Jury: Knox County Commissioners Broke the Law


Knoxville (WVLT) - The Knox County government has broken the law.

Volunteer TV's Mike McCarthy has the latest.

A jury found the County Commission guilty of violating the state's Open Meetings Act.

The jury unanimously said commissioners talked in secret when they appointed 12-term limited seats during a January 31st meeting.

The Knox County Commission is down to 11 members because eight seats are now in limbo, along with four county-wide seats.

The jury answered in favor of the plaintiffs on all 29 questions they were asked to answer.

"I want to publicly apologize," said Commissioner Mike Hammond after Tuesday's announcement.

"I apologize to the people of Knox County," said R. Larry Smith, another Knox County Commissioner.

Tuesday afternoon, a jury found the Knox County Commission violated Tennessee's Open Meetings Act in a January 31st meeting.

"It stunk from the beginning," said Smith.

That's when commissioners appointed 12 term-limited seats.

"Picking those folks was one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life," said Commissioner Greg Lambert.

After three weeks in court, jurors decided secret conversations and little public notice helped make it easier for the commission.

Some commissioners left court with a clear conscious.

"I feel like I did my homework and I interviewed candidates and things like that. I wasn't going 'lets pick them' or 'let's pick that,'" said Smith.

But Smith says some are still in denial.

"I just rode down the elevator with a commissioner and he told me, he was denying stuff and I was like, are you on mars?" said Smith.

The Knoxville News Sentinel and nine citizens filed the lawsuit.

"This is a battle we decided was worth fighting," said Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy.

Both the citizens and paper's attorneys call the verdict a historic win.

"This is the best day for the people of Knox County that I can imagine," said Herb Moncier, attorney for the citizens.

"The people are the supreme power and government should be accountable to the people," said Richard Hollow, attorney for the News Sentinel.

Commissioners say they got the message.

"There was never anything inappropriate about my conversations on the phone or otherwise, but the public wants to be made more involved in that and to accommodate that we need to add more meetings," said Commissioner Lambert.

County Law Director John Owings lost in court but says what's important is what's next.

"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered and there's very little guidance because this is a situation that hasn't occurred in the state of Tennessee until now," said Owings.

Mayor Mike Ragsdale says commissioners need to focus each day on what they were elected to do.

"To many bad things have been said. I think when you've made a mistake you should say, 'We've made a mistake.' Let's get on with the business of government," said Ragsdale.

Commissioners know it won't be easy.

"It will take a lot of time because it's obvious people have lost confidence in this government and that's sad," said Commissioner Hammond.

But it's also the chance for a new start.

"Hopefully we'll use this as a beginning to move forward and do the right thing," said Hammond.

Volunteer TV also tried to talk Commission Chairman Scott Moore.

He told us no comment and then hung up the phone.

The commission will be in limbo until Thursday when Chancellor Daryl Fansler is expected to hand down his written ruling based on the verdict.

He could recommend a re-do and special election to fill the commission seats.

Law director John Owings says they'll most likely file a few motions in the next couple of days.

Those will ask the court for more guidance in this monumental ruling.


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