News-Sentinel: Adequate public notice of meeting at issue in Loudon County

The Office of Open Records Counsel told Louden  County it appears to have violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act when it held a budget committee meeting earlier this month without giving adequate public notice.

A local activist filed the complaint with the office, triggering the review and a letter to the county.

Here is a copy of the Knoxville News-Sentinel story, reprinted with permission:

By Hugh G. Willett

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

LOUDON — A meeting of the Loudon County salary and budget committee earlier this month may have been held in violation of the state open meetings law, according to the state comptroller’s office.

During the meeting, which was not advertised in a local paper of record in advance nor listed on the county website, the committee deliberated issues and came to recommendations related to the health insurance plan for county employees.

In a May 21 letter addressed to county Purchasing Director Joan Lovelace, state open records counsel Elisha Hodge wrote that the office of open records had received and investigated a complaint about the May 16 meeting.

“Based solely on the information that has been presented to this office, it does appear likely that an open meetings violation occurred,” Hodge wrote.

Because the committee does not have meetings on a regular basis, every meeting held by the committee is a special called meeting, she wrote. In order for adequate notice to be given, the notice has to be posted in a location where members of the community would see the notice. The notice must describe the purpose of the meeting or the proposed actions to be taken and must be posted with enough time that members would have the opportunity to attend, she said.

“I strongly suggest that you confer with your attorney regarding this issue as soon as possible because pursuant to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, a citizen has the right to bring a lawsuit against an entity when he/she feels that an open meetings violation has occurred,” she said.

Loudon activist Pat Hunter said she filed the complaint with the open records office. She said she has not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit, but said she believes the county salary and budget committee has been trying to “run under the radar” for years.

Hodge’s letter also addressed an allegation that no minutes were taken at the meeting.

“Additionally, I encourage you to speak with your attorney regarding the allegations that the committee does not record or maintain minutes of the Committee’s meetings. Failure to ‘fully and promptly’ record minutes of a meeting also constitutes a violation of the open meetings act,” she wrote.

County attorney Robert Bowman said he has looked into the complaint but doesn’t see any evidence of a willful violation of the law.

Bowman blames the issue on an email system failure that prevented transmission of the notice to the paper. “We have confirmation that it was sent, but it was not received,” he said.

He also said minutes were taken at the meeting, and “that portion of the letter is in error.”

County Commissioner Sharon Yarbrough is not a member of the salary and benefits committee, but she has tried unsuccessfully to get minutes from those meetings in the past, she said. She said she would like to be able to review the minutes before the issues discussed in the meetings are brought before the full commission for a vote.

Hunter said she has requested minutes of the meeting of the salary and benefits committee, on this and on previous occasions, and has not received them. She said she has complained for years about the lack of minutes being available from such special called meetings.

She wonders why a misaddressed email would not be returned to notify the sender or why the person who placed the ad did not investigate after not receiving a confirmation from the newspaper.

“I find it strange that the meeting was also not listed on the county website or on the door of county building as is usually done,” she said.

A notice for the upcoming salary and benefits committee meeting June 2 was posted on the Loudon County website and on the front door of the County Office Building on Tuesday.

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