Some Hamilton County commissioners may have violated sunshine law in closed sheriff oversight meetings with community, council members

Some Hamilton County commissioners may have violated sunshine law in closed sheriff oversight meetings with community, council members

July 19th, 2019 by Sarah Grace Taylor in Local Regional News

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that county commissioners had been accused of violating open meetings law. No one has directly accused them of doing so, but the Tennessee Comptroller's Office of Open Records Counsel has said that the meetings appear to be a violation of state law. Updated Friday, July 19, 2019, at 9:55 p.m.

Some Hamilton County commissioners may have violated open meetings law by participating in closed meetings with Chattanooga City Council members and community leaders to discuss oversight of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

The sheriff's office released dash cam footage of deputies conducting a potentially unlawful roadside strip/cavity search during a July 10 incident. After that, two deputies were put on paid leave, and several meetings took place this week to discuss accountability for the sheriff's office, including the possibility of creating an oversight board.

While the commission did not formally address the incident at its regular meeting Wednesday, at least three commissioners were involved in community meetings this week to discuss the July 10 incident, including "several" that took place without any public notification despite multiple elected officials being involved.

According to Ricardo Morris, president of Chattanooga Neighborhoods Arts Partnership, Commissioners David Sharpe and Katherlyn Geter participated in "several meetings" between Sunday and Thursday that consisted of community leaders, city council members and commissioners developing a plan of action to present at a community meeting on Thursday night.

While Sharpe and Commissioner Warren Mackey were both present at Thursday's community meeting, word of the meeting was not spread to all commission members.

Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley told the Times Free Press that she was "extremely surprised" when she opened the paper Friday and read that the Thursday night meeting had occurred without an invite to the whole commission or other notice.

"If there was any meeting to discuss bringing a resolution with more than one commissioner deliberating, that's a violation of sunshine laws," Smedley said of the meetings held between Sunday and Thursday. "I was extremely surprised, being the commission chair, that there wasn't an invite sent out through the chair, as is usually the procedure."

After the story about Thursday's meeting ran, both Smedley and District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd emailed the Times Free Press with concerns about the transparency of the meeting. WTVC News Channel 9 reportedly was told that no cameras were allowed at the Thursday meeting.

According to Sharpe, he was not invited, but rather saw a post about the meeting on Facebook and asked Mackey about it. Mackey told the Times Free Press that he had told Sharpe earlier in the week that it was likely there would be such a meeting, but that he never knew about any of the meetings before Thursday.

The Tennessee Comptroller's Office of Open Records Counsel said Friday that the meetings seem to be a violation of state law.

"If [the sheriff's office oversight board] is ultimately something that would be created by the county commission, it sounds like these discussions should have taken place at a public meeting," Open Records Counsel Lee Pope said. "If you have two or more members of a governing body discussing matters that ultimately the body as a whole will have to vote upon, that discussion needs to occur at a properly noticed public meeting."

According to Sharpe, who says he attended two meetings before Thursday, he was unaware of any potential sunshine law violation.

"All I was trying to do is figure out what happened, what the community's and clergy's heads were on it, and if there is anything that can be done," Sharpe said of the meetings. "It wasn't about doing anything it was just research. Maybe I don't understand exactly what is implied by the sunshine law."

During the public comment section of Wednesday's commission meeting, Sharpe said information about the roadside search incident had been "requested officially" and "several commissioners are currently waiting to receive that information and to explore it further." That statement raised questions about whether Sharpe had been in communication with other commissioners regarding the oversight question, and on Friday he distanced himself from the other commissioners, saying he "thinks that they have requested the same information."

He added that he had "been told" that Mackey and Geter made the same requests, but when asked if it was the commissioners who told him so, he said he didn't know.

When asked why he didn't bring up the planning meeting or meetings that had already transpired when he addressed the topic at Wednesday's commission meeting, Sharpe said, "I don't know. I mean, it wasn't intentional."

At Thursday's meeting, Morris said that over the past four days, community leaders, pastors, city council members and county commissioners have met and developed this four-point plan for change:

» Thoroughly examining the county's policies and procedures used to train deputies on cavity searches, warrants, arrests and excessive force.

» Work with the county to develop and implement a law enforcement review committee.

» Form a coalition with other cities in Tennessee with the goal of developing a strategy to change law enforcement legislation at the state level

» Demand that county and city law enforcement officers receive training that addresses cultural inclusivity, racial anxiety and unconscious bias

While Morris says the plan, which includes the formation of an oversight board and other work with the county, was formed at the meetings in question, Sharpe said he "can't remember" if any specific actions or the commission's potential involvement had been discussed at said meetings.

When asked about the content of the meetings in questions, Morris said he was "not qualified" to speak about what commissioners had said. When he was asked about how many meetings there were and if he would recount what he heard at the meetings, Morris said he would not "counter anything Sharpe said" and was "done with this conversation."

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said that he was unaware of the meetings, but that if they had occurred illegally, that could be rectified by the commission discussing the same matters legally at a proper public meeting.

Geter did not respond to multiple phone calls on Friday.

The debate and meetings in question come shortly after the city council established its own police advisory committee amid debate among the council members about who should be on the committee and how much control the council should have.

Though council members were at the meetings in question, there is no evidence to suggest that any specific city action was discussed, and therefore no violation is likely, according to Pope.

District 9 City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, who attended the meetings, declined to comment when asked about their subject matter.

District 5 Councilman Russell Gilbert, who Morris also said attended the meetings, was not available for comment.

Staff writer Rosana Hughes contributed to this story.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @_sarahgtaylor.


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