Mayor Jamie Clary’s refusal to pay an overdue bill from Republic Services, the city’s former trash collection provider, ignited a heated - and confusing - discussion during a recent Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting.
The exchange followed a closed-door executive session between board members and City Attorney John Bradley near the end of the meeting on Oct. 22.
When board members returned from meeting in executive session, Ward 3 Alderman Russ Edwards made a motion “to adopt the recommendations of the city attorney as expressed in executive session.”
Executive session is allowed under the Tennessee Open Meetings Act in order for board members to receive information from legal counsel in the event of current or pending litigation. Board members must deliberate and vote in public, however.
While it was never disclosed publicly what the city attorney’s recommendations were or what the meeting was about, most seemed ready to vote.
“I’ve got to say one thing here really quickly,” Clary interjected. “We have information that shows the city overpaid Republic Services by $291,000. We have information that shows that the misses and penalties for those misses added up to $124,000. I have a hard time accepting a settlement that is significantly less than that.”
An unpaid bill
The city received a letter from Republic on Aug. 30 requesting payment for an invoice dated June 30 for services rendered in June. The city contracted with Republic for 10 years before hiring a new garbage collection company, Waste-Pro, that started July 1.
“The remaining balance of $390,908.94 has now been outstanding almost 60 days,” the letter stated. It also said that a Republic representative received an email from Clary on Aug. 22 that said the city was evaluating the number of houses that received service and the houses that were missed during the term of the city’s contract with Republic. The company requested payment by Sept. 6, according to the letter, or it would “take further and appropriate steps to enforce the contract.”
According to Finance Director Robert Manning, the city paid Republic $175,416.94 on Sept. 20, leaving a balance of $215,492.
Different house counts
In December of 2018, Acting Public Works Director Marshall Boyd noticed a discrepancy in the number of homes the finance department said was receiving trash service (18,169) and the number of homes Republic was billing the city for (18,597).
Clary hired investigator Timothy Reece to look into the reason for the discrepancy. Reece addressed the city’s Public Works Committee on Sept. 19 and the Finance Committee on Oct. 22.
In his report Reece said that it appeared that the city had been overbilled $291,000 from FY 2014 to FY 2019. Reece based his investigation largely on emails between Republic representatives and former Public Works Director Chip Moore who were not interviewed for the report.
According to the contract with Republic, the city was responsible for supplying the house count, finance committee members pointed out.
“If the city was responsible for supplying the house counts, how can it hold Republic responsible?” asked Finance Committee Chairman Arlene Cunningham.
The committee recommended asking Bradley and the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) to look into the issue.
During the Oct. 22 vote to adopt Bradley’s recommendations, several aldermen expressed shock and disappointment that Clary gave specific numbers while the city was still negotiating with Republic.
Many also said off the record they felt betrayed because Clary mentioned in public something that wasn’t brought up in the closed-door session for political gain.
“I’m stunned after what we were just advised in executive session to come out and hear this,” Ward 1 Alderman Peg Petrelli said during the meeting. “The lack of leadership is absolutely stunning to me at this point… This is a prime example of one of the reasons why I voted to move up the selection of a city administrator this evening – because of situations like this.”
“It’s a purely 100 percent political decision to have an executive session so you come out here and bushwhack us on the other side,” said Ward 4 Alderman Andy Bolt. “Because we all agreed on one thing and we end up with something completely different out here… It makes our job so much harder to do when we can’t get consensus and every decision is made for political decisions.”
Clary said that no agreements were made in executive session and that what he said would strengthen the city’s position.
“I am just not willing to sweep under the rug $415,000,” he said. “I am not willing to give up that money.”
Ward 5 Alderman Jonathan Hayes said he was afraid Clary was putting the city in legal jeopardy as well as making it subject to late fees for not paying the bill.
“I’m real disappointed,” said Hayes. “I’m just trying to understand why you don’t want to pay our bills.”
The motion passed 7-1-4 with Hayes, Edwards, Pat Campbell, Scott Sprouse, Mark Skidmore, Darrell Woodcock and Eddie Roberson voting in favor of following the city attorney’s recommendation. Petrelli, Cunningham, Bolt and Steve Brown abstained. Clary voted no.
It is unusual for a governing body to vote on something without stating what they are voting on, according to Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
For a board to vote on something that was recommended in a closed meeting and not say what that recommendation was or what it pertained to undermines the idea of a transparent government, she added.
“Yes, they voted in an open meeting, but what they voted on was a secret,” said Fisher. “And under the Open Meetings Act, there are not supposed to be secret votes.”