Commission procedures questioned

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Marshall County commissioner has renewed his concern over procedures used to conduct county business, although a wide majority of his colleagues have out-voted him.

Meanwhile, other county officials say three contracts that were recently awarded are legal and binding, regardless of Commissioner Billy Spivey's complaints about procedures.

The contracts questioned by Spivey are to hire:

An environmental engineering firm to help the county know what to do when Cedar Ridge Landfill is closed.

A private maintenance service to, among other things, replace an air conditioning unit at the county-owned water utility office.

The Shelbyville contractor who's building an ambulance station in Chapel Hill.

Before Ginger Shofner succeeded Lee Bowles as county attorney, commissioners voted to "suspend the rules" if they decided something had to be done quickly and couldn't wait one month or until a special-called meeting could be held.

That's how Carrier was re-hired in October

At the November commission meeting when the engineer and contractor were hired, Shofner explained that other counties deal with business that arises late by adopting a new agenda at the beginning of the meeting so everybody present would know what business was planned before the meeting started regular business.

That, she explained at the Rules Committee meeting on Monday, is better than suspending the rules late in a meeting to allow more new business to be considered. Adopting the agenda avoids leaving a commissioner unaware of business that might come up later if they must leave the meeting early.

Adopting the agenda is done by a majority vote, according to Shofner.

Spivey and Commissioner Wilford "Spider" Wentzel, among others, point out that a unanimous vote is required to suspend the rules.

Wentzel was the lone commissioner who voted against suspending the rules in October when the maintenance contract was renewed. The vote to adopt a new agenda in November was 11-7.

Extensive discussion was heard Monday night on the procedures presented by Shofner who also discussed Roberts Rules of Order.

Spivey contends that Roberts Rules permit adoption of agendas by particular groups, such as organizations holding a convention. County commissions aren't conventions, Spivey says.

Amid such concerns was a point raised by Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill who reported that at a recent conference an attorney for the government association recommended destruction of meeting recordings after minutes are adopted. Marshall County Clerk Daphne Fagan has sought new recording equipment for the meeting room in the County Courthouse Annex.

"Refer that man to Lewis vs. Bedford County," Shofner advised Neill on a case that Bedford County lost.

"If Richard Nixon were alive," Commissioner Don Ledford interjected, "he'd agree."

Ledford contends that the environmental consultant was legally hired. So does Freda Terry, director of accounts and budget. Terry also views the construction and maintenance contracts as legal.

Fagan has struggled with publication deadlines for legal notices so commission agendas are published a certain number of days before commission meetings.

Spivey points to recommendations for action issued by committees, including the budget committee, that occur after agenda publication.

Such a chain of events is developing this month as the Solid Waste Committee has recommended a landfill audit contract that would be the subject of consideration by the Budget Committee a week before the Jan. 26 Commission meeting. Whether the Budget Committee recommendation is sent to the January Commission meeting or the one set for Feb. 23 remains to be seen.

"A contract can wait," Spivey said. "The public deserves to know."

News reports have been published about all four contracts: engineering, maintenance, construction and the pending audit.

Neill and other commissioners contend most county decisions are made during committee meetings when consensus is built between committees.

Spivey says he's concerned that, for example, three of five committee members might meet after a legal notice is published with the planned agenda and then have a "late filed" item approved by the Commission after a new agenda is adopted when the commission meets.

Shofner has counseled commissioners saying that "any set of rules can not fully anticipate nor address every potential factual situation in detail, and most questionable situations that arise never involve clear-cut answers."

In her written opinion, Shofner says that the the construction and engineering contracts are not at "great risk" if challenged in court.

Wednesday, Spivey said, "Be fearful of things that are not subject to public notice."

Neill commented late Monday night saying that at some point people must trust each other.