Did the Merit Board Meeting Violate the Sunshine Law?

 By Pat Hunter

The Tennessee Open meetings states … "All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee. … The members of any public body which consists of two (2) or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy …Notice of public 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." 

Did anyone see a notice in the newspaper informing the public about a Loudon County Merit Board meeting on Feb. 25th at 4:00 PM in the Finance Office; I didn’t?  Public notices are required by law and if someone can show deliberations toward a decision occurred then that action can be subject to a legal challenge and perhaps invalidation of that action. 

The Budget Committee normally meets in the Finance Office but the meeting was delayed. Instead, the Merit Board held an impromptu meeting to deliberate and vote on Sheriff Tim Guider’s request. This is the same Merit Board that upheld Sheriff Guider's termination of former employee Captain Bill Shirk, jail administrator, for violating office policy and state law!

The Merit Board is comprised of commissioners D-3 (Greenback) Bob Franke, D-7 (Tellico Village) Don Miller and D-6 (Highland Park) Wayne Gardin and Ms. Franke Shields, retired from the Loudon County Sheriff’s Dept. First order of business was the distribution and approval of meeting minutes.

Chairman Bob Franke said that the meeting was called because Sheriff Tim Guider was making a change in positions. Franke turned the meeting over to assistant chief deputy Jimmie Davis who explained Sheriff Guider’s request. According to Davis, last week Sheriff Guider posted the position of jail administrator. Davis explained that they wanted to change the rank from captain to lieutenant. The top out salary for captain’s pay is currently $47,630.00. The pay would be adjusted to the lieutenant’s rank with a proposed top out yearly salary of $44,324.00.

Davis commented how only one person had signed up for the new position and Sheriff Guider had made the decision to appoint the unidentified person as the new jail administrator. But before doing so, Guider wanted the Merit Board to approve the new position. The Sheriff’s appointee would take the position with the understanding that the new lieutenant rank would pay less than the previous rank of captain, which Davis said would save about $2000.

With the remainder of the captain’s salary, another position of corporal would be added to the jail using current personnel. The new corporal would receive a promotion and an increase in salary. A deputy corrections officer’s current top out pay is $31,533.00. Currently, there are two corrections corporals with a salary of $32,680 each. See Sheriff’s Agreement

The end result would be to have one jail administrator with the rank of lieutenant, three corrections corporals for each shift and sixteen corrections officers. According to Davis it would not involve new money, just moving money and personnel around. There would a savings when all was said and done. The new positions would become effective March 1st.  The motion was made by Commission Don Miller to approve Sheriff Tim Guider's request, seconded by Commissioner Wayne Gardin, which was unanimously approved. The Budget Committee would be informed about the actions of the Merit Board.

(Reporters from the News Herald and News Sentinel were not present for the meeting. I arrived to attend a budget committee meeting as did a commissioner only to learn that the Merit Board was meeting.)

Stiffer Penalties For Sunshine Law Violations Needed!

It’s the responsibility of our officials to comply with the Open Meetings Law. This could easily be accomplished by purchasing an ad in the newspaper that guarantees publication of the notice. If commissioners can approve spending an estimated  $300,000 + for Mayor Doyle Arp's renovations and pay raises and laptop computers for themselves, an ad with a Public Notice won't break the bank.

Strengthening the Open Meetings law with penalties will greatly improve compliance of the law. When officials break the law, enforcement actions are needed to bridge the public trust. The public has a right to know, be informed and to participate in government, that’s the cornerstone of Democracy. Secret meetings and closed door meetings are an ongoing problem in our community. Please urge Senator McNally and Representatives Jimmie Matlock and Dennis Ferguson to support meaningful reform for the betterment of all.

Your elected state officials:

State Senator Randy McNally: District Phone: (865) 483-5544 
Nashville Phone: (615) 741-6806. E-Mail: sen.randy.mcnally@legislature.state.tn.us

State Representatives: 

State Representative Jimmy Matlock: District Phone: (865) 986.4201
Nashville Phone: (615) 741-3736, E-Mail: rep.jimmy.matlock@legislature.state.tn.us

State Representative Dennis Ferguson: District Phone: (865) 882-8163
Nashville Phone: (615) 741-7658, E-Mail: rep.dennis.ferguson@legislature.state.tn.us