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Confused meeting dates, misdirected accusations, and lawsuit requests cause chaos at County Commission

Tuesday’s Madison County Commission meeting agenda looked simple enough before tempers flared, insults were hurled and department heads left the meeting in the midst of loud exchanges.

The main point of contention was the discussion of a letter from the Comptroller of the State Treasury that was sent to the Commission in December. The letter warned the commission of a letter the office had received accusing members of the commission of a sunshine law violation.

Because Aaron Ellison (Independent-Dist. 7) was the one who asked Chairman Gary Deaton (Republican-District 4) to put the letter on the agenda, he was the first person to have the floor to speak on the issue.

“I want to know what issue will be taken against the people the Comptroller was talking about,” Ellison said.

Luther Mercer (Democrat-District 1) called for a specific action, asking County Attorney Jay Bush to sue the Commissioners who were a part of the September Republican Caucus meeting. In the September 2022 County Commission meeting, Mercer showed a video of various Commissioners showing up for the Republican Caucus meeting the week before.

The video appeared to have been filmed from a hotel near to Town & Country Realtors, where the caucus meets most months. During caucus meetings, Republicans discuss the agenda for the upcoming Commission meeting and any other issues that need to be discussed.

In September, Mercer claimed the Republicans broke the sunshine law that prohibits members of the same legislative body from meeting to discuss issues they could vote on in the future without formal public notice being given at least five days in advance.

“I don’t know what it was, but there was 13 people there,” Mercer said on Tuesday when Deaton was clarifying what meeting he was talking about. Deaton said Bush should’ve already addressed the meeting since then instead of the Comptroller.

“Do you understand what the complaint was for?” Deaton asked Mercer, referring to the letter to the Comptroller. “The complaint was against you and the group that met at a meeting where there was no notice given.”

Deaton was referring to a Democratic Caucus meeting that supposedly happened on Sept. 14, 2022, to discuss the vote on Commission Chairman. 

As the two went back and forth trying to make their own points and getting nowhere, Tony Neihoff (Republican-District 3) asked for a point of order. Mercer responded to Neihoff, “Sit down, fellow. I’m talking.” Carl Alexander (Republican-District 8) made another point-of-order as department heads from the county leadership left to return to their day jobs.

Mercer claimed any effort to stop him from speaking was violating his Constitutional right as an elected Commissioner and a taxpayer, before Deaton accused him of filibustering.

When Deaton asked Bush to clarify the legality of the situation, Mercer asked Bush if he would let him talk. Mercer said he wanted his question answered about the letter from the Comptroller sent about the caucus about if anything would happen to the Republicans on the Commission. Deaton clarified the letter the Comptroller received came from former Commissioner Trey Cleek. It accused a group of Commissioners that included Mercer of violating the law, not the Republican caucus as Mercer previously believed.

When Joey Hale (Republican-District 3) stood to ask Bush for clarification on how long Commissioners could speak during a discussion, Mercer told him that he wasn’t the chairman, then made another accusation at Deaton as he sat down:

“You overlook us other folks. When we’re up talking, you call on white folks to speak, you racist ass [unintelligible].”

Once Mercer sat down, Deaton called on Olivia Abernathy (Independent-District 2), who was ready to add clarity to the discussion.

She said the letter the Commission received from the Comptroller originated from her, but cited an incorrect date and location for the meeting.

“I think Mr. Cleek is using information that he received third-hand, fourth-hand, maybe fifth-hand originated from me in an effort to get clarity on what the sunshine law covered and didn’t cover in the first week on a job,” Abernathy said. “I’ll go to any meeting that I’m invited or not invited to that I thought is a public meeting, so what information he received, he originated from me.”

Abernathy then changed the point of her discussion, saying the Commission has more important things to discuss with Ford coming to West Tennessee and a need for more capacity in schools. The Commission shouldn’t be lazy by not paying attention to details of keeping minutes and making sure proper notices are given.

“We all have room for improvement to do better. We all need to do better,” Abernathy said.

When she mentioned the sunshine law, Deaton asked her to go back to that and asked her if she was at the meeting. She said she attended a meeting on Sept. 8 that she understood was to be about voting issues and regulations. She confirmed there was a discussion about electing the Commission Chairman, which happened at the September Commission meeting. Deaton asked if there was a notice that went out. She didn’t know of one.

“That’s why the letter [from the Comptroller] went out,” Deaton said to Mercer.

Mercer again asked Bush about suing the Republican caucus for violating the sunshine law.

“What I told you when you made that request is I can’t sue members of the County Commission,” Bush said. “The County Commission is my client. I would have a conflict moving to file a lawsuit against 17 members of the County Commission.”

Bush clarified that a citizen can sue the Commission, but he can’t in his position. Mercer asked if he could hire someone else due to conflict of interest, as had been done in the past.

“If this body wants to provide funding for that and give me instruction to retain an attorney for the purpose of suing the body for violation of open meetings act, I can do that,” Bush said. “But it has to come as a recommendation from this body.”

Mercer: “Then I make a motion that we do that.”

Mercer’s motion did not get a second, so it didn’t get a vote.

Aaron Ellison then brought up the issue voted on last month regarding a budget amendment for the County Attorney for work overages. He asked if they can do that, why can’t someone in Bush’s office handle it like his other work for the County? Bush’s answer was it would still be a conflict of interest because it’s his firm.

Brandon Shields, brandon@jacksonpost.news

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