DA's office recuses itself from Riverside complaint
by Elsie Hodnett
Feb 03, 2014 | 1507 views |  0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PELL CITY – The St. Clair County District Attorney’s Office recused itself from a complaint made by The Daily Home newspaper of an alleged Alabama Open Meetings Act violation.

“This letter is to request the Attorney General’s Office to either assume investigation of this complaint or appoint a special prosecutor,” St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor stated in a letter to the Attorney General’s Office Friday.

The Daily Home officially filed a formal complaint Friday against the Riverside Council and mayor for the alleged violation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act regarding the hiring of the new city clerk. The complaint specifically names Riverside Mayor Rusty Jessup and Councilmen Jimmy Hollander, Frank Riddle, Bill Cantley, Johnny Osborn and Kenny Womack.

Minor said the District Attorney’s Office recused itself due to a potential conflict of the office regarding Cantley.

“Prior to Mr. Cantley being a city councilman with Riverside, he was a vendor of this office with regards to our computers,” Minor’s letter to the AG’s Office stated. “To this day, he remains a vendor and performs work as a computer technician on our office computers. In fact, he was in our office less than three weeks ago working on one of our computers. Therefore, to prevent even the appearance of an impropriety, I request your office assume responsibility in this matter.”

Minor said he sent a copy of everything submitted by The Daily Home in addition to the official complaint.

“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 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.

“This chain of emails, which apparently involve all members of the council, appears to use electronic communications to avoid holding a public meeting,” said Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association, who reviewed the emails. “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.

Jessup sent an email Jan. 3 to city attorney Liz Parsons, current city clerk Rhonda Johnston and all five councilmen discussing which candidate to hire and requesting the councilmen to inform him prior to the Jan. 7 meeting if anyone intended to make a motion to fill the city clerk position. Riddle spoke to Jessup two days later, discussing possibly nominating Smith.

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...”

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.

Jessup said he didn’t think he and the council violated the OMA.

“If we did, we certainly stand corrected,” 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.”

If convicted, the mayor and council could face financial penalties.

“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,” states the OMA.

Contact Elsie Hodnett at ehodnett@dailyhome.com.