By Marian Galbraith, Staff Writer
The Coffee County Ambulance Authority violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law, when it interrupted a recent meeting to hold a private session, according to Tennessee Press Association general counsel Rick Hollow.
“There is only one exception to the Open Meetings Act that allows an executive session to be called,” Hollow said, “and that is in the event of attorney-client privilege.
“If a governing body is facing present or pending legislation, or the threat thereof, then it is allowed to meet privately with its attorney to discuss the matter, but there are no other exceptions to the rule besides that.”
Hollow states that this has been the case since the 1984 ruling in “Smith County Board of Education v. Anderson,” which he said he was recalling from memory.
“If the governing body’s attorney is present and requests a private discussion regarding a legal matter, then this is allowable under the law.”
Both the Coffee County Commission and the Coffee County Ambulance Authority interrupted their most recent meetings to hold private sessions, but only the Ambulance Authority turned out to be in violation of the Sunshine Law, according to Hollow.
In the case of the full commission on Tuesday evening of last week, in fact, county attorney Robert Huskey requested just such a private meeting with the commissioners.
Shortly after the meeting began, county mayor David Pennington announced a brief recess to discuss a legal matter affecting the county, stating that they would return within 10 minutes. The mayor and commissioners then left the room with Huskey, and soon returned as promised.
In the case of the Ambulance Authority meeting five days earlier, however, no attorney was present at any time during the meeting.
On Thursday, June 20, the Ambulance Authority conducted a typical meeting to welcome and orient the newly named EMS director Michael Bonner, who is scheduled to start the job July 1.
After roughly one hour, however, members of the public were asked to leave the meeting so that the Authority could discuss what was referred to as an “employee grievance,” presumably referring to an EMS employee.
This, Hollow said, constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Law since the attorney was not present and therefore could not assert attorney-client privilege.
When informed of the violation, Ambulance Authority chairman Jimmy Bradford later said he had been advised to dismiss the public and discuss the matter privately by Huskey himself, who serves as legal counsel not only to the commission but also its various committees, including the Ambulance Authority.
“I can’t comment on that,” Bradford said. “You’d have to talk to Bob Huskey and (Mayor) David Pennington about it because I was just following their lead on that.”
Pennington later said he was not aware of what took place at the Ambulance Authority meeting and did not specifically advise Bradford about it one way or the other.
“I would not have made the call on something like that. I would have deferred to the attorney on it,” Pennington said, referring to Huskey.
Huskey also said, after the fact, that he was unaware of the meeting and its details, but that he was not going to contradict Bradford’s statement that he, Huskey, had advised Bradford in the matter one way or the other.
“I’ve been legal counsel for [Bradford] for five years,” Huskey said, “so I might have said something to that effect at some point in the past, but not last week.”
Nonetheless, Huskey disagrees with Hollow that such a private meeting constituted any violation of the sunshine laws.
“I think it can be done,” Huskey said, “but I don’t know any details about this [Ambulance Authority] meeting, other than what you’re telling me.
“I don’t even know who the party was that they were talking about, but I don’t think it would be a violation for them to discuss it in private.”
Huskey had said earlier, just before the full commission meeting on Tuesday where he called for a private session himself, that if the Ambulance Authority had been discussing an employee grievance, it would be appropriate to discuss it privately, especially if it were purely an allegation that had not been proven.
“You certainly wouldn’t want to discuss a grievance in public without the victim’s permission, because they might not want the entire public to know about it anyway.
“Besides, if it were a claim of sexual harassment, for example, and then it turned out later not to be anything, then you wouldn’t want it to be put out there in the first place.”
Hollow said that if any action were taken during the Authority’s private meeting, it would be subject to nullification.
When told of Huskey’s response that the private meeting was not a violation, Hollow replied, “Well, then, he is mistaken.”