Verdict: Knox Co. Commission violated state's Sunshine Law

Verdict: Knox Co. Commission violated state's Sunshine Law

October 2, 2007

KNOXVILLE (WATE) -- The jury says Knox County Commission violated the state's Open Meeting Act, better known as the Sunshine Law, when commissioners appointed 12 new officeholders in January.

In a 29-page questionnaire, the six man, six woman jury found that commissioners deliberated in secret about the appointments, even during the process itself, and failed to give the public adequate notice about their plans.

This calls into question the appointments of four county wide officeholders and eight commissioners. Those include: 

In particular, the jury said Commission deliberated on appointing Commissioner Bolus and Commissioner Tramel during recesses as the appointments meeting was in progress. 

When he testified in the trial, Commissioner Bolus said the decision for him to be sworn in early was his alone, not set up ahead of time by Commission Chairman Scott Moore.

Soon after he was sworn in, Bolus' vote helped break a tie that appointed Tramel.

What happens to the 12 appointees now?

It's not clear yet what the remedy and penalties for violating the law will be. Chancellor Daryl Fansler said it will take him "a couple of days" to issue a written opinion on this case. However, the law doesn't allow him to issue any criminal penalties at this time.

The attorneys say the chancellor will most likely void the appointments and call for a re-do process.

The chancellor could also put Commission under an injunction for up to one year. If commissioners were found violating the law again, they could face fines and jail time.

Knox County Law Director John Owings, who represented Commission during the trial, says a re-do is the remedy and he hopes the chancellor will lay out specific rules as well.

The next scheduled vote for Knox County is the primary election in February 2008. New terms for officeholders would theoretically start in September 2008.

What did the jury have to answer for the verdict?

The jury had to come to unanimous decisions on all 29 questions regarding whether the Sunshine Law was violated.

Those questions were broken into six categories:

  1. Deliberations involving the January 19 letter signed by 14 of the 19 commissioners saying they supported a special meeting on January 31 to make the appointments
  2. Commission's vote to take action as described in the January 19 letter
  3. Rules and procedures for nominations and appointments between January 12 and January 31
  4. Were appointments of officers decided before January 31?
  5. Were appointments decided during recesses Commission took as the appointments were in process on January 31
  6. Swearing-in of appointees during the appointments process on January 31 

The verdict came on the first day of deliberation, about five hours into the process. The trial was in its third week.

On Tuesday morning, the jury sent a question to Chancellor Fansler and the attorneys asking how the law defines adequate public notice and public meetings. The chancellor sent a copy of the laws.

After the verdict, jury foreman Chuck Clevenger told 6 News, "I don't think that they could have said anything or done anything different that would have changed the outcome. I think the plaintiffs put on a very good case. I think it was not just so much the case but the evidence was there that it was pretty cut an dry in our minds once we listened and we kept an open mind that it was a pretty clear cut case."

Commissioners accept verdict, hope conversation continues

Commissioner Mike Hammond said, "The jury has spoken and I accept their verdict. They have said we're guilty of violating the Sunshine Law. I want to personally apologize to the people of the 5th District and the people of Knox County. This is not a good day for their government and so I think an apology is necessary on my part."

And Commissioner Larry Smith said, "It wasn't a surprise. It sort of is what you saw. We've been watching the trial for some three weeks. It's been pretty plain what was going to happen. It's been plain since January 31 what happened."

"The thing I worry about and hope doesn't happen is I don't want this ruling to shut down conversation. Conversation is vital for our government to work properly," said Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert.

In fact, Lambert, who wasn't affected by term limits, sent his column from the Powell Post to the 6 Newsroom Tuesday afternoon. It contains several suggestions for changing meeting times to make them more accessible to the public.

Plaintiffs describe the outcomes they hope for and what the verdict means

"This was a case that we had to draw the line or the see the line scuffed out. We've stood up for it. We continue to stand up for it. I think we will brick about a more positive, open form of government in Knox County," said News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy.

And former Commissioner Bee DeSelm, who was also part of the lawsuit, said, "I wasn't a perfect commissioner either. I know the strings they were on on this thing. I just hope that nothing too bad will happen to anybody. But I hope that this will clean up things and there will be more participation and decision making."

Attorney Herb Moncier, who represented nine citizens who joined the Sentinel's lawsuit, said, "Our officials in Knox County have not been following the law and starting today, to the people of Knox County, they're accountable."

And attorney Richard Hollow, who represented the Sentinel, said "From the standpoint of history, it's historic because I don't know that it has ever happened before in Tennessee, certainly not on this scale."

County mayor offers olive branch to Commission

Asked for his reaction to the verdict, county Mayor Mike Ragsdale, who was at odds with Commission over the appointments process, said, "We've had too many harsh words, too many bad things have been said. I think when you make mistakes, we've made a mistake and let's get on about the business of government. That's where I hope that we can go."

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