Mayor says Blount commissioners broke Sunshine Law with unannounced Nashville trip

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham says three Blount County commissioners violated the Sunshine Law when they met with a representative from the Tennessee State Comptroller office Wednesday to discuss issues raised in the 2007 county audit.

Jim Arnett, public information officer for the state comptroller’s office, confirmed that three commissioners and two citizens met with a representative of the office on Wednesday.

“That meeting was initiated by Wendy Pitts Reeves," said Arnett. "She didn’t specify at the time we scheduled the meeting who was going to be there, other than to say there would be representatives from county commission and concerned citizens."

Arnett said the meeting had been scheduled for some time. "It’s been some time ago. We had to schedule and rescheduled a couple times. It’s been a few weeks ago (that the request was initiated).”

Arnett said no minutes were taken at the meeting. “As of right now we don’t have any plans to act on anything additionally in Blount County.”

Arnett said didn’t want to talk about what was discussed. “I don’t want to go into specifics, but I will say they were issues covered in our 2007 audit,” he said.

Arnett confirmed that commissioners Reeves, Monika Murrell and David Graham attended the meeting with two citizens.

Calls made to Wendy Pitts Reeves on Thursday afternoon were not returned at press time.

Graham said the meeting was not a violation of the Sunshine Law and made the following statement regarding the meeting. “Welcome to politics in Blount County. This has nothing to do with the Sunshine Law, which I respect and support. I was invited to see a presentation given by Citizens for Better Government to the state comptroller at his office. It’s no different than when other groups and civic organizations invite commissioners to attend meetings and special presentations. I traveled to the meeting in my personal car, by myself,” he said.

Graham said the two citizens present were Jim Folts and Kenny Anderson and that it was a presentation given by Folts, who Graham said invited the attendees.

“That’s all there is to it. It’s very simple. That presentation was about an hour and that’s all they allowed him. They were pressed for time because there was a funeral for the previous comptroller who died Sunday. We were there, saw the presentation and left,” Graham said.

Knoxville Attorney David Hollow told Blount Today that it appeared the commissioners had violated the Sunshine Law.

“You’ve got a meeting of a public body for the matter of public business," he said. "Sounds like a violation to me.”

Hollow said if the commissioners had taken action it could be null and void. “Even if all they did was talk, it was a violation of the Sunshine Law. A public body has to meet in public unless meeting with an attorney to discuss pending litigation,” he said.

Hollow said that according to Tennessee Code Annotated 8-444-102, a meeting means a convening of a government body of which quorum is present but it doesn’t include onsite inspection of a project or program. “A quorum is two or more members. You’ve got two or more,” he said of the meeting in Nashville. “There’s a presumption of openness so, yes, that sounds like a violation of the Sunshine Law.”

Folts said it was not a violation. “Citizen groups invite commissioners all the time to different things. The presentation doesn’t relate to anything regarding the budget.”

Folts confirmed that he requested that Pitts Reeves set up the meeting with the comptroller's office and that he had been working on the presentation for months.

“The presentation is all about very, very serious problems in the county’s financials," Folts said. "I wanted to get this information in front of the state comptroller. I wanted to do it quietly so the system could work. As part of that, I invited some commissioners who are interested in reform to see what I was going to tell the comptroller.”

Folts said the uproar over the meeting was simply politics. “Anytime the political machine gets backed into a corner, that's when there is character assassination. Unfortunately this seems to be the way things work in Blount County,” he said.

The comptroller’s office spent time in Blount County looking into complaints in addition to doing their usual audit work in 2007. “I will say we have had some hotline calls on other types of investigative work in Blount County that we don't normally investigate," Arnett said, "so, yes, we did spend more time there than we usually do.”

While citizen group leaders such as Jim Folts have voiced concern about the number of cars at the Sheriff’s Office and the location of them all, the state comptroller made only two findings in their audit. One dealing with inventory records dealing with sheriff’s vehicles and one dealt with interfund loans.

The audit was released on Dec. 27, 2007. “We had an unqualified opinion,” he said. “Blount County is a GFOA certificate county.”

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said he had no idea the commissioners were going to Nashville. “I didn’t have any idea a group of commissioners were going. I knew one commissioner had made an appointment but we didn’t know they were going. Nobody on the commission knew,” he said. “It was a clandestine operation in terms of the commission knowing what was going on. It was totally outside the legislative process.”

Cunningham said the normal protocol would be for the commission, if they were interested in delving into the audit and had criticism, would appoint an ad hoc committee and report back. “That’s the legal way for it to be done,” he said.

The mayor said he thought the group insulted the comptroller’s office. “It’s my understanding they told the comptroller’s office the auditors didn’t know what they were doing,” Cunningham said. “I was embarrassed. It makes us look like Knox County. I’ve got 18 other commissioners who would have more sense than to do something like that.”

Cunningham said two things could be done: A report on the possible Sunshine Law violation could be made to the district attorney’s office for him to investigate, and the commission could take action on what happened.

“I’m sure, based on mood of the commissioners who have found out, they will want to look into it. There’s talk among commissioners about some possible condemnation or censure of the action or a vote of 'no confidence' in their fellow commissioners,” he said.

The mayor said the meeting was outside the legislative process the commissioners were elected to carry out. The county has worked hard to maintain openness and transparency regardless of the allegations made by critics, he said.

“I defy anyone to show one dishonest thing we’ve done, just one,” Cunningham said. “We’re the most open and transparent of the 95 counties in this state.”

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