Confusion over public meeting
Jeremy Nash
Miscommunication on publicly announcing the Loudon County salary and budget committee’s meeting earlier this month led officials to reschedule for Monday and may have inadvertently violated Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act.

The salary committee met Friday, May 16, at the county office building to discuss employee health insurance for the 2014-15 fiscal year, where members made a recommendation to renew BlueCross BlueShield’s services after learning about the proposed 3 percent reduction in the county’s premium.

The 3 percent decrease is expected to save the county about $73,000, Joan Lovelace, county purchasing director, said.

“We’re redoing it because for whatever reason our email didn’t get to (the newspaper) to get it posted,” Lovelace said about the rescheduled meeting. “I didn’t get a response saying that it kicked it back, so we were thinking that it was in the paper. I mean we really would love to have everybody in the world to this meeting because it’s a savings to the county. You know, it was good news.”

County officials became aware of the possible violation from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury on May 21 after a complaint was filed with the state open records counsel stating the meeting was held without public notice and without documented minutes, county attorney Bob Bowman said.

“There were minutes taken and to cure the alleged procedural deficiency with the notice, the committee’s going to meet I think sometime Monday and vote again, and that’ll take care of it. So it’s much to do about nothing, quite frankly,” Bowman said.

Committee member Don Miller said the meeting would be held again to ensure that it was properly advertised.

“(The) budget committee has already signed off on it based on the previous salary and benefits committee meeting, but we’re redoing the salary committee meeting in order to meet the official requirements of publication in a newspaper,” Miller said. “... I think the mayor and our county attorney is just playing it safe, so we’ll meet one more time, take five minutes, then approve it and then it goes to the commission.”

Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge, who issued the letter to county officials, said there was no “bright line rule” to determine the time frame for public notices. However, she suggested regularly scheduled meetings between five to seven days out, and for special-called meetings, “the law is very clear that nothing less than 48 hours is going to be acceptable, I think — except in very exigent circumstances.”

Hodge said this is not the first time the county has had complaints, noting the most recent occurrence in January for the budget committee failing to specify what would be discussed at a special called meeting.

“Since it’s (salary and budget committee) an ad hoc committee, unless the meetings of the ad hoc committee were scheduled by a resolution in ordinance, which given the fact it’s ad hoc means it probably was not, what that means is all of their meetings are going to be special called,” Hodge said. “So, what that means is they’re going to have to give the notice in an acceptable amount of time before the meeting. They’re going to have to post the notice in an acceptable location that people would become aware of the meeting, and the notice is going to have to specifically lay out every issue that they intend to discuss at the meeting.”

Tennessee Press              Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson said based on legal precedence established in case law, public bodies must have a “substantial discussion and debate” openly, without rubber stamping items discussed at prior meetings, should a similar situation occur.

Gibson served as the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government before joining the TPA in 2011.

“If someone wanted to challenge whatever action they took at that meeting coming up or at the previous meeting, if someone wanted — if there was some basis that somebody wanted to challenge that vote, then under that court case they would probably be successful,” Gibson said, referring to Neese v. Paris Special School District.

According to the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service, the Open Meetings Act notes “the public policy of the state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

“The point is there was no intent to try to do something in secret, and we did not realize that the notice didn’t get to the paper, didn’t get in the paper, that’s point one,” Miller said.

The salary committee is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Monday at the county office building.

The budget committee will meet at 5:45 p.m. Monday at the Loudon County Courthouse Annex.

Lovelace said the only potentially new item on the salary committee’s agenda is electing new officers. She said holding the meeting again will be a positive because previously absent committee members will get to attend.

“... So we’ll have some extra people so it’ll do us good to actually just go over the whole scope of this again, and we know the meeting is advertised this time,” Lovelace said. “I did follow up, and it was my fault that I didn’t physically follow up last time. That was nobody’s fault but mine, so I don’t care to take responsibility when I’m at fault, so that was me.”