APA: Council may have violated Open Meetings Act
by Elsie Hodnett
Jan 16, 2014 | 1020 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
RIVERSIDE – The Alabama Press Association general counsel said the Riverside City Council may have violated the Open Meetings Act when it hired the new city clerk.

“If there was no chance for the public to see deliberation, then either the council selected a city clerk without any public or private deliberation, which would be irresponsible, or they conducted private deliberations about it, which violates the Open Meetings Act,” said Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association.

There were no public discussions about any of the candidates.

The council conducted five public interviews for the city clerk position in December and said they anticipated discussing it further at the Jan. 14 work session because the December work session was cancelled.

At the Jan. 7 council meeting, the council unanimously voted to hire Candace Smith, who was present at the meeting, as city clerk after a vote to table the issue to the work session failed in a 4-2 vote.

Mayor Rusty Jessup and Councilmen Jimmy Hollander, Frank Riddle and Kenny Womack voted against tabling the city clerk vote to the work session and Councilmen Bill Cantley and Johnny Osborn voted to table the issue to the work session for further discussion.

Osborn and Cantley both said they questioned the hiring procedure, not the specific candidate, when they moved to table the issue for further discussion.

“Kenny asked me to see if Candace would be there and asked me to call her to ask her to attend,” Jessup said. “I told her I wasn’t sure what was going to happen that night, but it might be the night — but I didn’t know what was happening. I don’t know if Kenny had made his mind up. He said Frank had talked to him about Candace.”

Jessup said he knew who some of the council favored, and was glad Smith attended the meeting.

“In my mind, we narrowed it down from five to three candidates after the interviews,” he said. “That’s why I talked to them and furthered the investigation. I called Candace back into my office over Christmas for personal information, and did that with the other candidates. I’m glad it got done as it did, with no executive session for good name and character. We nominated these people and had been talking to them and each other for 60 days. I think the public doesn’t like them (executive sessions) and I think they are unhealthy. You come out and vote and everyone thinks you made up your mind in the executive session. I was glad to have it in the open — not that we did it all of a sudden — we’d been grinding it out for 60 days. I think it was a good process and we got a good candidate.”

Osborn said he spoke with Hollander and Jessup the day before the council meeting.

“I thought there was going to be more discussion and supposedly we were not going to hire anyone at the council meeting,” he said. “Frank Riddle wasn’t even present for three of the five interviews.”

Womack said since he was not able to attend the interviews, he asked the mayor, council members and city clerk who they recommended and then did some investigation on his own.

“I also asked local community members not involved with the process, and everyone gave a positive recommendation (for Smith),” he said. “Everybody worked on it — we had one month to look and study it. I went ahead and pushed it through so we could move forward and move on.”

Hollander said the council had been discussing the city clerk issue for a month-and-a-half and that he felt they needed to make a decision.

Jessup said he didn’t know if putting off the vote would solve anything or change anything.

“I don’t think Candace would get everyone’s support, but I don’t think any one candidate would get all the support,” he said. “At some point you have to grit your teeth and vote.”

Cantley said he did not know the council intended to vote to hire a city clerk during that council meeting.

“I was surprised to see one candidate there,” he said. “I am glad we got the clerk we did — I just don’t think procedure was followed.”

Cantley said he was in contact with the other council members, but figured there would be more discussion on the matter before a vote took place.

“I am happy with our choice but felt the proper procedure would be to discuss it more — it’s a big decision,” he said.

Bailey said the purpose of the Open Meetings Act is that five people in a meeting discuss things differently than one-on-one.

“The thought is that group meeting deliberations are better because then everyone hears the same information at the same time,” he said. “Circumstantial evidence points to the council not deliberating or violating the Open Meetings Act. If taken to court, a judge could decide to set aside the hire and re-conduct the process.”

Contact Elsie Hodnett at ehodnett@dailyhome.com.