CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - News department managers from WRCB-TV and the Chattanooga Times Free Press have sent a letter to state and local officials concerning what they believe to be a violation of Tennessee's Open Meetings Act.

The dispute stems from an incident on February 16 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.  Shortly after State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman addressed the Downtown Rotary Club, he held a meeting with Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith, seven School Board members and other school district employees and community leaders. 

The topic of the meeting was a proposal known as the "Innovation Zone," which allows the state's largest school districts to apply for grant money for underperforming schools.

Despite a meeting notice sent by the School Board to area media on February 10, reporters were turned away at the door by Kelli Gauthier, a former Times Free Press reporter who now serves as Commissioner Kevin Huffman's communications director. 

When reporters questioned the decision, Ms. Gauthier said the decision to block the media was made by Superintendent Smith.  However, School Board attorney Scott Bennett disputed Gauthier's comment, indicating that the county invited area media representatives, "and that speaks for itself." 

Monday, Superintendent Smith told Eyewitness News the incident was "the result of poor communication, part of that is probably my fault, and part of that is Kelli Gauthier's fault.  We're ready to move on."

WRCB News Director Derrall Stalvey said,  "The letter serves as a reminder that we should understand our rights as the media and continue to hold elected officials accountable when they try to limit those rights."

The letter, signed by Stalvey and Times Free Press Managing Editor Alison Gerber, is directed toward Superintendent Smith, the nine members of the School Board, Commissioner Huffman, Ms. Gauthier and Governor Bill Haslam. 

The letter's summarizing statement reads, "Regardless of who asked for the meeting to be closed, it is evident that there was some direct or indirect pressure put on local officials to keep reporters away.  We hope that you do not plan to conduct business this way.  By excluding the media, you shut the public out of the process, a process that stands to transform three of our public schools.  WRCB-TV and the Times Free Press therefore respectfully ask that you and your staffs review the complete Open Meetings law so that we can all serve the public better with transparency in government.

[ Click here to read the entire letter ]