Nearly a month after voting unanimously to have a resolution drawn up supporting changes to the state’s Sunshine Law, the majority of commissioners present at Monday’s special called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission voted not to support a proposed measure that would allow officials to conduct county business in private.
Commissioners present voted 7-1 not to support the amendments to the state’s open meetings law. The motion approved by the commission was made by James Howell and seconded by Bill Hensley. Commissioner Mickey Hatcher was not present at Monday’s meeting.
Doug Bowman, the lone commissioner in favor of seeing the Sunshine Law amended, explained his reason for supporting the measure. Bowman said he had discussed the matter with members of the Unicoi County Economic Development Board and said he feels changes to the law would better aid the board in recruiting industries to locate in Unicoi County.
“The tax rate’s getting out of hand, it’s getting too high,” Bowman said. “The only way we can remedy it is to raise the tax base.”
At last month’s regular commission meeting, Bowman presented the proposal of having a resolution drafted to support changes to the law. Bowman said at that time that the county would be better served by discussing matters such as possible property purchases and prospective industries out of public view.
The county commission voted unanimously last month to have County Attorney Doug Shults draft a resolution, modeled after one to be considered by Sullivan County Commissioners, in support of changes to the Sunshine Law.
Under the state’s Sunshine Law, which was passed in 1974, governmental entities are required to give prior public notice of meetings in which two or more members of an entity that makes recommendations or decisions gather.
Williamson County Commissioner and former president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association Bob Barnwell is credited with initiating a proposal to change the state’s open meetings law so that public notice of a meeting would only be required if a quorum of a governmental entity is present, according to previously published reports. Barnwell has been urging county commissions across the state to endorse resolutions asking representatives and senators to support amending the law when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, according to reports.
In late November, Sullivan County Commissioner Bill Kilgore introduced a resolution asking his commission to lend its support to changing the law.
Since last month’s meeting of the Unicoi County Commission, it has been reported that Gov. Bill Haslam has voiced opposition to changing the Sunshine Law. Last week, the Associated Press reported that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he may support changes to the law but not weakening it. Ramsey was quoted as saying that he feels governmental officials should not have to fear legal action for discussing business outside of official meetings.
The commission also voted, by a 5-3 vote, to reject paying half of overtime pay due to employees of Unicoi County’s 911 service. Those voting against the measure were Bowman, Kenneth Garland, Howell, Loren Thomas and Gene Wilson.
Earlier this month, the Unicoi County 911 Service Board voted to pay half of the more than $33,000 in overtime that was accumulated by the service’s eight dispatchers while working 12-hour shifts.
Currently, the county pays for half of the dispatchers’ salaries while the 911 Service Board pays the other half. In July 2010, the decision was made to place dispatchers on 12-hour shifts similar to those worked by deputies in the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris asked for the change in dispatcher shifts after the dispatchers had asked for it. However, it was later learned that the pay cycle that applies to deputies would not apply to dispatchers.
“There were weeks in that schedule where they didn’t work at all, and then there were weeks where they worked four 12-(hour shifts),” UCSD Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins said. “So it’s my understanding that CTAS came in and said ‘OK, anytime you work over 40 hours, you’re going to have to be paid overtime.’ ”
By paying the overtime, Lynch said the county would likely be dodging litigation.
“We can either do it or we can make the Labor Board come in and take care of us,” he said.
But several commissioners said they would like to see more information on the matter. Following the meeting, Commissioner Loren Thomas said he would not only like to have more information but would also like to see better corrective action implemented to keep the situation from repeating. Thomas said he does not feel the county’s taxpayers should be responsible for an error in oversight.
Garland also said more information is needed.
“I want to see people get paid what they are due, but I want to see that they are due to start with,” Garland said.
The commission also voted to table a budget amendment dealing with the 911 Service Board’s vote from earlier this month.
Unicoi County 911 Director Patsy Ledford said previously that dispatchers have since returned to 8-hour shifts and no overtime has been accumulated by dispatchers since the change.
In other business, the commission:
— Approved the adoption of Homestead Estates into the county roads system.
— Approved a budget amendment of $10,000 for inmate food at the county’s jail annex.