|Loudon attorney admits violation
Loudon City Attorney Joe Ford told city council members during a workshop Monday night that his interpretation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act has been incorrect.
During a May 15 meeting, Councilman Lynn Millsaps questioned the legality of council’s executive sessions. Ford contested Millsaps’ claim, referencing an exception for personnel matters. But Ford admitted Monday he was in error.
“In consultation with (University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service) and looking into this further, the only acceptable reason to go into executive session for city council is to talk about litigation and threatened litigation,” Ford said. “There was kind of a tradition when I came in to talk about personnel matters in executive sessions and that is incorrect. ... So in the future, only litigation or threatened litigation can be talked about in executive session.
“... It’s a little bit different,” Ford added. “There’s some case law with the civil service board where they can go into executive session, which is case law I’ve looked at before that seemed to indicate personnel matters can be discussed, but there’s a differentiation between the highest authority in the city being the city council and the civil service board.”
According the the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, “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.”
A meeting occurs during “the convening of a governing body of a public body for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter.”
While Ford noted that council did not go into executive session during the May 15 meeting but discussed matters in open session, he did reference meeting regarding the search for a new city manager — which was ultimately voted on during the May 15 meeting — having taken place in executive session previously.
Council also discussed the possibility of splitting the positions of city and utility manager in executive session April 10, which was voted on one week later.
Ford noted that other recent executive sessions for the council have fallen under the litigation umbrella and were proper.
“You’re able to talk about personnel matters in executive session in lower level public meetings,” Ford said in a follow-up interview Tuesday morning. “I think there became some confusion when that law — saying it’s published is wrong. Cases come out interpreting those statutes, so some cases came out interpreting these public meetings and executive session. … The case that I was talking about was a civil service board case. Personnel matters can be discussed in executive session, but not at a higher level city or county meeting. I think there are a few other small accepsionts. But the general advice that MTAS and the case law gave out was it’s only for litigation or potential litigation.”
During the May 15 meeting, Millsaps said he believed the only time the council’s executive sessions had been legal was when discussing possible litigation regarding former City Manager Lynn Mills.
Councilman Johnny James was “somewhat” surprised by the information Ford presented Monday.
“I’ve not been involved in politics long enough,” James said. “I never did understand conflicts of interest and sunshine laws and things like that. … Unless you’re a good attorney and I mean a super good attorney that’s up on things like that, then for a regular person that’s hard to understand.”
James believed prior to Monday’s workshop that council was operating appropriately during executive session.
“Some things we discuss in executive session we just just didn’t out in the public right now,” James said. “Not that we were trying to hide anything. ... Like with the city manager. We would like to be the ones making the announcement. We wouldn’t want the information to come out in the paper a week before we make the announcement. … When you air that out in the public it’s there and anybody can talk about it.”
With Monday’s clarification, council will now only meeting in executive session to discuss current and potential litigation.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” James said. “I’m not trying to hide anything from you or anybody else.”
Moving forward, Ford is happy to have clarification and a definition on the record for the city to avoid any further violation.
“It’s my goal as the lawyer for both of these boards (city council and Loudon Utilities Board), for them to absolutely follow the law at all times and it’s my obligation to see that they do,” Ford said.
In an unrelated matter, council briefly discussed budget issues Monday night. The board will vote on a resolution to adopt the 2016-17 budget as a continuing budget for the city until the 2017-18 budget can be passed.
A first reading of the 2017-18 budget will take place during Monday’s board meeting. The delay is due to a pending payment in lieu of taxes agreement with Tate & Lyle.
“The budget is based is based on the assumption at this point that the PILOT will go through,” Stephanie Putkonen, city recorder, said.
Hope is that by July the city will have a resolution with Tate & Lyle to finalize the tax rate before passing the final budget.