By DEBORAH FISHER
House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams recently told the Capitol Hill press corps that caucus meetings would be presumed to be open while the legislature is in session, according to a report in The Tennessean.
However, he said, if a member wanted to have a "family discussion," the caucus would take a vote on closing the meeting.
The meeting with the press corps came after the House caucus, departing from tradition, held a closed door session in early December to discuss the state budget surplus and the fires in Sevier County.
The press corps asked to discuss what appeared to be a new practice of closing the caucus meeting, writing in a letter that "...Our fundamental concern is that the Republican caucus, by virtue of its unprecedented size, could act as a de facto legislature, meeting and deliberating in private contrary to the spirit of openness exemplified in the Tennessee Constitution. And although courts have ruled groups of legislators can meet in private, they have never, to our knowledge, affirmed their right to form a quorum outside the public eye."
Williams agreed to meet with the press corp. Here is what he told them, according to a report of the meeting in The Tennessean:
On the question of holding closed meetings in general, Williams said he believes there's a "huge difference" between when lawmakers are in session and when they are not, as was the case with last week's meeting.
"Once the doors of the General Assembly are open...I believe that it changes," he said. "When you're in session you can effectively transact business."
...The East Tennessee Republican argued that last week's caucus meeting would not have allowed the Republicans to "transact business" -- it appears he meant taking some sort of vote or other legislative action beyond discussion -- and was more focused on the state's budget surplus and some talk of the fires that ravaged Sevier County.
It is routine for lawmakers to conduct business, including holding summer studies or doing statewide tours to talk about policy like Gov. Bill Haslam or Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, when the legislature is not in session.
Going forward, Williams said although the House Republican caucus is not expected to meet before the legislature convenes on January 10, in the event that a meeting would come up before then, he would provide 24-hour notice to members of the press if the caucus decided there is a need for a closed-door meeting.
When the legislature is in session, Williams said any Republican caucus meetings would be presumed to be open to the press. In the event that a member wanted to have a closed-door meeting for another "family discussion," he said the caucus would take a vote. It remains unclear whether it would take a majority or two-thirds vote of members present to close the meeting, Williams said. That could be discussed when the caucus votes on its bylaws at a future meeting.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the General Assembly, the two Republican leaders in the Senate say they have no plans to close their caucus meetings, and will continue its tradition of open meetings.