Earlier this year, to comply with a state mandate, the Sullivan County Commission adopted an ethics policy. Like a majority of counties statewide, Sullivan County adopted a model ethics policy written by the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS).
A few weeks ago, CTAS officials held a training session on the policy for county department heads and employees. A hot topic was whether or not acceptance of complimentary tickets to Bristol Motor Speedway would be a violation of the policy.
A CTAS official later said the answer was "yes."
On Wednesday, Sullivan County's Ethics Committee drafted revisions to the policy, describing the action as "housekeeping."
They used the city of Kingsport's ethics policy as a sort of guide, but amended many of the sections to be used in the county's version.
Committee Chairman Tommy Kerns said Kingsport's policy was picked to be the model from nine reviewed by the committee. He and several other members of the committee cited the Kingsport policy's "down to earth" wording for why they liked it best.
The city's version includes a section titled "Acceptance of Gifts and Gratuities," with a subhead "The following are not deemed gifts subject to the aforementioned prohibitions..."
Sullivan County Ethics Committee members redrafted the section's heading to read: "The following constitutes acceptable gifts and gratuities:"
Among items listed - "Receipt of entertainment or athletic tickets or entry to a private or sports/athletic suite, tickets to banquets, luncheons, receptions, local area golf tournaments and such."
Changing the policy goes against the advice of County Attorney Dan Street.
Street said he met with Kerns and the committee's secretary, Gayvern Moore, a couple of weeks ago.
On July 18, Street wrote a memorandum on the meeting.
"Their main question was whether they had to provide minutes to the paper," Street wrote. "(Kerns) expressed concern that if complaining parties know that their names will be used, they will probably be less likely to come forward. (Moore and Kerns) want to know if they can keep information confidential and even hold hearings in closed sessions."
On the afternoon of July 17, the Times-News had asked Moore when minutes of an Ethics Committee meeting held that morning would be available.
That's apparently the day Kerns, as the committee's chairman, asked District Attorney Greeley Wells to investigate an ethics complaint (see DA rejects criminal allegations) against county officials and employees regarding a trip last month to Honduras.
On July 19, Street sent Moore and Kerns another letter further detailing his legal opinion that the committee is subject to Tennessee's Open Meetings Law, commonly referred to as the "Sunshine Law."
"You have asked me two questions with regards to the Sullivan County Ethics Committee," Street wrote. "Does ... (the Sunshine Law) apply to the Ethics Committee? (And) does (state law making records open to public inspection) apply to the Ethics Committee?"
"My answer to both questions is yes."
Street's letter also included several paragraphs on the legal requirement for public notice of all meetings of the Ethics Committee, through "timely paid notice in a local newspaper with a countywide circulation."
Street underlined "paid."
In all, Street's July 19 letter included a list of eight points:
•"All your meetings must be open to the public."
•"Members of the committee cannot deliberate issues to be decided by the committee at any time except in the public meeting."
•"Notice of every meeting shall be provided to the public as set forth above."
•"Minutes must be timely taken, prepared and kept as set forth above."
•"The minutes must include a record of all votes and the results of such votes."
•"The minutes must include a record of individual votes in the event of roll call votes."
•"All votes shall be by public vote, or public ballot, or public roll call, no secret votes or secret ballots or secret roll call votes shall be allowed."
•"Any and all documents, papers, minutes, pictures, e-mails, etc., or any other material, whatever form, whether electronic or paper, made or received by your committee, is a public record subject to inspection and copying by any citizen of the state of Tennessee."
At what was listed on the county's meeting calendar as an Ethics Committee "work session" Wednesday morning, the group decided to seek a second opinion on whether or not they must meet and deliberate in public.
They voted to ask County Mayor Steve Godsey to seek a state opinion on the question.
As for the proposed revisions to sections of the policy dealing with gifts, those won't likely be approved by the full County Commission until September.
Armstrong pointed out a vote by the full commission at this month's meeting would get the policy revisions officially in place before August race week at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Kerns discouraged rushing the issue.
"You don't want it to look like we're trying to cover our... " said Armstrong, mouthing but not uttering a final word.
A state law approved by the Tennessee General Assembly last year required each county in the state to have an official code of ethics in place by June 30.
Contacted by the Times-News in early June, a CTAS official said the ethics policy the agency provided to counties was intended to be a model, not necessarily a "boilerplate" to be copied directly.
Robin Roberts, administrator of field services for CTAS, said while numerous counties in the state based their code of ethics on the model, many of them changed it by adding or subtracting wording.
Sullivan County adopted the model without modification, including the section dealing with gifts.
Sullivan County's Ethics Committee is next scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. Aug. 28.