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Closed fire protection meeting stirs debate
Feb 17, 2006 12:00 am
February 8, 2006
Mt. Juliet city officials disagree with leading open government advocates in interpreting whether a closed-door meeting between city and county officials was legal under the state's open meeting, or "sunshine" law.
The meeting, which took place Jan. 30 at Mt. Juliet City Hall, was attended by Mayor Linda Elam, City Manager Robert Shearer, County Mayor Robert Dedman, Wilson Emergency Management Agency Director Jerry McFarland, and West Wilson County Commissioners Ken Holland, Fred Weston, Luther Lenning and Heather Scott.
Many of the officials said last week they met in hopes of finding a solution to the ongoing fire service debate between the city and county. Those same officials acknowledged no one notified the public of their intention to meet and discuss fire service issues.
According to numerous participants, Weston called the meeting and sent out invitations.
Weston, who serves District 3 for the county, would only describe the meeting as an "information session," and would not confirm he called the gathering
"I just met with some of the city officials and county officials to have some local discussions," he said last week.
But it was quickly revealed the "local discussions" included a proposal, floated by Elam, to create countywide fire tax districts.
And since news of the meeting first appeared in The Lebanon Democrat, many – including one meeting participant – have begun to question whether holding such a meeting outside the public realm was permissible under Tennessee's Sunshine Law.
"I think it ought to have been an open meeting," Dedman said Tuesday. "I didn't know it was going to be closed when I went down there. But I didn't ask that question when I got the phone call could I come. I just thought maybe they'd take care of that."
The county mayor explained when the county leaders meet, the announcement is sent to area media.
"I had no reason to think that the public wasn't notified," he said of the closed-door meeting in Mt. Juliet.
But the fact the public was not notified has two experts in Tennessee's open meetings and records statutes questioning the legality.
"For most commentators who are not opposed to the sunshine law, the position generally taken is that whenever two or more members of the governing body of a public body meet, and the purpose of this meeting is to exchange information, to deliberate toward a decision on a matter of policy or administration, then that is a meeting that should be sunshined," said Rick Hollow, an attorney for the Tennessee Press Association. "The fact that you had four members of the County Commission there, and it appears that the purpose of the meeting was to deliberate toward a decision on a matter of policy or administration – specifically this fire protection issue – is strongly suggestive that it was a meeting that should be sunshined.
"I can't think of anything much more public than that."
Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG), agreed the Jan. 30 meeting should have been publicized.
"The law clearly says that if two or more members of a governing body are meeting to discuss business that is before them or that is likely to come before them, they have to give adequate public notice so that people affected by whatever the discussions are about can attend the meeting in question," Gibson said. "It's the people's law. It's there to protect the people who are going to pay those taxes."
Mt. Juliet City Manager Robert Shearer disagreed, trying to downplay the significance.
"This was certainly not a meeting in which any decisions were made, and certainly not the only meeting in which ideas were discussed," Shearer said, adding "this would certainly not be the only meeting in the last 30-60 days at which more than two county commissioners have gathered to talk about fire service."
"I didn't think there's even any hint that anybody's trying to make decisions or reach final conclusions in private meetings."
But the Mt. Juliet city manager explained it's useful to sit down and discuss issues informally.
"There was an exchange of information and ideas, but certainly nothing like a decision," Shearer said.
Yet, two days after the meeting, Elam and Weston sent out a press release detailing a proposal to resolve the fire protection issue.
"At a meeting earlier this week, Mayor Elam proposed, and all County representatives present endorsed, investigating the idea of implementing 'fire tax districts' with different property tax rates according to the level of fire services each property owner receives from WEMA," the press release stated.
The press release also said Elam and Weston are "jointly requesting a study by CTAS (County Technical Advisory Service and MTAS (Municipal Technical Advisory Service) on the best way to implement 'fire tax districts' in Wilson County."
Elam did not return a phone call made to her law office Tuesday for this story. Weston could not be reached for comment at press time.
Shearer said he still had no reason to believe the meeting violated the sunshine law.
"I think there are going to be, in the process of trying to resolve this situation, ample opportunities and all sorts of forums for anybody who has an opinion and wants to voice their feelings to be given that opportunity," he said. "If a solution can be worked out, then it will have to be pursued and review and debated and voted on by commissions and committees."
Mt. Juliet City Attorney Leslie Newman said she fully agreed with Shearer's assessment.
County Mayor Mike Jennings said while he did not have reason to believe the meeting was illegal, he believes it should not have been held in private.
"I tend to agree with Mayor Dedman that it would have been better to have done this openly," the attorney said. "Is there an actual violation? I would question that.
"Had they met and said 'Let's get this hammered out tonight so that we can take it back to the Council and to the County Commission,' I would have said that meeting has to be open," Jennings added. "If they come in and fully deliberate it, and those that wish to participate in the deliberation can, and there's an open and honest discussion, I think that cures any possible violation of the Open Meetings Act, assuming there was one."
Jennings advised in the future both parties should "advertise that type of thing."
Staff Writer Jared Allen can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 15 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.