Mayor Joe Barger has, for several months, expressed concerns about holding the closed meetings, which have lasted from 10 minutes to more than an hour, at the end of the council meetings.
The mayor maintains that few people want to wait an indefinite time to know if — and how — the council voted in public on matters discussed in secret.
At the council’s Jan. 28 meeting, council member Terry Crawford made a motion to change the council’s procedure on closed meetings. Council member G. Larry Black seconded the motion. The matter was defeated in a 3-2 vote.
The split vote prompted even more discussion of the matter at the Jan. 28 council meeting
“A lot of times when we're done with executive session, most everybody has gone home for the night and no one is here to see what it is we're voting on,” Barger said. “We shouldn't be out here voting on something that the public isn't aware of.”
Government agencies, such as city councils, are allowed to hold closed meetings only to discuss certain items: personnel issues, land acquisition, and potential litigation. Any vote taken, based on discussions behind closed doors, must be held publicly.
Barger has said he wants to either hold closed meetings earlier in the council meetings or delay a public vote on closed meeting items until the next council meeting.
“I just want to say, and I want this put in the paper, that three people on this council are wanting to hide items from the public,” Barger said during the council’s Jan. 28 meeting.
Barger’s statement was quickly objected to by vice mayor Randall Franks and council members Nick Millwood and Earl Henderson.
“It is not fair to make a statement like that mayor,” Henderson said. “It's unfair and disrespectful to this council. ... We are only following protocol.”
“We are bound by law,” Franks said, “to not discuss executive session items in public. We list the executive session items on the agenda as land acquisition, personnel, and potential litigation because we are not allowed to discuss or disclose the details of those items outside of executive session.”
Millwood argued that the council is operating the same way it has for years, with Barger as mayor.
“This is the way the council has always conducted executive session, and it has all happened under your watch,” Millwood said to Barger. “We're doing it the same way it has been done for years, so how can you say that we are hiding things from the public when we are not allowed to discuss them outside of executive session? It is unfair to say that we are hiding, and it sounds like you just don't like the way the votes are going.”
Barger declined Henderson's request that he retract his statement. “I'm not going retract what I said. We shouldn’t vote on items that aren't publicized,” Barger said.
“The law states that we cannot discuss the matters in public,” Franks said. “So if you're saying that we're hiding by doing it this way now, then you've been doing it (hiding) for many years.”
Crawford, who said he recently attended a class on city law, proposed delaying votes on executive session items until the beginning of the next council meeting.
“I spoke with a city attorney who also teaches law at Mercer University, who told me that tabling a vote to the next meeting is a completely legal option,” Crawford said. “We can delay voting on the items to the next meeting or a special called meeting if it's an emergency situation.”
Frank, Millwood and Henderson questioned the reasoning behind delaying the vote.
“Whether we vote on an executive session item that night or at the next meeting, we still aren't allowed to discuss the matter outside of the executive session,” Franks said.
“If we can't publicize the details of the items we discuss in executive session, then what purpose does it serve to delay the vote?” Millwood added.
In other business at Ringgold council’s Jan. 28 meeting:
· The council voted unanimously to annex a Shaw Industries flooring plant, as well as two other businesses, near Armstrong Road and U.S. 41. The annexation of the 50-acre Shaw Plant at 388 Armstrong Road, the Ringgold Truck Center on eight acres at 458 Armstrong Road, and the Kangaroo gas station at 11400 U.S. 41 will create new tax revenue for the city. The city looks to gain an annual amount of $8,241 by annexing the three properties.
• The council instructed city manager Dan Wright to seek legal advice regarding the pedestrian bridge project agreement with CSX.
• The council introduced city ordinance 2013-0211 relating to massage parlors.
Next meeting: Ringgold city council meeting will meet at Ringgold City Hall on Monday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m., with a work session to be held beforehand at 6 p.