Hamilton County commissioners got seriously out of order Wednesday, in a mixed-up session that found them voting in what technically was last week's meeting on next week's agenda.
It's hard to explain, but the potential consequence to county residents is not having adequate time to learn about and discuss what their elected representatives are doing.
"Bottom line, it is not good practice, and it may be in violation of the law, to vote on things that are not on the agenda, and it is absolutely not good practice to vote on things that are on your agenda and vote on them in advance," Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Open Government, said Wednesday.
The county's attorney said there was no harm done, since commissioners talked about most of the items in committee last week.
"I don't deny it was a little confusing, but thanks to [County Clerk Bill] Knowles' efficient staff, we will straighten out the numbers," County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said Wednesday.
The commission meets weekly, alternating between agenda and voting sessions, all open to the public. At agenda sessions, commissioners go over items such as purchases, rezoning, contracts and other business either in committee or as a group.
The following week they vote on those items. Usually they recess, rather than adjourn, their voting meeting until the following week so they can take care of any business before starting their agenda session.
Last week, Oct. 3, was a voting session, followed by a committee meeting to talk about changing some internal commission rules. Commissioners knew those would come up at the recessed meeting Wednesday, along with a vote to reverse their denial of a controversial cellphone tower in District 7.
The commission's agenda is posted online before the 9:30 a.m. meeting, and printed copies are available for people who attend. Last week's session ended with agenda number 1018-15, so the agenda handed out Wednesday for the Oct. 17 voting session started at 1018-16 and went through 1018-40.
But — and here's where it starts to get complicated — the voting items brought to commissioners at Wednesday's recessed meeting from last week were numbered 1018-41 through -46, which should have put them on the Oct. 17 agenda.
No. 41, which changed the legal description of a parcel of property in the M.L. King Improvement District, wasn't discussed at all before commissioners voted Wednesday in their recessed meeting.
Nos. 42 and 43 were on commission parliamentary rule changes, and 45 was to set a minimum balance for travel funds in contested seats during election years.
No. 44 was the naming of a new judicial commissioner, discussed in committee last week, while No. 46 was on whether to reappoint three other serving judicial commissioners.
None of the items were listed on the Oct. 17 agendas handed out at the meeting or posted online.
All were approved Wednesday, mostly 8-0, during the recessed meeting from last week's business session. Commissioner Greg Martin was absent.
During the public comment period after the meeting, county resident Chris Dahl made note of the fact that the Oct. 17 agenda as handed out was incomplete.
Chairman Sabrena Smedley said Wednesday she couldn't explain what happened.
"I know the resolution numbers were out of order," said Smedley, who took over as chairman on Sept. 1.
"This morning, I had all those handed to me [by Taylor] — I knew because he called and communicated with me. He's our county attorney. When he tells us something, I believe him. His advice is what we pay him for."
Taylor also conceded the numbering was out of order but said there were no procedural problems and no question of failure to give adequate public notice.
The M.L. King Improvement District vote was merely to correct a clerical error, he said. The Chattanooga City Council voted on the same correction Tuesday night.
Reappointment of judicial commissioners traditionally is standard if the magistrates want to keep serving, but the terms run through Oct. 30, so there would have been time for public discussion.
Taylor said the commission rules changes had been discussed in a public committee meeting.
"It's true it was not on the printed agenda, but none of the commissioners objected to that," he said.
Actually, Commissioner Tim Boyd said not all commissioners had been at the committee meeting or seen the resolution preserving travel funds, and suggested, without effect, delaying until Martin was present.
"Deliberation is the most important thing we do up here and the public should be privy to all opinions and questions and comments by every commissioner on every resolution," Boyd said.
Taylor conceded Wednesday that "several of the items were messed up as far as numbers" but added, "Mr. Knowles gave me correct numbers for today's meeting, they will go in records as being passed in recessed meeting, despite whatever the numbers are."
Fisher said courts have given varying definitions of how much and what kind of public notice, such as published meeting notices or agendas, is enough to satisfy Tennessee's Open Meetings Law.
But elected officials' first goal, she said, should be to do the public's business in a setting where the people who elected them can see and participate.
"If it's on your agenda and you vote on it early, that's not good for the public," Fisher said.
"It may not be a violation of law, but I don't think anybody in the public would think that's right or that's a good practice."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.