Sunshine law broken, lawsuit settled

Sunshine law broken, lawsuit settled

Although it came on the heels of a blatant violation of the Sunshine Law for one of the parties involved in a nearly three-year lawsuit, the issue is finally settled outside of the courtroom.
According to Tennessee Code Annotated Section 8, Chapter 44 (Sunshine Law), all meetings of a governing body are declared public with the exception of attorney-client privilege.
An agenda item slated for the Weakley County Commission during its formal session held Monday evening allowed a slot for an “executive session” for members of the commission to discuss the lawsuit that was waged by the county against the City of Martin in June 2009.
Spectators and media  representatives were ushered out of the meeting room, although no county attorney was present before the executive session convened, and people doubted if there was an attorney present during the closed-door session.
It wasn’t until after the meeting when lone District 5 (Martin) Commissioner Scott Fortner admitted there was no attorney present during the closed session and that prompted the only “nay” vote against a possible settlement for the suit.
There were 16 commissioners present at the meeting.
Background
On June 9, 2009, a lawsuit was filed in the county’s chancery court pitting Weakley County on behalf of Weakley County Municipal Electric System against the City of Martin’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
In 2006, WCMES constructed a new facility which would merge its county offices into one building on Highway 22 between Dresden and Martin. At the time, there was water service available through the City of Martin, but no sewer line tied to the property.
According to the suit, a request by county representatives to Martin representatives for sewer service was denied.
It was then that WCMES constructed a 1.75-mile sewer line, which tied into Martin’s line along the highway, reportedly costing $181,000 by the county.
On May 11, 2009, the City of Martin proceeded with the annexation of property consisting of a one-foot strip along the highway as well as a portion of the new location of WCMES, totaling a little more 17 acres.
WCMES argued in the suit making tax payments to the City of Martin was unfair to their customers as the system provided uniform electric rates to everyone in their coverage area.
The suit argued the annexation was beyond the authority granted to a municipality and the use of the property under the annexation should be subject to rezoning for tax purposes.
The suit also argued the City of Martin had failed to provide other services warranted to annexed property, which included police, fire, water, electric, waste, sanitation pick-up, road and street construction and repairs and lighting.
The City of Martin answered the suit by saying representatives of WCMES and the county never attended planning commission meetings or public hearings, which were advertised to voice opinions during the annexation process. According to the suit, WCMES’ new location was within the City of Martin’s urban growth boundary and it, therefore, had the right to annex a portion of the property.
Monday’s Decision
In a simultaneous action, both the City of Martin and Weakley County Commission met Monday evening to vote on a pending settlement apparently reached during a mediation held between the parties Feb. 15.
The City of Martin agreed to the terms of the settlement during its formal session Monday evening.
According to Martin’s legal counsel Fred Collins, the parties involved engaged in a mediation hearing in an attempt to resolve the issues arising out of the annexation Feb. 15.
The City of Martin Board of Mayor and Aldermen met with Collins in an executive session prior to its board meeting Monday evening.
After the session, board members gathered in the city hall courtroom, where Collins explained the terms of the settlement.
Collins said the agreement was subject to the board’s approval, as well as approval by the Weakley County Commission.
“The city would agree to pay WCMES the sum of $181,000 in two payments – the first on July 1, 2016, and the second payment on July 1, 2017. This payment represents the cost to the county of installing a hook up to the city sewer system.
“The effective date of the annexation will be June 30, 2014. The first payment that WCMES will make to the Martin in lieu of taxes will be due on or before June 30, 2016, which coincides with the first payment due from the City of Martin for the sewer hook up,” Collins explained during the board meeting.
The attorney announced as part of the settlement, WCMES will transfer ownership of its sewer line to Martin, who will then assume all responsibility for the line.
Martin agrees it can charge Weakley County for the sewer service at the standard sewer rates for sewer services, according to Collins.
The City of Martin also agrees to rezone the property to a zoning classification consistent with the use of the property.
Court costs, attorney fees and mediation costs will be handled by the Tennessee Municipal Risk Management Pool for the City of Martin.
While Collins’ explanation of the terms of the settlement were amplified during a public meeting in Martin, Fortner sat 15 miles away in a closed session asking questions which would apparently go unanswered.
Fortner said when talking with other officials regarding a settlement, he found it was in the best interest of the taxpayers he represented in Martin and had intentions to approve a settlement.
That attitude changed, however, when the board of county commissioners apparently had very little answers regarding costs of the pending agreement and lack of legal counsel during a closed-door meeting.
Fortner said he called for an amendment during the session to table the agreement until the board could seek counsel from its attorney.
Although the motion was seconded by Commissioner Bob Bell (District 7-Martin), Fortner cast the only vote in favor of the amendment.
Once the doors were opened in the meeting and an official vote was needed to approve the settlement, Fortner was, once again, the only person casting a vote against the settlement.
Fortner said later with the lack of a county attorney present at the closed-door session, proceeding with a decision wasn’t the right thing to do.
“Things should have to be done in the proper way,” Fortner added.
According to the Sunshine Law and Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, Fortner was right in his logic.
Flanagan confirmed if there is no attorney present during a closed meeting of a governing body, the board is not excused under the Sunshine Law via attorney-client privilege.
After the meeting, Weakley County Commission Chairman Jimmy Westbrook said the board members were under a confidentiality ruling that did not permit them to discuss terms of a settlement for the suit.
The lawsuit agreement passed by the board of county commissioners with a 15-1 vote.
The agreement had already been approved by WCMES’ board of directors.
Jeff Washburn is the attorney for Weakley County.

WCP 3.20.12

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