Chattanooga developer says City Council violating Sunshine laws

Chattanooga developer says City Council violating Sunshine laws

February 14th, 2013 by Shelly Bradbury in Business Around the Region

Chattanooga City Council member Jack Benson.

Chattanooga City Council member Jack Benson.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Bassam Issa is seen in this file photo.

Bassam Issa is seen in this file photo.

Photo by Lido Vizzutti

Document: IHOP lawsuit

A Chattanooga developer who sued the city last year after the City Council voted against his request to build an International House of Pancakes on Gunbarrel Road is now alleging that council members held private meetings before the vote that violated Tennessee's Open Meetings Act.

The council voted in December 2011 not to rezone the property at 1825 Gunbarrel Road -- which would have allowed developer Bassam Issa, who owns Ant Group, to build an IHOP on the spot.

The rezoning would have violated the area's land-use plan -- which suggests the area should be used mainly for office space -- and the Council voted 5-3 against the change.

The amended complaint, filed Monday, includes several emails that Councilman Jack Benson, who represents the district, sent to council members and citizens urging them to oppose the rezoning request. In some emails, Benson appears to attack Issa because of his national origin.

The suit alleges that the council violated the Open Meetings Act when Benson sent an email to council members before the vote that included a detailed argument against the rezoning.

"Basam (Sam) does not take 'no' for an answer," Benson wrote in a Sept. 19, 2011, email to council members. "He will tell you things with a 'slant' that is not fully the truth. Therefore, I think you should be prepared for his slanting contentions prior to meeting with him."

The suit also alleges that Benson used an informal gathering of council members to argue against the rezoning.

"Prior to us going in at 6 p.m. for our meeting where we actually read the ordinance, resolutions and take our vote, a lot of times we will gather together for a few minutes," Councilwoman Pam Ladd said in her deposition. "It's supposed to be for fellowship. Some individuals eat their dinner during that time. There's various talk at that table, and Mr. Benson was relaying the story again at that time."

The Open Meetings Act states that government officials can't deliberate or decide public business in secret or through chance meetings, informal assemblages or electronic communication. Benson said Wednesday that he didn't think the conversation or email violated the Open Meetings Act.

"That's [Issa's] opinion, that's not a fact, exactly," he said. "And that has nothing to do with the land use plan or zoning, if we discussed it either informally or formally. He's probably taking some informal remarks and saying that we made decisions. We didn't make any decisions."

The city of Chattanooga provided the emails as part of the case's discovery, attorney John Anderson, who is representing Issa, said. In some of those emails, Benson refers to Issa as "relentless" and "a real headache." He also repeatedly refers to Issa's "culture."

"He came from a country where negotiations with government officials are successful with greedy actions which are illegal in the United States," he wrote in one email. "We can't be a party to his methodology."

In another, he wrote that Issa "comes from another culture and he can't seem to adjust to ours."

"Every culture has different ways of doing business," Benson explained on the phone Wednesday. "We encounter that quite a bit as we have a lot more immigrants and people come into the country. They bring their experiences -- and their experiences in the past have been to negotiate differently."

He also accused Issa of offering him a bribe, the suit claims.

"He asked me what he could do for me to make me change my mind," Benson said. "You can interpret that however you want. I listened then I told him to get out of my office."

Issa, a U.S. citizen who was born in Jerusalem and came to Chattanooga when he was 19 years old, said Benson's bribery claim is false.

"I've lived here for 40 years," he said. "I know the rules, I know the mentality of our country, and I know how to conduct business the American way."

The case is set for trial on April 23 in Hamilton County Chancery Court. Issa said he hopes the judge will grant the rezoning and allow him to develop the IHOP.

"According to the IHOP developer, he has been looking for eight years for a location on Gunbarrel Road, and he could not find anything suitable for his IHOP besides this property," Issa said. "Any other locations do not fit the criteria of IHOP International, for one reason or another."

But Benson said he will continue to fight the proposed rezoning.

"It wasn't arbitrary, it was based on the land-use plan," he said. "The land use plan came in and said, 'This is enough commercial, no more commercial is recommended all the way down to East Brainerd Road.'"

He said creating an exemption for Issa would lead to more commercial development in the area, which would increase noise, traffic congestion and curb cuts.

The Hamilton-Chattanooga Regional Planning Agency voted unanimously against the rezoning in November 2011, following a recommendation from staff.

Chattanooga City Attorney Mike McMahan declined to comment on the case.

"It's our policy not to comment on pending litigation," he said.