Rhea County leaders to convene outside the county

Rhea County leaders to convene outside the county

August 25th, 2011 by Ansley Haman in News

Fall Creek Falls State Park

Photo by Ben Benton/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

What: Rhea County Commission workshop

Where: Fall Creek Falls State Park Inn & Conference Center

When: Friday at 4 p.m.; Saturday at 8 a.m.

ON THE AGENDA

* New school and jail

* Possible wheel tax

* Possible 10-year property tax plan

*Rhea County's credit rating

*Budget and salaries

*Centralized maintenance

*Solid waste

*Commissioners' duties

Source: Rhea County Mayor George Thacker

Rhea County leaders plan to discuss a wide range of county business in a workshop this weekend at Fall Creek Falls State Park, almost an hour's drive from the county seat of Dayton, Tenn.

Some Rhea residents see the choice of venue as a waste of money and a deliberate attempt to evade public scrutiny.

"What [commissioners] really want to do is get this thing off site," said Ruth Ann Wilson, a local community activist. "They want to buttonhole these commissioners into some kind of promise or a pledge to where they will vote for a wheel tax."

Commissioners say the workshop is necessary to devote time to mounting problems, such as financing a new high school and possibly a jail.

"We just decided we would go over to Fall Creek Falls where we could relax a little bit, kick our shoes off and talk about county business," said Ronnie Raper, commission chairman. "Everybody thinks we're trying to hide something."

The commission holds a workshop every month to receive information about agenda issues, but only makes decisions or holds votes during official business meetings, Raper said. Citizens and the media are welcome to attend the Fall Creek Falls workshop if the conference room is big enough, he said.

Douglas Pierce, a Nashville lawyer who writes about open government issues, said the workshop may not violate the letter of the state's Open Meetings Act - often called the Sunshine Law - but does violate the spirit.

"The spirit is pretty broad and generalized," Pierce said. "The purpose of the Open Meetings Law is to further the interests of democracy so that the people who elect our leaders can know what's going on."

Pierce said elected officials take on the burden of public scrutiny when they run for office.

Raper said commissioners will pay their own way at the Fall Creek Falls Inn & Conference Center. A standard double room on Friday night is $92.23, and the inn's seafood buffet is $21.95 plus tax, inn personnel said.

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the bigger issue is how much it will cost the people who want to attend.

"The question is whether it is fair to the taxpayers of Rhea County to drive an hour to listen to a discussion that they might be interested in," Gibson said.

County Commissioner Bill Hollin said the workshop is necessary to discuss tough financial issues facing the county.

"It's not a [voting] meeting, it's a discussion of the problems we have in Rhea County," he said. "There's four or five in my district that you're not going to be able to please if you're Jesus Christ."

Rhea County Mayor George Thacker and other county officials will be on hand to answer questions and discuss the agenda topics.