Residents: State ignored land deal complaints

Associated Press • Apr 14, 2007 at 11:06 AM

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. - A group of residents say the state attorney general confirmed their fears that local officials skirted state open meeting rules and dashed their hopes for a new City Hall, but his opinion came too late to do anything about it.

A series of closed-door meetings led to a deal transferring three-and-a-half acres next to the town's cramped municipal building to a well-connected businessman, when the property should have been used for a new City Hall, the residents say.

"This was railroaded through," said Rhessa Orr, one of the residents inspired by the deal to form a local watchdog coalition, Tullahomans Involved in Policy.

The issue began with a Board of Mayor and Aldermen plan to sell the land alongside the municipal building to a private developer who would build a new City Hall and much-needed parking space, and possibly help renovate the cramped nearby police department.

The plan was laid out in January 2005 by then-Mayor Steve Cope.

But critics say the city's bidding process favored Dan and Fran Marcum, a prominent local couple who employed Cope until 2004.

Cope said the board in no way constructed the request to favor the Marcums. He also said that everything was done correctly and by the advice of the city's legal counsel.

Three people appointed by Cope met to hammer out the deal details of the scope of the project and how much it would cost.

But the public wasn't invited, a practice the attorney general's opinion says violated open-meeting laws.

The board also bypassed its approval process by agreeing to the sale before the planning commission signed off, the opinion shows.

The board agreed to sell the Marcums the property for $879,000, and dropped the request that the couple build the town a new City Hall.

Newly elected Mayor Troy Bisby was the board's lone dissenter at the time, saying the city "trashed our one and only opportunity" for a better City Hall.

Bisby in June 2005 contacted the state comptroller's office, which investigates municipal transactions. In August, he also contacted the attorney general's office. Neither office responded, he said.

Fifty-seven residents signed a complaint letter in early 2006 that state Rep. Judd Matheny delivered to those two state offices with similarly silent results.

"They failed us in a big way," Bisby said. "We might not have the mess we have now."

William Bright, legal counsel for the comptroller's municipal audit division, said auditors verified the residents' complaint soon after receiving their letter.

But auditors had to ask newly appointed Attorney General Robert E. Cooper's office to determine the legality of the board's actions.

That extra step slowed the process, he said.

The attorney general's opinion wasn't issued until last month - two years after the first appeal for help and a year after the sale.

According to Bisby, the Marcums have since sold the land to a third party - a bank - making it more difficult to undo the sale or retrace its steps to eliminate doubt.

The Marcums did not return a call seeking comment.

Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said there's often little recourse for upset residents outside a courthouse.

He supports a proposal by Gov. Phil Bredesen to create an open-government ombudsman to help Tennesseans battling their local boards.

"Right now citizens have no place to call," Gibson said. "This would be an office that could field their calls, make an informal investigation and informally mediate the dispute."

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