Newspaper files formal complaint against Riverside Council, mayor
by Elsie Hodnett
Feb 02, 2014 | 2275 views |  0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PELL CITY - The Daily Home newspaper officially filed a formal complaint against the Riverside mayor and Council Friday for the alleged violation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act.

“Evidence was gathered by The Daily Home through the Alabama Open Records Act that, in our opinion, presents clear evidence that the Riverside mayor and Council violated the OMA by conducting public business in private through the form of email transmissions and possibly through personal private conversations, thus circumventing the intent of the OMA,” the complaint states.

The complaint, filed with the St. Clair County District Attorney’s Office, specifically names Mayor Rusty Jessup and Councilmen Jimmy Hollander, Frank Riddle, Bill Cantley, Johnny Osborn and Kenny Womack for the alleged violation of the OMA.

The city of Riverside provided emails and a statement from the mayor regarding the hiring of new city clerk Candace Smith, which occurred without public discussion at the Jan. 7 council meeting.

The emails were sent to Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, for review.

“This chain of emails, which apparently involve all members of the council, appears to use electronic communications to avoid holding a public meeting,” Bailey said. “In my opinion, this is pretty clear evidence of a civil violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

Under the Alabama Open Meetings Act, gatherings of a quorum of the body must be public if the members intend “to deliberate specific matters that, at the time of the exchange, the participating members expect to come before the body … at a later date.”

The OMA specifically prohibits the use of electronic media and communications to circumvent the goal of an open meeting.

An email Jessup sent Jan. 3 to city attorney Liz Parsons, current city clerk Rhonda Johnston, and Hollander, Riddle, Cantley, Osborn and Womack discussed a potential candidate the council could all agree to hire.

“I’m thinking Candace Smith,” Jessup stated in his email to the council. “While she is not my top choice, I think she is the one we can all agree will do a good job. While some of you can’t vote in favor of Brittney (Rashleigh,) and some of you can’t vote in favor of Mary (Nash,) it just looks like Candace is the one. …”

In his two-page statement, Jessup said during the Christmas holidays, he spoke to “all the members of the council at Christmas functions, parties, community projects and church, and they would usually tell me who they wanted and why, or who they didn’t want and why not. ...”

In his email, Jessup also asked council members to inform him prior to the Jan. 7 meeting if anyone intended to make a motion to fill the city clerk position.

Jessup said Riddle spoke to him at church two days after the email about possibly nominating Smith at the upcoming council meeting.

At the Jan. 7 council meeting, Cantley and Osborn motioned to table the city clerk vote to a work session for further discussion due to procedural reasons; however, the motion failed in a 4-2 vote.

When questioned after the Jan. 7 council meeting, Riddle, who made the motion to hire Smith, said he did not discuss the city clerk nominees with the mayor or council members prior to the vote.

He told The Daily Home that nothing illegal was done and the issue should be dropped.

Riddle said The Daily Home “was trying to dig up dirt and barking up the wrong tree.”

Hollander said he speaks with council members who missed meetings or the clerk interviews regarding what happened at the meeting or interview.

Hollander, who seconded Riddle’s motion to hire Smith, said he could not recall specifically talking to Riddle after interviews. Riddle only attended candidate interviews the night Rashleigh and Smith were interviewed.

Jessup was contacted regarding Bailey’s opinion that the council violated the Open Meetings Act.

“I certainly didn’t think I did,” Jessup said. “If we did, we certainly stand corrected.”

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.”

According to the OMA, possible financial penalties for violations are “the maximum penalty for each member of the body for each violation is the lesser of $1,000 or half of the defendant’s monthly salary for serving on the body.”