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Executive Committee revisits deputy wreck settlement to ensure secret meeting won't jeopardize deal

June 6th, 2012 9:58 pm by J. H. Osborne

BLOUNTVILLE — A group of Sullivan County commissioners who violated state law last month by throwing the public out of a public meeting has revisited the issue to make sure their actions can’t be challenged.

Earlier this week, County Attorney Dan Street led members of the Sullivan County Commission’s Executive Committee through the steps he said were needed to make sure the committee’s violation of Tennessee’s “Sunshine Law” would not jeopardize the legal settlement the group discussed behind closed doors last month.

Street was not included in that closed meeting.

The Executive Committee’s regular monthly meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. May 1.

But at that time, committee members said the group needed first to go into “executive session” and asked all non-members to leave the room.

They went on to meet with the county’s risk management officer and an insurance claims adjuster — then let the public back in before quickly voting simply to approve the settlement as discussed in private.

No details, such as what claim or how much money was involved, were made public.

When members gathered Tuesday for the committee’s June meeting, Street told them they needed a do-over because last month’s vote could be challenged on the basis it violated the Sunshine Law.

Some members argued it did not.

Street told them any local governmental body may only exclude the public to discuss legal strategy with the body’s attorney — and that once that discussion ended, any subsequent action had to be taken in public, and include at least some basic details describing the action.

Street also explained that the exclusion isn’t spelled out in state law, per se, but is recognized only because of a Tennessee Supreme Court decision that aimed to preserve attorney-client privilege.

Without an attorney present during last month’s closed-door “executive session,” Street said, the committee clearly violated the Sunshine Law.

Street said the attorney representing the couple making the claim — no lawsuit had, or has been, filed — contacted him after last month’s Sunshine Law violation became publicly known. Street said the attorney was concerned the snafu could later be used to challenge or invalidate the settlement.

Based on comments from committee members, some remained confused. Some seemed not to understand the part about basic details having to be shared with the public for subsequent action to be valid.

Street explained some more and eventually got committee members to state for the record the facts of the case in question, as they remembered them from the closed-door meeting with the risk management officer and insurance claims adjuster last month.

According to comments from committee members and Street, the claim is a result of a wreck on Stone Drive in front of the Pavilion Center that involved an off-duty sheriff’s deputy “T-boning” a vehicle occupied by the couple, both in their 80s — and that liability for the wreck was on the deputy.

The settlement approved by the Executive Committee, again this week, is for $30,000 to end all claims by the couple against the county for the wreck.

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