published Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Hamilton County Commission wrestles with late agenda additions

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry sent a memo last month creating deadlines for submitting agenda items because the process wasn't being followed.

On Wednesday, Henry allowed the commission to hear and vote on a resolution to regulate Occupy Chattanooga protesters that wasn't on the agenda. County Attorney Rheubin Taylor passed out the resolution midmeeting.

Dec. 22 was Henry's deadline for agenda items for Wednesday's meeting.

Items added late to the agenda have been common practice in recent months. Henry sent a memo to commissioners on Dec. 15 clarifying the policy and setting deadlines for submitting resolutions, discussing them at agenda sessions and voting on them at meetings, each about a week apart.

"Due to the recent confusion regarding resolutions to be placed on the agenda, it has been brought to my attention that the guidelines in place are not being followed," Henry's memo states. "To lessen confusion for our office, the mayor and county attorney offices, resolutions should be approved by the commission chairman before [they are] put on the agenda."

Wednesday's item was an exception, Henry said, because it dealt with a legal issue.

"The county attorney makes contacts and takes care of those issues before they come up [before the commission]," Henry said. "They're resolutions that have already been in the making; they're not just conjured up."

This week's late item was a resolution formalizing policy for use of county-owned land.

The commission's action prompted Occupy Chattanooga members who are protesting in tents on the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn to send a release questioning its validity.

"The commission's continued use of secrecy to bring resolutions against Occupy Chattanooga violates the spirit, and possibly the letter, of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act and is yet another example of the corruption against which Occupy Chattanooga protests," according to the statement.

Though Occupy Chattanooga is the latest group of critics, it isn't the first.

School board members and commissioners said they were taken by surprise in November when a late item appeared to amend a 2004 agreement between the bodies about school construction. But commissioners passed it unanimously.

Commissioner Chester Bankston said afterward that he never would have voted for the amendment if he'd had time to read the resolution.

And school board Chairman Mike Evatt lamented "the lack of transparency between the commission and the board."

"We're going to try to eliminate things like that from being done," Henry said Thursday. "As a whole, I generally don't like late items."

Full commission meetings are held biweekly, and agenda sessions are held in the weeks between them. The chairman has discretion about what items are added to the agenda outside the regular process.

"The bottom line of the procedure is the chairman has the discretion to put on the agenda whatever he wants," Taylor said.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said economic development items and time-sensitive contracts often require immediate commission attention as late items. Of the executive actions, "I'd say 99 percent are already on the agenda," Coppinger said.

Since 2007, when economic development items related to Volkswagen began to pop up, the commission chairman regularly has recessed its meetings to the next week's agenda session date so commissioners could consider late items without calling special meetings.

Henry said he hadn't given any thought to amending the body's bylaws, passed in 1978, to create regular weekly meetings.

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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