State Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, Memphis, called on Republicans to make the upper chamber of the General Assembly subject to open government laws, saying he wants to see more transparency in government.
Kyle noted that under former Democratic Senate Speaker John Wilder, the majority caucus meetings were open to the public, but said that has not been the case under Republican control, according to The Associated Press.
The wire service reported Kyle said he is just trying to create more transparency in government, and “level the playing field for ideas, where they can be judged on merit, not politics.”
He added, “That’s what the open meetings law does. By amending the rules, their deliberations will be subject to public scrutiny, as should be the standard in state government.”
Kyle raised the issue shortly after the presentation of the colors and opening prayer. It was the first order of business of the new session when a motion was made to adopt the temporary rules of the Senate of the 107th General Assembly as the temporary rules of the Senate for the 108th General Assembly.
The Memphis Democrat seconded the motion but asked that the rules be amended to make the open meetings law applicable to the General Assembly.
“We hold local officials to the open meetings law. We hold municipal bodies to the open meetings law. We as a Senate should be open to the open meetings law. We should not be having meetings behind closed doors,” he said. “The only way the minority can be protected and those represented by the minority can be protected is by open meetings and open discussion.”
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, Collierville, agreed to take up the issue at a rules committee meeting.
Norris asked Kyle to defer the amendment until the Rules Committee addressed the question.
“We will have, by adoption of the temporary rules, also have adopted the code of ethics of the Senate,” Norris said.
The code of ethics, he said, provides that no senator shall knowingly organize or participate in any meeting held in violation of Tennessee code.
According to TCA 3-1-118, “Every meeting of the general assembly, senate, house of representatives, or any joint committee, standing committee, statutory committee, special committee, select committee, oversight committee, ad hoc committee, any other committee or any subcommittee shall be open to the public.”
The exceptions are, “Only when considering a matter involving the security of the state or nation or when investigating a proposed Article V impeachment of a public official other than a member of the general assembly, pursuant to Tenn. Const., art. V, may a meeting be closed to the public, but only if there is an affirmative vote of at least three-fourths of the members present. Adequate public notice of every meeting shall be provided. The term "meeting" means at least a quorum of the members of a subcommittee, committee, the senate, the house of representatives, or the general assembly is present and public business within the jurisdiction of that body is being deliberated and decided.”
Norris told reporters after the meeting that he believes current rules address Kyle’s concerns, but said he’s open to an amendment for clarification.
Kyle replied that he has been a member of the Senate Rules Committee for six years and the committee has never met.
“If this matter should go under the temporary rules to the Rules Committee and the Rules Committee not bring it back to the floor, I am not allowed by our rules to move to amend the rules,” Kyle said to Norris. “All amendments to the rules must be recommended by the Rules Committee. This is my only opportunity to amend the temporary rules under our rules.”
Kyle said if the Rules Committee chairman assured him he could file amendments later, he would withdraw the motion.
“To send it to the Rules Committee without a mechanism to bring it back to the floor prevents us from having that debate on opens meetings laws,” he said.
Norris assured Kyle he would be allowed to bring the issue back to the main floor.
“Of course, we have met. We have taken up matters in the 107th General Assembly based upon those meetings,” Norris said.
The AP reported Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, questioned Kyle’s motives, calling them political.
“Kyle has been on the rules committee several years,” Watson said. “He certainly was in the majority party for several years. I find his timing to be interesting. This has nothing to do with transparency, this is pure politics.”