|County halts landfill, open records policy talk
Loudon County Commission put the brakes Monday on moving forward with Poplar Springs Landfill remediation and an open records policy for all departments.
Commissioners voted 10-0 to hold off on signing an agreement with contractor JD Anderson. Commissioners Kelly Littleton-Brewster and Van Shaver motioned and seconded, respectively.
“I think it’s just the shock in realizing how much money has been spent, and we’ve not moved the first bit of dirt yet,” Steve Harrelson, commission chairman, said. “We’re just kind of halting the brakes a little bit, not that we’re not going to do the project. We just think it’s safe just to get some questions answered before we proceed further.”
The decision comes after commissioners in July learned more than $200,000 in legal services and expert fees had been taken from the Poplar Springs Landfill post-closure reserve. The fund balance as of the July workshop was $213,891.58, which was down from $437,968 just four years ago. Expenditures were largely for Nashville-based Luna Law Group PLLC.
“I felt like most of the body here had some concerns that we wanted to look at what was some of this money being spent for,” Commissioner Matthew Tinker said. “Some of it seems out of line, like was mentioned in there today money billed for an hour for reading an article in the Loudon paper. Those are the kind of things that we would like to have some clarification on.”
Loudon City Councilman Jeff Harris was present Monday. Harris said he had concerns over the amount of legal expenditures and that more discussion would occur at council’s next meeting.
“I want to hear from the city of Loudon,” Shaver said. “I’m really, really interested to hear from the city of Loudon, Joe Ford, their council. Their mayor, of course, signed off on all of these bills also. Every invoice all three mayors signed off of also. I want somebody else involved in this besides just the county. ... I will be a ‘no’ vote regardless, so I don’t know that there is any information that’s going to change me from the ‘no’ vote because so far we still haven’t touched it. In that original Luna report (it) said once you do it’s yours.”
Shaver also motioned for $88,000 taken out of the county general fund for Poplar Springs Landfill legal fees to be reimbursed from the designated reserve. The vote passed 10-0. Funds taken out of general fund dating back to 2013 were for Loudon County Attorney Bob Bowman, who has served as liaison between the county and Luna Law Group.
“There’s no reason for us to pay Poplar Springs fees of any kind since there is the designated account just for that,” Shaver said during the meeting.
Harrelson believes the project could still move forward, but more information is needed first.
“I don’t think it would be prudent on our part representing the taxpayers to spend this kind of money on attorney fees and engineering fees and just stop the project,” Harrelson said. “I mean there’s still potentially an issue out there with the landfill in the future. I don’t think we’ve got a big issue right now, but if something happened in the future and local residents were affected by it I don’t think we would have done our job at the time.”
Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw worries officials may miss their “window.” Hopes were to begin work in late August or early September, with Bradshaw saying the contractor was ready to go.
“I understand entirely the hesitation,” Bradshaw said. “This has cost more than anybody thought, and at the same time this situation was created before most the majority of us were even in our positions we’re in now. I still think fixing it is the right thing to do.
We’ll look at some other options moving forward and see how feasible they are, and so I’ve talked to some folks yesterday — as a matter fact, a church even — that are risk right there.
“Like I said, hindsight’s 20-20 in a situation like this and I’ve done what I thought was right and will continue to do what I think is right and we’ll go from there,” he added. “Maybe there’s a better resolution out there that I just hadn’t found yet.”
Policy needs clarification
Commission also voted “no” toward an open records policy that would have impacted all departments.
Commissioners Bill Satterfield and Leo Bradshaw motioned and seconded, respectively. The vote failed 8-2, with only Leo Bradshaw and Harold Duff in favor.
Buddy Bradshaw said in the past departments have used an unofficial county policy that actually only covers the mayor’s office.
“I think that my vote unless something changes dramatically will continue to be we have a policy in place,” Shaver said. “We cannot dictate to the other offices. The other elected officials will do whatever they want to do. So we can adopt stuff all day long, and there’s nothing we can enforce to the other one. So I guess I’m getting that thing if it’s not broke don’t fix it.”
The state has mandated all county departments to have a policy in place. A policy was supposed to be adopted by July 1, Buddy Bradshaw said.
“This is a policy that’s been in place,” he said. “We went verbatim by the law. There’s a lot of things that would be different when it comes to these as far as being able to charge fees, and I can’t speak for all the officials but I don’t think many of them hold that to the dime, to the letter.”
Commissioners largely had an issue with the fee schedule. After four requests a month, a department could charge for further attempts. Buddy Bradshaw believes charging would be “unlikely.”
“I think there are a lot of questions that the citizens have been asking about fees and why we’re doing one office differently from the other, and I have those same questions,” Tinker said. “I would just like to have those answered. I don’t like it to be arbitrary. If you want to charge one person a fee then everybody gets the fee. If you’re not going to charge anybody a fee then nobody gets charge a fee.
“I just want the writing to be more clear and not left open to interpretation, or you’re only going to charge people who come in from one department or one law firm or one housing group and another that you might be acquainted with, they don’t get charge,” he added. “We just can’t operate that way. Not that they’re operating that way now, but I don’t want it to look like there could be some improprieties.”
Plans are for the mayor to see what changes need to be made in the policy and take it before elected officials to see if they agree.
“I guess the next option would be for each office holder may have to adopt their own policy. It’s up to commission now,” Buddy Bradshaw said. “This was something that the department of open records signed off on and said it was perfectly fine, perfectly legal, it’s good, and so now it may end up being each independent officeholder have to adopt their own. It may go by a case-by-case basis.”
In other news, Loudon County Commission:
• Passed a resolution for turn lanes on Highway 444 as part of Tennessee Department of Transportation’s repaving project.
• Agreed to reimburse property tax for Hensley Baptist Church.
• Accepted $48,290 from East Tennessee Human Resource Agency for the Loudon County Senior Center with no matching funds required.