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some text Helen Burns Sharp

Government watchdog Helen Burns Sharp spent more than $77,000, including tens of thousands of dollars out of her retirement account, fighting what she sees as a pattern of secret - and therefore illegal - decisions by a city board.

A judge's ruling in her favor on Friday means that the retired city planner could see most of her legal fees reimbursed by the city, even as she prepares a second lawsuit against the same board for what she says are continuing violations of Tennessee's Sunshine laws.

Through two city administrations and two Chancery Court judges, Sharp and attorney John Konvalinka waged a legal battle against Chattanooga's Industrial Development Board to stop what she alleged were a series of secret deliberations over how to distribute millions in tax dollars - $9 million of which went to help the developer of a golf course near Aetna Mountain.

A succession of city attorneys, including Mike McMahan, Phil Noblett and Wade Hinton, maintained that the board had done nothing wrong. They said Sharp lacked standing to sue. They said the board never deliberated secretly. They said any off-the-record meetings were covered by attorney-client privilege.

But Chancellor Frank Brown disagreed in July, knocking down the city's arguments in an unexpected ruling from the bench that effectively handed Sharp a total victory.

"Ms. Sharp had accused IDB of secret meetings in its consideration of the two opinion letters from [developers' bond attorney George] Masterson and alleged such violated the Open Meeting Act, which meant its actions should be declared null, void, and of no effect, and the court agrees with her," Brown wrote.

Vindicated, Sharp then asked Chancellor Pam Fleenor, who took over for a retiring Brown, to require the city to reimburse her substantial legal fees.

City attorneys argued they should not be required to pay Sharp. They said Brown's ruling wasn't clear, that it represented a "novel first impression interpretation" of the Open Meeting Act, and that it dealt with complex legal theories.

But in reality, the Open Meetings Act is really very simple, Fleenor wrote in an opinion released Friday, among her first as a newly elected chancellor. The public must be given notice of each meeting, the minutes of the meeting must be recorded, and all votes must be public, none of which happened when the IDB initially allowed $9 million in taxpayer funds to finance a road up Aetna Mountain, as part of a development known as Black Creek Mountain.

"It is not difficult to determine whether an open meeting occurred or whether a secret meeting in violation of the act occurred," Fleenor said. "It is simply a question of fact."

Current city attorney Hinton, who is also a member of the board in question, defended the board's behavior, saying it was "conducting business as compliant with the law." But he acknowledged that the city is "working to conduct training for our boards moving forward, so that the members are aware of what's required of them to remain compliant with the open meetings law."

The seven-member Industrial Development Board, which has two vacancies and two members with expired terms, could see new members appointed within a week to bring it into compliance with the state law governing its existence, Hinton said.

But Sharp's lawsuits aren't the only criticisms of the city's handling of Tennessee's sunshine laws, which are meant to ensure that spending decisions are transparent to members of the public, who are footing the bill.

Hinton himself may have run afoul of the law in August during a debate over the city's sound ordinance, in which he asked City Council members to circle a multiple choice answer dealing with review of the city's decibel rules, then return the completed worksheets to him rather than deliberate openly.

Elisha Hodge, who at the time was Tennessee's Open Records counsel, said that the meeting could have violated the state Open Records Act, since such deliberations are supposed to be performed in public.

Also in August, city-owned EPB became embroiled in an open records fight with a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student who sought information about the public utility's deals with private advertisers. The utility attempted to charge the student more than $1,700 to view the records, which Hodge said was against the law.

And the city was forced to pay $71,000 in attorney fees in February to Rebecca Little, who sued to obtain records about sewer services she alleged that the city had not provided after annexing her district. Local judges were twice overruled by a state appeals court in the case, which had dragged on since 2011.

Hinton said the city is working to adhere to the law, even as the city is studying ways of legally shredding decades of old documents.

"There is an overall ethics training that includes open meetings and open records as well as the ethics code," Hinton said. "Within the next few months we'll probably start rolling out that training."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.

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