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State warns city about secrecy
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The state has sent a written warning to McMinnville officials about a long-standing procedure that could be against the state’s open meetings act and may result in legal action.
Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, the organization that oversees procedures of municipalities, sent a letter dated Nov. 5 to McMinnville Mayor Norman Rone.
“I cannot say for certain the Board of Mayor and Aldermen violated the open meetings act,” wrote Comptroller Justin P. Wilson. “However, I strongly encourage you to confer with your attorney ...”
The warning surrounds the meeting held Sept. 25, 2012 where officials voted to renew the contract of city administrator David Rutherford. The meeting’s agenda did not mention the measure, which was sent to the full board by Finance Committee members, who met earlier that night. The item was added to the agenda once the full board meeting began.
A complaint about the situation was made to the state.
“Whenever this office receives a complaint regarding a possible open meetings violation, my routine practice is to contact the chairman of the entity that is the subject of the complaint to make him/ her aware that a complaint has been filed,” said Wilson.
State law requires officials to give “adequate public notice” about any meetings of a governing body. The state’s requirement states, “We think it is impossible to formulate a general rule in regard to what the phrase ‘adequate public notice’ means,” wrote Wilson. “However, adequate public notice means adequate public notice under the circumstances, or such notice based on the totality of the circumstances as would fairly inform the public.”
Officials did inform the public about the board meeting, but the contract renewal was kept secret. It was added during the meeting.
Wilson says the city’s situation sounds similar to Long v. City of Coopertown in which the courts examined whether the failure to include an item on the agenda that was voted upon constituted a violation of the open meetings act.
In the Coopertown case, one member of the board made it known to at least some of the other members he planned to resign at the next regularly scheduled meeting. He did resign and another board member made a motion to nominate a replacement. The replacement was voted upon and the vote carried. The public notice for the meeting, which included several agenda items, did not mention the resignation of the board member, or the appointment of a replacement.
The court maintained the Coopertown Board of Mayor and Alderman violated the open meetings act when it failed to include on the agenda made available to the public prior to the meeting, the resignation of the member and the appointment of a replacement.
The court concluded this was “relatively speaking, a very important issue” for the members of the community and if more individuals had known what was going to occur at the meeting, it is likely they would have attended the meeting.
While Wilson did not voice his opinion on whether the city of McMinnville violated any laws, he did warn that citizens have the right to bring a lawsuit and let a court decide.
“A citizen has the right to bring a lawsuit against an entity when he/ she feels an open meetings violation has occurred,” Wilson said. “If a lawsuit were brought, a court would determine whether or not a violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act occurred based upon the facts presented to the court.”
Likely leading to the complaint was the controversy surrounding Rutherford’s new contract that, among other items, increased his salary by $17,000 and the number of board votes required to terminate his employment with the city, which went from four votes to five.