Backroom deals not allowed, chat room deals could be ok in Knox County

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Long Knox County Commission meetings seem to be the rule lately, but some say the possibility for shorter days may come from the Internet.

Beginning July 1, Knox County has permission from the state to start a pilot project that will enable commissioners to discuss issues between meetings in an online chat room.

It’s something that raises some questions in the county where a judge ruled last year that secret deliberations violated the state's open meetings act.

The law requires public meetings to be just that, public. The idea is to conduct business in the sunshine, eliminating backroom deals. Some say the unintended consequence is longer meetings. That's why some commissioners say they like a new idea that would l allow them to talk business online between regular meetings.

Commissioner Victoria DeFreese says, "In this day, we need to utilize technology. This is not the days of King Arthur. You know, we are beyond the days where we all have to sit around the round table."

Commissioner Richard Briggs says, "This would be a good idea to where we can have the opportunity to put ideas down and see what other commissioners think about those, but still in an open forum."

Open because you could look at all their comments online. But is that open enough? Would commissioners risk violating sunshine laws. That's what the law director's office asked Chancellor Daryl Fansler in court. He offered no formal opinion, telling commissioners to simply follow the law. Some see the chat rooms as an opportunity, even if they stop short of using them to debate the issues.

Commissioner Elaine Davis says, "That has been a problem in the past and not being able to contact your district mate and say we'd like to have a little district meeting at a school somewhere and have constituents come to talk to use, and this gives you the freedom to do that."

But will any of this do anything to make meetings shorter? A few commissioners say it could, but most say that's overly optimistic.

Commissioner Mike Hammond says, "I guess it depends on the issues that are before us in the meeting as to how long the meeting is going to be, but I really don't know that it would shorten them, having these chat rooms."

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