Coalition to look into allegations panel violated open meetings law
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
Dec 24, 2013 | 1151 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Nashville-based open government group has thrown its support behind allegations that a Bradley County Commission committee violated the Open Meetings Act, also known as the “Sunshine Law.” 

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government has placed the chair of the county’s animal control ad hoc committee on its “naughty list” right before the Christmas holiday.

On Dec. 9, the committee met to discuss proposals from organizations that were vying for a contract to provide animal control services for county residents. Two organizations were being discussed — The Ark of Cleveland and the SPCA of Bradley County. The committee voted to recommend the SPCA’s proposal to the Commission to garner a final vote on it.

On Dec. 16, the Commission voted to award the SPCA with the contract after accepting its $80,000 proposal, which had a lower cost than The Ark’s $240,000 proposal.

What happened before Dec. 9 and between the two meetings has remained a subject for debate.

Rachel Veazey, a community representative of the city-county joint committee, alleged the committee had broken the Open Meetings Act by not giving proper notice of the meeting and what would be covered.

“I believe it was done illegally,” Veazey said.

While the date, time and location of the committee meeting were posted online, she argued “adequate public notice” was not given.

Veazey said she especially took issue with the fact representatives from the SPCA but not The Ark were in attendance, meaning no debate took place when the committee allowed for public comments.

Veazey said she reported the matter to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Open Records Counsel, which has the authority to force a group in violation of the law to meet and vote again.

In a letter to Commissioner Charlotte Peak-Jones, who chaired the county ad hoc committee, Elisha Hodge of the Open Records Counsel said she and her colleagues would be looking into the matter.

“I cannot say for certain whether or not the board violated the Open Meetings Act,” Hodge said in the letter dated Dec. 16. “However, based solely on the information that has been presented to this office, it appears that a violation of the Open Meetings Act may have occurred.”

Hodge then recommended she seek legal counsel on that issue because, under state law, “a citizen has a right to bring a lawsuit against an entity when he/she feels that an open meetings violation has occurred.”

Peak-Jones said she spoke with the county’s attorney before the Dec. 16 meeting, and the attorney told her that bringing the vote to the Commission under her own name would not be prohibited under any law.

The agenda for the County Commission voting session had listed the committee’s recommendation. However, because of the allegation, Peak-Jones chose to remove the committee’s recommendation from the agenda. Instead, she made a motion under her name alone that the Commission give the contract to the SPCA. The Commission then voted to approve it.

“I do not feel there was any violation of the Sunshine Law,” Peak-Jones said. “In the 21st century, it’s posted on the Web. I don’t think anyone goes to the window at the Courthouse to see if there’s a meeting.” 

Additionally, emails were sent to journalists to notify them of the meeting. However, she said no other groups were personally notified.

Veazey said what Peak-Jones did at the Dec. 16 meeting was “shady.” However, she said she did not attend either of the meetings in question, adding she believed speaking in front of the Commission on Dec. 16 would have been “for naught,” because commissioners had already made their decisions without considering all sides of the issue.

The TCOG has recently addressed the issue, siding with Veazey’s claim.

“The decision by the chairwoman of the committee to pull the committee’s recommendation and substitute her own is downright naughty and the kind of thing that creates mistrust of government officials,”  Deborah Fisher wrote in a blog post on the TCOG’s website. “It’s as if she really did not believe in the spirit of open government.”

Both Veazey and Fisher said they believe the County Commission’s committee did not do what it needed to in order to “cure” what they said was a violation of the law.

Tennessee Code Annotated section 8-44-103 reads that “any such governmental body which holds a meeting previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.” It also says that “any such governmental body which holds a meeting not previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution, or for which notice is not already provided by law, shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.”

Since Veazey originally made the allegation, Peak-Jones said that, since the committee’s recommendation was not a final vote in and of itself, she did not believe it was a violation.

Tennessee Code Annotated section 8-44-105 reads that there is an exception to the Open Meetings Act when a group does not make a “commitment.” 

“Any action taken at a meeting in violation of this part shall be void and of no effect; provided, that this nullification of actions taken at such meetings shall not apply to any commitment, otherwise legal, affecting the public debt of the entity concerned,” the law reads.

The Tennessee Open Records Counsel has the authority to require that a group in violation of the Open Meetings Act meet and vote again. However, it has not definitely asked that the committee go back and meet again.

Peak-Jones said that, as of today, the county had not heard anything more from the state regarding the matter.

Still, the Veazey said the matter was not resolved properly, and Fisher agreed with that sentiment.

“She [Peak-Jones] did not, as laid out in previous cases as acceptable ways to ‘cure’ a public meetings violation, acknowledge the problem and announce she would reschedule her ad hoc committee and do it right this time, in an open government manner,” Fisher wrote.