Three members of the Cumberland County Board of Education went to dinner together following the Oct. 5 board meeting, and while a tape was made of that meeting, Chairperson Shirley Parris has declined to provide the Chronicle a copy of the recording.

"That tape was for my personal use," Parris said. "We've been accused of everything, and if I'm accused I have my proof."

The other two BOE members, Robert Safdie, 2nd District representative, and Mary Smith, 7th District representative, have told the Chronicle they do not care if the tape is made public.

The three were having dinner following the meeting at a local restaurant. Crossville Chronicle staffwriter Gary Nelson was there and approached the group. Nelson said they responded to his presence by saying they were not deliberating any issue that would be coming before the board, but merely discussing past events. Parris said no school business was discussed prior to Nelson coming over and asking what had happened at the meeting.

According to Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, there is a narrow exception to the open meetings law found in two court cases that said two or more members of a governing body could talk, so long as they were not discussing matters that were pending or that could come before them for action.

However, Gibson was surprised a record of the meeting was not being released.

"If they plan to congregate and keep a record of that meeting, then the easiest thing to do is to make the record available and remove any doubt," Gibson said.

According to TCA 8-44-102, "Nothing in this section shall be construed as to require a chance meeting of two or more members of a public body to be considered a public meeting. No such chance meetings, informal assemblages, or electronic communication shall be used to decide or deliberate public business in circumvention of the spirit or requirements of this part."

Parris said, "We're private citizens. We have the right to go have a meal after the meeting. If it had been before the meeting it would be different."

Across the state, legal action and recall elections have been held to remove public officials that have violated open meetings and records laws, including the recall of two board of education members in Elizabethtown after they met twice, hundreds of miles away from town, to interview a school director they eventually hired. The mayor of Coopertown was also suspended in July for brokering backroom deals with aldermen prior to meetings.

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