State open records counsel says closed-door meeting for former East Ridge police chief appears to be proper

State open records counsel says closed-door meeting for former East Ridge police chief appears to be proper

July 11th, 2019 by Zack Peterson in Breaking News

East Ridge Police Chief James Reed answers questions from reporters following the capture of a manhunt suspect at the entrance of Camp Jordan on Oct. 4, 2018.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel confirmed earlier this week that a closed-door hearing for former East Ridge Police Chief J.R. Reed, who is contesting his termination, appears to be proper.

In an email obtained Wednesday by the Times Free Press, Open Records Counsel Lee Pope wrote that Reed's hearing "is most likely" not subject to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. That's because the five citizens appointed by the East Ridge City Council to hear such personnel matters ultimately will report their findings to the city manager, not the council, Pope wrote.

"As such, it appears the Personnel Board does not possess authority to make decisions or recommendations to the city council," Pope wrote. "Therefore, the Personnel Board is most likely not subject to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act."

City Manager Chris Dorsey reached a similar conclusion earlier this week. He cited a section of the meetings act Tuesday that says "meetings to make a recommendation to a single individual such as a county mayor or dean of an educational institution are not 'meetings' covered by the Open Meetings Act."

Pope's email follows some residents expressing skepticism Tuesday about Reed's closed meeting. They pointed to a different job appeal hearing for Adam Rose — an East Ridge officer in his late 20s who was investigated and fired for having sex with an 18-year-old high school student — which was open to the public and media in December. One was Frances Pope, who wrote to Lee Pope on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dorsey said he "didn't know why" Rose's hearing was open, but he double-checked the open meetings rules before Reed's hearing with a representative and attorney from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, a state agency that assists city governments with compliance. He also followed up with Lee Pope on Wednesday.

Tuesday's hearing for Reed lasted nearly four hours after starting at 6 p.m. and will be continued to another date for further proof. Officials have not picked another date yet because they need to coordinate everyone's availability, Dorsey said.

Reed was fired March 13 after being suspended in November and investigated for several months for several allegations laid out in a letter by Assistant City Manager Kenny Custer. Those allegations included "internal financial audit of confiscated funds and goods, lack of department leadership, management of investigations, handling of open records requests, and allowing a hostile employee environment to exist."

All of this followed a series of incidents involving Reed, a patrolman of more than 20 years who became chief in 2014, and his department of roughly 45 officers, the majority of whom unionized in March 2018. Those incidents included allegedly circumventing protocol in the closure of an East Ridge business and ordering officers to use a special criminal database improperly, a lack of basic supplies for officers, personnel issues with officers, and a November 2018 arrest in which a suspect was stunned in the testicles and choked unconscious.

Once Reed is finished presenting proof, the five-person board will present their findings to Dorsey, who has the final say on whether to uphold Reed's firing.

Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.