Board must follow Open Meetings Law

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The need for Tennessee's Sunshine Law has rarely been more evident locally than during Monday's special called meeting of the Bedford County Emergency Communications District (E-911) board.

The board's personnel committee had ordered Communications Center employee Lisa Cook's mother, center director Cathey Mathis, to terminate her in January. Mathis did not terminate Cook. When board members not on the personnel committee learned discussions had taken place regarding Cook outside the board, a special meeting was called to discuss the issue.

During Monday's meeting about Cook, the full board took no action. The board's regular monthly meeting on Wednesday was not held due to the lack of a quorum.

There are two issues that have come out of this meeting. One, who has the authority to terminate employees of the com center? The T-G has received conflicting reports from some of those involved as to the board's powers on such personnel matters.

Two, allegations involving Cook haven't been disclosed to board members who aren't on the personnel committee -- even after the meeting was called due to their complaints of being kept in the dark.

The Tennessee Open Meetings Act, often called the "Sunshine Law," is Tennessee Code Annotated 8-44-101 through 201. It requires public business to be conducted openly, at meetings announced to, and accessible by, anyone -- the general public, the news media, or other government officials. The notice and accessibility requirements of the Open Meetings Act apply not only to the E-911 board but also to its personnel committee.

Routine personnel matters may be handled through the normal chain of command, without the involvement of board members, if an agency's personnel policies are written that way. But when a matter is serious enough to be brought to the attention of the board or a subcommittee of the board, the parties involved have to understand that those board or committee meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act. Anyone who takes a job with a government agency must realize this going in. In addition, anyone who accepts a government job in which they will report to a relative -- and whether or not that's a good idea is a separate discussion -- must know that their employment is likely to attract added attention or scrutiny.

During Monday's meeting, personnel committee members apologized for previous actions while continuing to deny their fellow board members information.

Personnel committee chairman Scott Johnson admitted the situation may have been mishandled -- and that others in the past had been resolved privately by the committee.

"From now on all decisions will be addressed before the open board," Johnson said.

Yet, by meeting's end, talk was already ongoing about private meetings.

At one point, a suggestion was made that the personnel committee meet with Mathis to "express concerns, not take actions but make adjustments that would make the com center flow better."

"Adjustments" suggested by the committee, if carried out, would effectively be actions, and this would be a clear violation of the Sunshine Law.

Another suggestion was made that the entire board meet privately with Mathis. Kudos to the board's legal adviser, attorney Michael Mahn, for immediately saying, "Can't do that. Sunshine Law."

The board voted 8-0 to have board chairman Mark Thomas discuss issues with Mathis, who is not a board member, and report back to the full board. Though this legally bypasses the Sunshine Law it certainly violates its spirit.

Some of the board's comments indicated fear of embarrassing Cook and/or others if the allegations are made public.

But the fact is that an alleged situation occurred involving her has been brought up at a public meeting. For that reason, it's also unfair for Cook to not have the chance, if she chooses, to defend herself publicly.

Lives are often in the hands of dispatchers at Bedford County's 911 center. Issues involving the center are too critical to be discussed behind closed doors. Decisions must be made openly by the complete board following full discussion in advertised public meetings.

Otherwise a real emergency exists. And calling 911 won't be of any help.