A member of one committee trying to find a solution for animal control within Bradley County has accused the other of violating Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act, which is often referred as “the Sunshine Law.”
Rachel Veazey, a community representative on the joint animal control committee that includes both members of the Cleveland City Council and the Bradley County Commission, said the committee made up of just Bradley County Commission members did not give citizens the chance to attend its Dec. 9 meeting.
“They’re supposed to give notice of the meeting,” Veazey said. “I think they have not given the public enough time to debate the issue.”
The county has been talking with two animal control committees to aid in making the decision.
The first involved its own ad hoc committee choosing between two nonprofit organizations to manage a county animal shelter and animal pickup. The second involved working with the city’s hoc committee to search for a nonprofit with which both governments could work for the same purpose.
Both committees had been considering proposals by The Ark of Cleveland and the SPCA of Bradley County received after making the call for bids from nonprofits.
Veazey said she took issue with the fact representatives of the SPCA attended the Dec. 9 meeting, but representatives of the Ark did not attend. Because there was no present opposition when the committee decided to choose the SPCA, there was very little discussion during the time set aside for public comment, she said.
“They didn’t debate it,” Veazey said. “It was just a done deal.”
She said she believed the Ark’s personnel were not adequately notified of the meeting; therefore, the county’s animal control committee was in violation of “the Sunshine Law.”
Tennessee Code Annotated section 8-44-103 reads that “any such governmental body which holds a meeting previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.”
Additionally, “any such governmental body which holds a meeting not previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution, or for which notice is not already provided by law, shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.”
County Commissioner Ed Elkins said the Commission had been in the habit of announcing the week’s upcoming events at the end of its weekly meetings, meaning the animal control meeting should have been announced at the end of the meeting, giving the public notice in addition to other types of notification.
However, he said he was unsure whether the Dec. 9 meeting had been announced at the Dec. 2 County Commission meeting.
Commissioner Charlotte Peak-Jones, who chairs the county’s animal control committee, said she did not believe the committee was in violation of any law.
She said the Commission’s assistant, Lorrie Moultrie, notified journalists about the meeting via email. A Cleveland Daily Banner reporter received the email and was in attendance at the meeting in question.
Additionally, she said the meeting’s date and time were listed on the calendar on Bradley County’s website, and a notice was placed in the hallway of the Bradley County Courthouse, where the Commission and that particular committee have been meeting.
“That’s all we’re required to do,” Peak-Jones said.
While she acknowledged seeing the item on the county’s website calendar, Veazey said she took issue with the fact the County Commission’s committee did not have legal notices published in local newspapers.
Though legal notices may be required in some instances, Peak-Jones said her understanding of the law was that it only had to give such notice of “special meetings” unless they introduced brand new issues.
She added the Bradley County ad hoc committee on animal control is a group that meets semi-regularly, and the Dec. 9 meeting was not the first meeting during which the animal control proposals were discussed.
Peak-Jones stressed that a final decision on animal control had not been made. The committee had made its final choice of which proposal to recommend to the entire Commission, but the governing body still had to make a final vote.
“When we convene on Monday, we will see what the rest of the Commission thinks,” Peak-Jones said.
Since the animal control committee only made a recommendation to be discussed by the Commission, she said she believed it was not in violation of state law on Dec. 9.
Tennessee Code Annotated section 8-44-105 dictates that an exception to the Open Meetings Act is applied when no “commitment” is made.
“Any action taken at a meeting in violation of this part shall be void and of no effect; provided, that this nullification of actions taken at such meetings shall not apply to any commitment, otherwise legal, affecting the public debt of the entity concerned,” the law reads.
Veazey said she had contacted the office of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury on Thursday to report what she felt was a breach of state law. Under the heading of that office is the Office of Open Records Counsel, which handles concerns related to both public records and meetings.
“No one from the Ark was notified of this meeting, nor was the public adequately notified,” Veazey said in her email complaint, which she forwarded to the Cleveland Daily Banner. “The only place they posted it was on their website, on the calendar.”
In a reply to Veazey’s email on Friday, Elisha Hodges of the state comptroller’s office said she would be sending a letter to the Advisory Committee on Open Government explaining the situation either that afternoon or on Monday.
While Peak-Jones clarified that she had not directly spoken with Veazey, she said the County Commission was also in discussion with the comptroller’s office on Friday afternoon.
If the state office did find the county animal control committee to be in violation of the Open Meetings Act, the committee would have to hold another public meeting and vote on its recommendation again.
Peak-Jones said she believed the comptroller would tell Veazey no law had been broken. However, she said Veazey was “within her rights” to express her doubts about the public being notified of meetings.
“It’s in the public’s right to question the validity of any public meeting,” Peak-Jones said. “I commend them for doing that.”
However, she also said she believed Veazey might be questioning the meeting in part because she “didn’t get her way.”
Veazey said she had personal concerns about the SPCA not having access to enough animal control vehicles, whereas the Ark’s proposals to both committees had suggested they would use vehicles owned by the city of Cleveland.
“I have no horse in this race,” Veazey said. “I just want it done right. I have no affiliation with the Ark, but I support the Ark because I’m not for the SPCA.”
Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said he stood behind the Bradley County Commission’s committee on this matter.
He also said that, though the law requires local governments to notify the public of its meetings, it is up to individual residents to decide whether or not to attend meetings based on their own personal interests and schedules.
“I don’t condone secret meetings at all,” Davis said. “I think they [the Ark’s representatives] weren’t there by choice.”
Davis said he hoped all who choose to take part in the Bradley County Commission’s next voting session will choose to focus on the issues at hand rather than the accusation.
The Commission will hold its next meeting in the Bradley County Courthouse on Monday at noon.