Helen Burns Sharp, whose career included working as a community planner for state and municipal government, spent $50,000 of her retirement savings to bring a lawsuit against the Chattanooga Industrial Development Board in 2013.
She alleged that the board approved tax-increment financing for a Black Creek Mountain golf course community. In the deal, the developers got $9 million from industrial board-issued bonds to build road and sewer up a mountain to the community. And property taxes from all the expensive homes built there would be used to pay them off.
She didn’t think that was right — that TIF funds are not supposed to be used for such projects — and she alleged secret meetings and deliberations by the industrial development board members in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
There’s more to the case. The attorney who gave the industrial development board the opinion that the project did qualify for TIF happened to be also representing the developers — a pretty clear conflict of interest.
The open meetings violation revolves around the board voting on the deal subject to an an opinion by counsel or the Attorney General that the project met the requirements for receiving tax-increment financing. Later the deal was completed, but no vote or discussion about accepting the opinion took place in a public meeting. Sharp’s attorney, John Konvalinka, said they requested all email between board counsel and board members on the topic, suspecting deliberations took place outside a public meeting after board members received the opinion, but were told the emails were privileged.
“I don’t how it was decided (by the industrial development board), but we said it was done in secret because it wasn’t done in public and judge agreed with Ms. Sharp,” Konvalinka said.
Read Chancellor Frank Brown’s order in Sharp vs Chattanooga Industrial Development Board. dated July 16, 2014. Here’s a quick exerpt: