Residents claim city withholding annexation plans, records

Residents claim city withholding annexation plans, records

September 12th, 2009 by Cliff Hightower and Monica Mercer in News

Staff Photo by Tim Barber Attorney Gary Starnes, left, announces the filing of a lawsuit against the city over open records from his offices on Friday. Hurricane Creek resident Kyle Holden, right, listens.

Staff Photo by Tim Barber Attorney Gary Starnes, left,...

A group of residents against Chattanooga's plan to annex several outlying areas filed a court petition on Friday, claiming the city dodged their requests for information they say could prove how financially unsound the plan is.

After an Aug. 28 open records request by the group, the city sent a two-line e-mail four days inviting the residents to visit a public "Web link" with general annexation information, according to documents from Hamilton County Chancery Court, where the petition was filed.

The e-mail, sent from Mayor Ron Littlefield's office, made no reference to the group's 15 specific requests for data, which included such as reports on how much the annexation will cost in the long run, court documents said. But the e-mail did tell them to contact the city attorney if they had any other questions.

"I thought it was a slap in the face to flippantly say, 'Visit our Web site,' which is available to everyone and has no hard numbers or data that we're looking for," said Kyle Holden, president of Hamilton County Residents Against Annexation and one of the residents who filed the petition. "We shouldn't have to contact their attorney."

Public officials are required to respond to an open records request within seven business days, according to state law.

Mr. Littlefield said Friday that is exactly what the city did.

"We have responded to every question or request we have received," he said.

It takes time to gather all the information required, Mr. Littlefield said, and there also are costs associated with gathering the information.

"We understand exactly what is required," Mr. Littlefield said.

A hearing is set for Sept. 18 in Chancery Court to address the residents' petition. The hearing is the first of what is expected to be many court battles connected to the controversial annexation proposal.

Mr. Holden confirmed Friday that the residents' group plans to sue the city when and if the annexations go through -- and to use the documents it has requested to bolster its claims that the annexations are a bad idea.

The city has stated that the newly annexed areas would bring in an additional $4.8 million in revenue, money that would be included in the 2010-2011 budget. The revenue could be delayed if litigation comes into play, the mayor's office has said.

"I think the city is stalling," said attorney Gary Starnes, who represents the residents.

The city wants to delay giving the information to residents in order to get the annexation passed, he said.

Mr. Starnes said the residents' main concern is that the annexation process, as well as the city's plan for such services as police, fire and sewer in the new areas, has remained "ambiguous." He said the public records the residents have requested could clear up a lot of the "confusion" about the city's plans.

"If none of these records exist -- and I find that hard to believe -- then the City Council is going to be proceeding on voting (on the annexation) with no numbers, nothing," Mr. Starnes said. "That's not smart to do."