Resident files open meetings, public records lawsuit against Lebanon City Council

Lebanon City Council members are facing a lawsuit over violations of the Open Meetings Act and public records law because of a meeting closed to the public, and failing to provide meeting minutes. (Photo of Lebanon City Hall, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Lebanon City Council, despite undergoing training in the open meetings and public records law last year to settle a legal claim, must now face a judge over new allegations.

“We had given them the opportunity before and obviously they still don’t follow the law even after the training,” said Lorrie Hicks, who filed a lawsuit last week alleging new violations of the open meetings and public records statutes.

Hicks’ lawsuit outlines a Feb. 27, 2020, meeting in which the mayor’s administrative assistant, Debbie Jensen, announced she would be filling in for the mayor, who was absent, and serving as the meeting chair. The vice-chair Fred Burton was present for the meeting, but not asked to chair the meeting.

Attorney not present in closed ‘legal meeting’

At one point in the meeting, Jensen “announced there would be a ‘legal meeting’ and the five Councilmembers present followed her and Chief of Police Mike Justice into a room behind the dais and closed the door,” the lawsuit states. The public was not allowed in.

Under the Open Meetings Act, all meetings of governing bodies are required to be open. However, under the attorney-client privilege, governing bodies may meet with their attorney privately to receive advice and ask questions about pending legal matters.

But at the Feb. 27 meeting, city attorney Andy Wright was not present. The lawsuit alleges that the closed meeting was in violation of the law.

Minutes not provided for January, February meetings

The lawsuit also alleges that the city council has not provided meetings minutes. Hicks on May 7 submitted a public records request for minutes of council workshop meetings from Jan. 2 and Feb. 18.

The Open Meetings Act says “The minutes of a meeting of any such governmental body shall be promptly and fully recorded, shall be open to public inspection, and shall include, but not be limited to, a record of persons present, all motions, proposals and resolutions offered, the results of any votes taken, and a record of individual votes in the event of roll call.” [T.C.A. § 8-44-104(a)].

In addition, the public records law requires a response to a public records request within seven business days either providing the records, denying the records, or providing an estimate on when the records will be available. [See T.C.A. § 10-7-503 (a)(2)(B)]

The city has so far failed to produce minutes of the meetings.

City Council underwent open meetings training last year

Hicks has previously sought to have the Lebanon City Council follow the open meetings and public records law.

After city council members in 2019 deliberated via email on a zoning issue, Hicks hired an attorney who sent a letter to the city outlining the open meetings violations. The letter included an advisory opinion from the Office of Open Records Counsel, reinforcing that email exchanges weighing arguments for a proposed course of action relative to public business violated the law.

The city agreed to settle the matter before a lawsuit was filed. It agreed to reconsider its action on the zoning in a meeting that followed the law, essentially “curing” the previous violation.

The city also agreed to undergo training on the open meetings and public records law. They received training in August from Elisha Hodge, the former Open Records Counsel who now works with Municipal Technical Advisory Services.

Read the lawsuit here: Lorrie Hicks v. Lebanon City Council.

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