regardless of Health Department director's stance

Deputy Law Director Myers Morton informed Dr. Martha Buchanan of state law in a series of emails Tuesday obtained by 10News.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — A task force that's been advising the Knox County Health Department on reopening commerce is subject to public review and scrutiny, and a county lawyer advised the Health Department director of that Tuesday, records show.

Deputy Law Director Myers Morton informed Dr. Martha Buchanan of the law in a series of emails Tuesday obtained by 10News.

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One email states: "Doctor, Beware.

"Tennessee’s Open Meetings laws are very liberally construed by its own definitions to allow totally transparent government.

"To the extent you have convened this “Reopening Task Force” under your sole authority to develop and create policy which has the effect of law, the public is entitled to know.

"Policy or rules promulgated without public notice are voidable."

WBIR asked for access to a task force meeting that took place Tuesday afternoon.

The Health Department did not respond to 10News' request. Staff in Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs' office referred WBIR to the Health Department, although the mayor and his chief of staff supported releasing a link to see the meeting, according to Mike Donila, communications director.

The Health Department, however, did email a response Wednesday. Such meetings will now be open, it said:

"The task force meetings to date have not been public meetings. The Law Office brought this to our attention yesterday, Tuesday, May 19. While the task force is not an elected or appointed body and the public health recommendations for Phase Two are ultimately at the discretion of KCHD Senior Director and Public Health Officer Dr. Martha Buchanan, the Knox County Law Office has opined that this task force’s meetings should be open. Moving forward we’ll take any necessary steps to ensure compliance."

WBIR wanted access to Tuesday's 3 p.m. gathering, which included the county finance director, a deputy mayor for city of Knoxville and local business operators, to learn more about possible new steps to ease business restrictions in the county.

Buchanan argued the task force meetings are similar to a state economic advisory group that's been working with Gov. Bill Lee, emails show.

"I have not as they are essentially a steering committee advising me regarding re-opening. We do not public notice other similar meetings," she wrote.

Morton researched the question further Tuesday. He found the state is not subject to such public requirements under Tennessee law. 

In a note he sent Buchanan Tuesday night, Morton wrote that Tennessee Constitution restricts state government, not the Open Meetings Law.

"The application of Tennessee’s Open Meetings laws would appear to apply especially to your Knoxville-Knox County Reopening Task Force while it acts like the Knox County Board of Health in matters of public health….which would be subject to the Open Meetings laws," Morton wrote.

The task force has been meeting since the COVID-19 outbreak to help advise Buchanan on best practices going forward.

Businesses are currently in the first phase of a gradual, planned reopening to allow more commerce in the city. For example, restaurants can now operate at 50 percent capacity, and retails stores have been allowed this month to reopen.

There's been growing pressure this week, however, to accelerate operations and ease restrictions for a second phase. Gov. Bill Lee is ready to permit restaurants in 89 counties -- not including metro counties such as Knox -- to go to 100 percent capacity starting Friday.

Task force members include county finance director Chris Caldwell, Stephanie Welch, deputy city mayor and chief of economic and community development, and business members and restaurateurs.

Restaurateur Ryan Steffy of SoKno Taco also is a member. He wasn't happy Tuesday when learning about media interest in accessing the meeting.

He sought clarification about whether the Mayor's Office had granted media access to the gathering and then made a statement to Donila.

"Let me explain something to you political idiots who are trying to quarterback from the comfort of your offices, don't," his email states. "You aren't out here dealing with what we're dealing with and you aren't trained or educated in the medical field. In addition to us having to deal with confrontational and irrational customers, we have to now fight with the people who are suppose (sic) to be on the same side? All Lee's and Jacob's (sic) messages did was create a harder job for businesses and this task force. Get your heads out of your asses, shut up, and let us do our jobs."

The Health Department said Wednesday in a statement to WBIR:

"It’s important to point out that all final recommendations for Phase Two will be made public in a matter of days. We’re grateful for the task force and their service. We’re also grateful to the community members who participated in the listserv and task force surveys and provided important feedback for Phases Two and Three."