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 Arnette, 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, April 23.

“That meeting was initiated by Wendy Pitts Reeves,” said Arnette. “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.”

Arnette 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).”

Arnette 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.”

Arnette 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.

Arnette confirmed that commissioners Reeves, Monika Murrell and David Graham attended the meeting with Jim Folts and Kenny Anderson.

The Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act, commonly called the Sunshine Law, says that a meeting is two or more members gathering in regard to public business. The act says minutes have to be taken and made available to the public and there must be adequate public notice for each meeting.

When asked how this trip did not violate the Sunshine Law, Reeves said the meeting wasn’t a violation based on definitions found in “The Review of Legal Requirements for Open Meetings and Records and Conflicts of Interest” published by Douglas Berry and Karen Beyke of Weed, Hubbard, Berry and Doughty law firm in Nashville in 2003.

“It’s not about the formality of time or place, the definition of the meeting is the purpose,” Reeves said. “Was the purpose to make a decision or deliberate toward a decision? No. The purpose was not to make a decision or deliberate toward a decision.”

Reeves said the controversy is a smoke screen because she dared help someone present information to the comptroller’s office about the 2007 audit.

“There is a pattern I have noticed over the last six months that when any citizen or commissioner brings up a problem for discussion or help, that person is attacked. The problem is not attacked, the person is attacked. We have citizens who speak up and have the right to address the commissioners and are harassed. There is a real problem in this town. If anyone speaks up and asks a question and dares criticize their government or perhaps suggests how things can be done better, they are attacked personally.

“That is what has happened over and over and over again. I bring up a problem, I get attacked. A citizen brings up a problem, and they get attacked in print. We could do better. A lot of wasted energy is going into criticizing people rather than solving problems.”

When asked why she set up the meeting, Reeves said Folts came to her and asked her to set up a meeting with someone from the comptroller’s office.

“I said I would try. Any citizen has the right to participate in government, and he had a right to,” she said. “Over a year ago, a member, Steve Phipps came to me and said, ‘Can you get me an audience with the mayor?’ What he presented was the idea of working Loudon County animal shelter. If a citizen asks, ‘Can you help me talk to my government,’ I will.”

When asked if she invited the other commissioners, Reeves said she did not. “He invited them not me,” she said.

According to Reeves’ blog, http://pittsreeves.blogspot.com, she first asked Arnette with the Comptroller’s office if being part of the meeting she was arranging between Folts and Arnette was a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

“I asked Mr. Arnette from the beginning if it was appropriate for this citizen (Folts) to invite other commissioners. He said that depended on the objectives of the meeting. I assured him that the sole objective was to allow Folts to make a presentation and then ask a couple questions about the 2007 audit. He said the other commissioners were welcome.”

Reeves said she rode with Folts and Kenny Anderson to the meeting in Nashville. Once there, the Powerpoint presentation lasted an hour. Then there was about 10 minutes worth of conversation that was solely about what kind of audits the comptroller’s office completes. “It was very, very short,” she said of the period after the presentation.

Reeves said the presentation was about details of the county’s finances as seen on the county’s website and the 2007 audit the comptroller’s office completed.

“The information was a lot of the same stuff we had been talking about all along but he (Folts) had pulled it together. He has a lot of questions about county finances,” she said.

Reeves disagreed with media reports in which Cunningham said the commissioners were talking about the budget. “That’s funny because I haven’t talked to anybody about the budget. That’s not what this was about. This was about the 2007 audit,” she said.

When asked about the meeting, Graham said it 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 a presentation was 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 8-44-102, 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 some 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,” Arnette 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 dealt with inventory records of the sheriff’s vehicles and one dealt with interfund loans.

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

GFOA stands for Government Finance Officers Association. To be certified GFOA means the county or department is at the top in terms of financial reporting.

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 if the commission were interested in delving into the audit and had criticism, they 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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