Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February 10, 2009 Ethics Committee Violates the Sunshine Law--No Notice to the Public of its December 15 "Public" Meeting

Oops, they did it again--another county government meeting without notice to the public.

THEN: The Commission held a special meeting in May 2007 to appoint the Ethics Committee and did not provide public notice of the meeting. See my post here and the opinion of the county attorney that informing the press about a meeting meets the requirements of "adequate public notice"---even when the press doesn't mention the meeting to the public.

NOW: The Ethics Committee, which rarely meets, has held a special meeting (December 2008) without providing public notice of the meeting. What irony! The Ethics Committee is appointed in a meeting without notice to the public--- and then the Ethics Committee itself meets without notice to the public.

Tennessee's Open Meetings Act (TOMA) is one of our Sunshine Laws. The purpose of TOMA is to make sure that the public's business takes place in the "sunshine" with "adequate public notice" of any meetings.

Tennessee Code 8-44-103 requires Notice of public meetings. —

(a) Notice of Regular Meetings. Any such governmental body which holds a meeting previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.

(b) Notice of Special Meetings. 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.

(c) The notice requirements of this part are in addition to, and not in substitution of, any other notice required by law.

Notice of the special December 15 Ethics Committee meeting was provided to a limited number of people---Ethics Committee members, commissioners, the county attorney, and the press but these were the only people who were notified.

So there's not really a question of whether there was adequate notice to the public. There was NO notice to the public.

[And strangely, the notice that was provided to the press and to the Ethics Committee didn't even mention why there was a special meeting or what it was about.]

As it turned out from reports after the meeting, the Committee considered the "resign or be ousted" letter sent by Mayor David Purkey to then-Constable Paul King, discussed and got county attorney Rusty Cantwell's opinion on the actions taken by Purkey in regard to Paul King and Frank Parker, and then took a vote supporting the "resign or be ousted" letter.

The Parker-King saga at Cherokee Park is a lengthy one of theft, lies, pre-trial diversion, and plea deals, culminating in both keeping their county jobs but with demotions and/or transfers. Of course, it was their boss County Mayor David Purkey who made the decision to keep them on the county payroll and he just happened to be the #1 character reference for both men.

But I digress. Back to the Sunshine Law.

At the January 22 meeting of the full Commission, I spoke to the county attorney before the meeting to point out that there was no notice to the public of the December 15 Ethics meeting. The county attorney repeated his previous opinion that notifying the press is all the county must do. In other words, we tell the press and if the press doesn't pass the word along to the public, then too bad, so sad.

During the visitor's comments portion of the commission meeting, I spoke to the full commission about the apparent violation of the Open Meetings Act, pointing out that the law requires "adequate public notice" and that this is the second meeting that I know of where a limited number of people are notified, but there is NO notice to the public at all.

Actions taken at a meeting in violation of the Sunshine Law may be declared void, but there is a very easy way to correct the violation, and that's what I asked the Ethics Committee to do. Hold a new meeting--with notice to the public and with full deliberation and re-consideration of the actions taken. Problem solved.

After two weeks passed and the commission had not responded to my request for a re-do of the Ethics Committee meeting, I contacted Chairman Stancil Ford to see what, if anything, the county intended to do. Ford stated that he had talked with the county attorney and that the county attorney continues to maintain that notifying the press is all the law requires. Ford suggested that I call the chairman of the Ethics Committee Joe Swann, which I did, and discuss my concerns with Joe.

Joe Swann told me that he had also talked with the county attorney. Swann informed me that the county attorney maintains that there is no violation of the open meetings act and that notice to the press meets the requirements of the law. He was firm in stating that there would be no re-do of the meeting.

I shared with him that it is my opinion that at least two "public" meetings of county government have been held without any notification to the "public." While I fully agreed that there has been "adequate press notice," I believe that the law clearly and in plain words requires "adequate public notice."

In the two instances mentioned, no one has to spend much time bickering over whether "adequate" notice to the public was given, because there was NO public notice at all. Let the Sunshine in.

1 comment:

Tim N said...

Having the local "newspaper" in your pocket helps in restricting giving "adequate press notice". I've noticed that if a controversial issue results in a large turnout of citizens then it stops being reported in the local rag. The last Planning Commission meeting is a prime example of lack of notice and agenda.