By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer
A public meeting of the county's Emergency Services Committee was abruptly changed into a private meeting to discuss a "legal matter" and members of the public and press were asked to leave earlier this week.
The incident happened during Tuesday evening's Emergency Services Committee meeting. County attorney Randal Boston attended the meeting and was there to give advice to the committee.
The meeting was called to order and the committee discussed an update on the communications system, which was listed on the agenda.
Approximately 20 minutes into the meeting and after discussing the radio/communications system, Chairperson and 2nd District Commissioner Nancy Hyder said, "We have a legal matter that needs to be discussed with the attorney and at this time I'll ask that everyone please leave the room except for county commissioners."
The closed session portion was not listed on the agenda of the meeting and the subject of the legal matter was not released to the public, although it was later learned that the subject of the private meeting was in regards to the emergency communications system.
The Tennessee Sunshine Law TCA 8-44-102 states that all meetings of governing bodies be open to the public and that discussion or deliberations of its members be open to the public.
When asked about the presence of Eric Ritzman, P25 Radio System administrator, and Cumberland County Mayor Kenneth Carey, who are not elected members of the county commission, Hyder said they were "informing the committee and telling county attorney Boston about the legal matter."
A clerk for attorney Boston's office also remained for the closed session.
A Tennessee Press Association staff member and Tennessee Coalition For Open Government representative said case law allows for a governing body to meet in private with its attorney under attorney-client privilege.
However, no others aside from the governing body and attorney are to attend the meeting. No decisions are to be made by the governing body during the meeting, either.
"Case law (not statute) in Tennessee allows the attorney for a governing body to meet in private to get and give information about pending litigation or perhaps some anticipated legal controversy. That is to protect the attorney-client privilege. That privilege is violated if anybody else is in that meeting that is not covered under the privilege. If this was not a violation of the letter of the sunshine, it certainly violates the 'spirit' of the law," Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association said.
The emergency services committee is scheduled to meet again March 18 at 4 p.m. to discuss several items of business. Another closed session with the attorney is also listed on the agenda for that meeting.