Warren County government’s legal counsel has weighed in on Zoom verses in-person meetings during the pandemic.
Commissioners voted Monday to hold their August session in person and not via online conferencing due to recurring difficulties in conducting business using Zoom. That resolution was presented by Commissioner Steven Helton and was approved 18-4.
In a correspondence to County Executive Jimmy Haley, county attorney Robert Bratcher upheld Helton’s statements that the power to set the time, date, and location of the meetings is vested within the Warren County Legislative Body and agreed with Commissioner Christy Ross that the power to control entry and access to county-owned public buildings is vested with the county executive.
“This produces a situation of distributed power wherein the most effective method of planning and coordinating meetings of the body is by cooperation between the chair of the body and the county executive,” said Bratcher.
He added that both the Warren County Legislative Body and the county executive are charged by law with the responsibility of seeing to the health and welfare of the people of Warren County, a responsibility that applies to both the physical protection of persons attending a meeting who might become exposed to coronavirus, as well as protection of the financial wellbeing of Warren County by considering the potential for liability from lawsuits related to coronavirus exposure.
“The latter point in particular should be viewed through the lens of litigation,” said Bratcher, who stated a lawsuit against the county regarding exposure to coronavirus could include the fact the Centers for Disease Control, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Warren County’s safety coordinator have all advised to avoid in-person contact when possible, as well as the governor’s order permitting local governments to transact business electronically, and that Warren County has previously met electronically and transacted business through Zoom.
“These facts might push a court toward examining the question of whether or not there was an available alternative that was less harmful to the public than an in-person meeting and why such an option was not employed,” Bratcher said. “The inconvenience of electronic meeting cannot be justifiably weighed against the overarching responsibility of public officials to protect the public health.”
While Bratcher pointed out the Warren County Commission’s decision to meet in person during a pandemic was not illegal or barred by any law or rule, he did urge against it.
“For the reasons listed above, and with an eye specifically toward minimizing the potential exposure to Warren County in the form of liability, it would be advisable to meet over Zoom video conference when possible and continue that practice until the governor has relieved the state of emergency declaration. This practice would be in line with current recommendations from state and federal agencies and would demonstrate the most prudent method of transacting the business of Warren County.”
Bratcher also presented two potential dilemmas created when commissioners approved Helton’s resolution to meet in person.
“If an increase in the state of emergency presented in Warren County occurred between the date of this letter and the date of the next meeting which required county buildings to be shut down to protect public health, there will be no way to have the August meeting. This would be due to the resolution passed at the July meeting requiring the August meeting to be held in person and thereby restricting the possibility for a Zoom meeting.”
Additionally, the resolution did not include any mention of changing the location of the August meeting and Tennessee Code Annotated requires meeting locations be set by resolution. A special called meeting of the Warren County Legislative Body would be required to move the meeting to a location other than the Warren County Administrative Building on Locust Street.