Jefferson County Mayor Palmieri had declined to sign general obligation bond issuance for the renovation project, due to ethical concerns regarding actions of some Commissioners and a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act. Mayor Palmieri sought a response from CTAS legal counsel, Libby McCrosky, as well as the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office to the question of the Commission’s compliance with the law. Included in his request was a recorded copy of the portions of the February 6, 2012 meeting that he felt were ethically questionable. Elisha Hodge, Open Records Council for the State of Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, responded to the inquiry in a February 17, 2012 letter to Commission Chairman Mills. Hodge stated that her office had received several complaints and inquiries regarding the February 6, 2012 Jefferson County Commission Meeting in reference to the Open Meetings Act. She outlined the information that was presented for consideration which included previous failed vote to renovate the Jefferson County High School, the petition for a Special Called Meeting for the purpose of discussion and action on the renovation of Jefferson County High School and a resolution for general obligation bonds for the project. The petition for the project was only circulated to 11 of the 21 Commissioners, the remainder of which were unaware of its existence. Also noted were
exerpts of the recorded meeting that included statements from Chairman Mills, who stated that he had been in contact with Commissioner Estes, who prepared the bond resolution. He stated that when Estes spoke with bond council (the appropriateness of which had been questioned earlier in the meeting) he informed Mills both before and after those conversations and that there was never a time that he “freelanced” what he did. Hodge further noted Commissioner Beeler’s comments regarding Estes’ conversations with bond council. Beeler stated that Estes did not act on his own. He continued to say that eleven Commissioners signed the petition and they chose him because he is an attorney.
Hodge stated that it is the policy of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office to inform the Chairman of the entity that is the subject of a complaint or inquiry, when one is received. She stated that Tennessee Code Annotated requires that meetings and deliberation be open to the public and that even chance meetings and contact should not be used to deliberate and decide public business in the circumvention of the spirit of the act. Both Hodge (TN Open Meetings Counsel) and McCroskey (CTAS), stated that without firsthand knowledge they could not make a determination on the violation, however Hodge stated that based on the information provided to the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, it does appear that a violation may have occurred. Hodge advised Chairman Mills that a citizen may take legal action against the Commission and that the actions taken at the meeting could fall under Tennessee Code Annotated 8-44-105, which could make any vote taken void.
In a phone interview with Hodge, she stated that, as of mid last week, there had been five citizen and elected official complaints and inquiries regarding the February 6, 2012 Commission meeting. Hodge said that her correspondence to Chairman Mills was a result of viewing the meeting video and interviews with citizens in attendance. Hodge stated that the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office did not address ethics violation and that Jefferson County should have an ethics committee that would begin initial investigations. The State of Tennessee also has a Bureau of Ethics to handle complains of that nature. She said that readdressing the renovation issue in the March meeting will offer a cure for any voting violation, however it does not exempt the County from an independent citizen filing suit for any open meeting violation. In a conversation with CTAS administration, they asserted that CTAS is advisory only and would leave any determinations of violations to the appropriate County and State agencies. The Tennessee Comptroller’s office will not continue to probe the February 6, 2012 meeting and their involvement is complete with Hodge’s correspondence to Chairman Mills, however they are the appropriate office to file complaints of this nature, either via their web site, by letter, or