published Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Hamilton County commissioners' private meeting discusses Occupy Chattanooga

Daniel Patterson folds up a tarp as Landon Howard makes a phone call at the new camp site of Occupy Chattanooga in front of the Hamilton County Courthouse Wednesday morning. Tuesday night occupiers moved from their original camp in front of the Chattanooga City Council building to the courthouse.
Daniel Patterson folds up a tarp as Landon Howard makes a phone call at the new camp site of Occupy Chattanooga in front of the Hamilton County Courthouse Wednesday morning. Tuesday night occupiers moved from their original camp in front of the Chattanooga City Council building to the courthouse.
Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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Should Occupy Chattanooga be allowed to camp on the courthouse lawn?

Hamilton County commissioners held a private meeting with County Attorney Rheubin Taylor on Friday to discuss the Occupy Chattanooga protesters camped out on the county courthouse lawn.

The meeting was not announced as required by the state’s Open Meetings Act, also known as the “Sunshine Law.” Taylor said a Tennessee Supreme Court decision allows some meetings about legal issues to remain private on the grounds of attorney-client privilege. When called during business hours to cite the decision, Taylor did not return the call.

Commissioner Fred Skillern, who did not attend the meeting, said later he was “almost certain” the topic was what to do about the group of protesters that assembled on the courthouse lawn Tuesday night after moving from its previous encampment at City Hall.

“They called, and I gave them my opinion,” Skillern said. “I think they were just being briefed by legal about what we could do and couldn’t do.”

Skillern said those camping in tents on the lawn “are doing things we wouldn’t allow the average citizen to do.”

Six other commissioners reached by the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Friday afternoon confirmed they attended the meeting and declined to comment about the topic, citing its legal nature. One said the meeting lasted more than an hour.

Asked early Friday about the county’s rules for use of the courthouse lawn, county spokesman Mike Dunne said in an e-mail that “Attorney Taylor has informed me there is no county code governing the property’s use.”

At least twice, the state Supreme Court has said the Sunshine Law allows public bodies to meet privately with an attorney about pending litigation. Taylor said the topic did not involve a suit now in litigation.

The law applies to meetings where commissioners “deliberate toward a decision on any matter,” not just ones in which they vote.

According to the state Supreme Court, “Once any discussion, whatsoever, begins among the members of the public body regarding what action to take based upon the advice of counsel, whether it be settlement or otherwise, such discussion shall be open to the public and failure to do so shall constitute a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

STATE EFFORTS

The state’s effort to oust Occupy protesters from Legislative Plaza in Nashville twice has been stopped by legal hurdles.

On Oct. 27, the state Department of General Services imposed a 10 p.m. curfew. Over the next two nights, state troopers used the curfew to arrest 55 protesters.

Both times, a Nashville magistrate refused to jail protesters, saying the state lacked authority to set a curfew requiring protesters to leave the plaza or face arrest. Those arrested were released with citations.

Protesters sued the state, citing a violation of their First Amendment rights. On Oct. 31 a federal judge issued a 21-day restraining order against enforcing the curfew.

State officials said Thursday that Gov. Bill Haslam would ask prosecutors to drop charges against the protesters arrested last month.

SUNSHINE LAW

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has held that the Open Meetings Act broadly “protect[s] the public against closed-door meetings at every stage of a government body’s deliberation.”

The full body held a public agenda session Thursday. Commissioners didn’t talk about the Occupy protesters, and no commissioner offered an agenda item on the topic for a future meeting. The commission’s regular business meeting is set for Wednesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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EaTn said...

Maybe they should ask Gov. Haslam his opinion since he seems to have experience in dealing with folks expressing their constitution rights.

November 12, 2011 at 5:11 a.m.
Emersization said...

Ommmmmm, let me guess ... they were discussing who to contact on building a fence to keep people off the lawn, or making a new that says something like, "Thou shalt keep at least 1000 feet away from this property," or begin playing Soviet-style propaganda sound clips over-and-over on loudspeakers through-out the night.

Yes, I do think something is brewing to remedy the hippies of our day.

November 12, 2011 at 5:18 a.m.
mymy said...

With headlines like below somebody needs to be looking forward. Don’t think it can happen here, think again.

DEATH, DISEASE PLAGUE 'OCCUPY' PROTESTS...

Dead man in Salt Lake City...

Tuberculosis in Atlanta...

'Zuccotti Lung' on Wall Street...

Suicide in Vermont...

Murder in Oakland...

November 12, 2011 at 8:11 a.m.
cannonball said...

They were trying to figure out how to raise taxes to support the protesters.

November 12, 2011 at 8:15 a.m.
Dumbledore403 said...

But what is being missed is the Commissioners and the County Mayor broke the law...the Occupiers are not breaking any known law as far as the occupiers know

November 12, 2011 at 8:19 a.m.
librul said...

Mr. Skillern - please enlighten us by defining what you consider to be an "average citizen."

November 12, 2011 at 8:31 a.m.
brokentoe said...

@>Dumbledore403 said... But what is being missed is the Commissioners and the County Mayor broke the law...the Occupiers are not breaking any known law as far as the occupiers know

The police should round up all those involved and haul'em off to the pen!!

November 12, 2011 at 8:48 a.m.
Humphrey said...

what is an "average citizen?" And why would the county not allow the "average citizen" to "do things" that there is no law against?

November 12, 2011 at 9:45 a.m.
Humphrey said...

" out of town people that are being imported " and " import people here with big money."

does not equal

" we'll invite other MoveOn members in the area to attend."

The idea of "big money" is really bizarre. Why would anyone with "big money" pay to protest against people with "big money?" The "big money" went to the so-called tea party events that were planned and paid for by billionaires.

November 12, 2011 at 9:50 a.m.
Joyanna said...

"paying attention" is once more not (paying attention). Have you been to the courthouse and seen the occupation? Where's the evidence of "big money," I mean, really? And I can assure you that 1) I was born at the Baroness Erlanger Hospital some half century ago and 2) I own a home in the inner city of this fine town. I am not an "outside agitator," and you should understand the connotations of that accusation in the first place, as it dates to the Civil Rights Movement. We are not camping; this is an expression of free speech. I hear that there are places in the world that don't protect free speech. Perhaps "payingattention" would feel more comfortable living in one of those societies.

November 12, 2011 at 10:46 a.m.
ldurham said...

Yawn...much ado about nothing. Slow news day, so try to stir up something where nothing exists. A proud tradition of Ye Olde Times Free Press.

November 12, 2011 at 11:01 a.m.
obviousman said...

Am I the only one who finds it insulting that the commission held a (potentially illegal) meeting to figure out what to do with the protesters on Veteran's Day? You know, the day that honors veterans. The same veterans who have stated, "I may not agree with your message but I will defend to my death your right to speak it."

The county commission took an oath when the took office to uphold the Constitution. Part of that is their duty to support the people's right to freedom of speech and the people's right to criticize the government. The commission's duty remains the same whether they agree with the protesters or not.

If the county commission truly has a problem with health issues, due to lack of facilities, the answer is NOT to shut down the protesters, instead they should lease a port-o-john for the protesters.

If the government can shut down any protest by declaring it a health risk (too many people in an area, too loud, wrong hours, cold and flue season, etc...) than they can find a reason to shut down any protests and we don't have freedom of speech.

I am not a supporter of the protesters, as I think their claims are based on a misunderstanding of facts. However, like my brothers in the military I will defend to my death their right to protest.

November 12, 2011 at 11:47 a.m.
dotinoz said...

Payingattention is obviously not paying attention…not even to what she herself is saying about Occupy Chattanooga. First it was COA behind it. Then it was the democrats behind it. Then now it is moveon.org behind it and a growing suspicion in her mind that it is the unions behind it. The simple truth is that anyone who understands that we must get the money out of politics and end the current plutocracy or “rule by wealth” is behind it. You will find liberals, conservatives, students, white collar and blue collar individuals setting aside their differences to stand together at Occupy Chattanooga. They are all united in the single message that the course this country is on is unsustainable. We gather to share ideas so a solution may be formulated by the people…for the people.

November 12, 2011 at 12:43 p.m.
chatoccupied said...

We should not be willing to allow our 1st Amendment rights to be threatened by a local state or federal government with a vested interest in controlling what we say. Whether we agree with the content of any free speech is beside the point. We should all be willing to defend anyone's right to free speech and assembly to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. If others lose this right, so do we. We should all be concerned when elected officials meet in private with the purpose of curtailing rights of free citizens.

The 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

November 12, 2011 at 12:57 p.m.
adluna said...

@payingattention, "Out of town people"? If you would leave your computer and come down to the courthouse to actually meet the occupiers, you'd find that they are overwhelmingly from this area, of all ages and genders, have jobs or are retired or are actively seeking employment, are clean and respectable, vary in their political views and are deeply commited to asserting their rights as outlined in our constitution. Come have a cup of coffee and discuss your opinions face to face with some of the most thoughtful and articulate people you'll ever meet.

November 12, 2011 at 1:19 p.m.
ScoopAway said...

To bad all those tents and sleeping bags aren't for the homeless

November 12, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.
tipper said...

Fred Skillern: A racist breaking Tennessee's Sunshine Law to take away peoples' civil rights. You can't get any more un-American than that! How long can Hamilton County residents continue to allow people of Skillern's ilk remain in public office?

November 12, 2011 at 1:24 p.m.
mymy said...

Too bad they are not protesting where the real problems start: in DC!

November 12, 2011 at 4:54 p.m.
Dumbledore403 said...

A few that is calling the occupy ill informed being paid for etc. really need to look in the mirror about ill informed unless you are willing to show enough guts and talk with them. I am a neighbor ...I live 3 blocks from the courthouse and what some of you are saying cannot be any further from the truth. While I am at it: http://wepartypatriots.com/wp/2011/11/09/get-a-what-a-job-70-of-occupy-wall-streeters-are-employed-compared-to-56-of-tea-partiers/

November 14, 2011 at 11:37 a.m.
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