Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The return of the tax issue

We just finished getting slightly shafted when it comes to the issue of taxes here in Smyrna. Nothing major, but a lot of bad feelings were created. I have to say that for the most part I was not greatly bothered by the idea of a tax increase, if it was done over time and in a manner that did not seem excessive.

I also know that since I follow the town government more so than the normal person that hard choices had been made to cut the budget. In the last years positions were not refilled, some people were laid off, and other cost cutting measures were implemented such as using equipment way past their prime. One item to note that many did not notice was the proposed budget was less than the budget for last year. They had tightened their belts as far as they could, and you can only touch reserve capital so much before the lack of extra funds effects bond issues and such.

With that bit of praise said, the main issue for me is that the whole budget was put together, discussed, and worked out over 200 miles away. That was done with no video feeds, no recordings, no public audiences. While we could all have gone to view it, I like many are financially incapable of such a feat. I cannot afford a 200 plus mile trip, and three days at a hotel at the rates a tourist site charges. That is the part of the process that mainly got on my bad side.

I have been doing some research as the distance brought to my mind a simple question. Does the distance negate the fact that it was an 'open meeting'? Does it break the spirit of the Sunshine laws here in Tennessee. I have gotten some feedback from the state of Tennessee and here is what you need to know.

First we need to understand what is covered by the Sunshine law. This is from the website run by the University of Tennessee, Institute for Public Service. It says...

The application of the Sunshine Law is very broad.  Included, for example, are planning commission meetings (Op. Tenn. Att'y Gen. 88-132 (July 29, 1988)), conferences between a public body and its attorney except those concerning pending litigation (Smith County Education Ass'n v. Anderson, 676 S.W.2d 328 (Tenn. 1984)), local school board meetings (Dorrier), tenure hearings (Kendall v. Board of Education, 627 F.2d 1 (6th Cir. 1980)), work sessions of a legislative body (State ex rel. Akin v. Town of Kingston Springs, 1993 WL 339305 (Tenn. Ct. App. 9/8/93)), an out-of-state meeting of some school board members and the superintendent (Neese v. Paris Special School District, 813 S.W.2d 432 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1990)), meetings of a county hospital board (Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. 01-042 (March 19, 2001)), dismissal or suspension hearings for tenured teachers (Op. Tenn. Att'y Gen. 98-111 (June 12, 1998)), councils on aging and senior citizen center boards (Op. Tenn. Atty. Gen. 84-310 (November 19, 1984)), and the board of directors of a preferred provider organization (PPO) that was a subsidiary of a county hospital district (Souder v. Health Partners, Inc., 997 S.W.2d 140 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998)).
Please note the bold type section. This does mean the meeting is covered by the open meetings law. There is no issues in that area, but this next part is what I think needs to be looked into more.
The Open Meetings Act, commonly referred to as the "Sunshine Law," is found in T.C.A. § 8-44-101 et seq.  The requirements of this law are as follows:
  1. All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings and must be open to the public at all times.  T.C.A. § 8-44-102;
  2. Adequate public notice of all regular and special meetings must be given.  T.C.A. § 8-44-103;
  3. The minutes of the meetings must be recorded and open to public inspection and at a minimum must contain a record of the persons present, all motions, proposals and resolutions offered, the results of any votes taken, and a record of individual votes in the event of a roll call.  T.C.A. § 8-44-104(a); and
  4. All votes must be by public vote, public ballot, or public roll call; secret votes are prohibited.  T.C.A. § 8-44-104(b).
  5. Any action taken in a meeting in violation of any of the foregoing requirements is void.  T.C.A. § 8-44-105.
Now while laws can be specific, some rulings on the laws can effect how they are enforced. I decided to reach out to the state of Tennessee government and ask them two questions...and I also made a mistake that I will go into later.

I found the page for the department that likely deals with these issues and made the following request for information..
Two questions on the open meetings. 1) Does distance apply to open meetings? Smyrna Tennessee government has a 'retreat' to Gatlinburg to set down and establish their budget. This is 240 plus miles from our town and out of reach for many to drive to. Does this restriction create a violation of the open meetings act. It is not recorded or video taped for later viewing. 2) Does a retreat, however informal, still require minutes to be taken for the public record. This meeting does include the entire town council and Mayor plus all administrative department heads.
The information supplied, backed up what I had already found by viewing the online ordinances and codes of the state of Tennessee. The codes as I read them say NOTHING about the distances, just the notification, and that minutes were to be kept for all meetings. I went to the town webpage that minutes were posted on and did not find them on it last week with the other minutes (The week of June 30th).

I reached out to Town Manager Mark O'Neal and he kindly sent me a copy of the minutes with the following note.
Since it is the same as a workshop and no action is taken by the Council, the minutes just document that the meeting happened. They were approved by the Council at the May meeting.
I was ready to sink my teeth into the minutes to see what happened over three days of budgeting, and helping to establish how our town would function for the next year fiscally.

I got this as the minutes...for 3 days...wow!
The Town Council of the Town of Smyrna, Rutherford County, Tennessee, met in a workshop retreat on April 15-17, 2013 at the Park Vista in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to discuss various matters relating to the Town of Smyrna (including, without limitation, budgeting and capital budgets). The following Town Council members were present:  
 Mayor Dover
 Marc Adkins
 H. G. Cole
 Paul Johns
 Lance Lee
 Tim Morrell
 Mary Esther Reed  
 In addition to the members of the Town Council, various staff members attended.
 After discussion, without objection, the meeting was adjourned. 
I was underwhelmed.

I also made a mistake. When I asked the question to the government through their submission form I did not state that I was press. I did in the follow up and they stated that I could not quote them and please forward any questions to their press office. Now I understand this as the person was, by my mistake, speaking to the press and her statements could be viewed as official statements. I have relatives that cannot talk about their jobs but to friends as they could get written up or fired. The person I was talking to did ask me if I wished to file an official complaint.

Now here's the rub. I know that no official actions were voted on during their meeting/retreat. I also know that work sessions like this must have minutes done. I honestly do not view the 'minutes' given to me as minutes. One paragraph for three days of talks, discussions, and all the rest that goes on in a budget workshop. I can file a complaint, and the state will investigate, but is it worth it?

If I file they might find that the minutes were to short and more details are required, but does that change the fact that this was done were most people could NOT view it?

The issue is the spirit of the Sunshine law, and for me there is no 'sunshine' shining from Gatlinberg. In my eyes the spirit of the open meetings law is broken, but laws are not based upon 'spirit. This is a gigantic hole in the Sunshine laws and it needs to be filled. I know that next year I will remind the people of Smyrna of the distances involved, and the lack of sunshine in spirit.

...but it really is not worth filing in my eyes. The minutes are paperwork related and does not change the distance. I don't want to be the whining little person that bitches about little niggling items like this. I'm very disappointed in our town government, but this fight is not worth the effort or the results even if I am found to be correct on the issue.

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