Signal Mountain council member Bill Lusk, a diabetic, got a copy of the memorandum from the state sent to local officials last week saying that, starting July 1, virtual meetings of government bodies will no longer be allowed.
So did Signal Mayor Dan Landrum, and he’s worried.
“The expiration of the executive order (allowing virtual meetings of government bodies during the coronavirus pandemic) puts an end to a municipality’s ability to hold electronic meetings,” the mayor noted.
“If a municipality allowed someone who called in to participate, whether it be a discussion or a vote, that vote could be challenged and overturned,” he said.
“A person calling in to listen would not count toward a quorum, or even as attending.”
That puts Councilmember Lusk, whose diabetes diagnosis means he’s at high risk of severe complications if he gets the virus, between the proverbial rock and hard place.
“I won’t be going (to town meetings) unless we limit the number of attendees and have at least six feet distances between council members,” he said.
It’s unreasonable to require government officials to put in a physical appearance at public meetings where they could be exposed to COVID-19, Councilmember Lusk said, since they risk suffering severe complications should they contract the virus.
Mayor Landrum said the town is weighing its options as it looks for ways to keep Councilmember Lusk and other high-risk individuals safe.
One option is for only members of the council to sit on the dais, he noted. The town attorney and other staffers could be seated separately according to social distancing guidelines.
The number of seats for citizens and members of the press would be limited and arranged to accommodate social distancing, he said.
In the meantime, the mayor said, he has contacted Lang Wiseman, deputy and chief counsel to the governor asking that the state extend the electronic meetings portion of the expiring executive order.
The tone of memorandum sent out last week by the Office of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, however, was uncompromising.
“Please be advised that Governor Bill Lee’s Executive Order No. 34 granting local bodies the ability to conduct essential business by electronic means is set to expire on June 30, 2020,” it began.
“Governor Lee has indicated to our office that he does not intend to extend this authority beyond that date,” officials wrote.
Beginning July 1, 2020, members of local governing bodies in Tennessee “must be physically present to participate and vote,” according to the memo.
It was signed by Justin P. Wilson, comptroller of the treasury, and Jason E. Mumpower, deputy comptroller.
It’s not that simple, according to Councilmember Lusk.
Since late February, he said, he and his family have followed health officials’ advice, “avoiding crowds and most public places . . . only (making) trips for groceries when necessary.”
Taking those kinds of precautions has allowed them to remain healthy, he noted, despite alarming increases in the number of COVID-19 cases here and across the state and nation.
He’s not about to blow it now.
“I think the governor’s decision to allow his earlier order to expire is ill advised because positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise and are way higher than the levels present when he established a state of emergency,” Councilmember Lusk said.
The full text of Mayor Landrum’s appeal to the state reads as follows:
"I hope the governor will reconsider letting the electronic-meetings portion of his EO expire.
“The Town of Signal Mountain, and I assume many other municipalities, have gone above and beyond what is required in the Open Meetings Act. We've streamed our meetings live and made it easy for full citizen participation. This system has worked out well for our citizens, staff, and counselors.
“One of our five counselors is in a high-risk category due to an existing medical condition. Contracting COVID-19 could easily end his life. It is easy to see why this places an undue and unfair burden to either attend or shirk responsibilities.
“Also, we recently lost a council member due to a move. Filling the position will take well more than a month. This creates the possibility that our intended 5-member council might easily fall short of a quorum should any other conflicts arise.
“A council/manager government like ours is heavily dependent on council approval to conduct daily business. We were very appreciative of the EO that allowed us to function as close to normal as possible.
“Would it be possible for Governor Lee to reconsider? If you take a look at many small-town councils like ours across the state, I'm sure you'd find the average age of counselors, volunteers for the most part, in higher-risk categories.”