Attorney, councilwoman demand ‘transparency’ from city

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The attorney and a city council member behind a series of lawsuits against the City of Troy held a press conference in City Hall on Tuesday, demanding accountability and transparency from the city’s elected officials.

Eric Hutchins read an open letter to the citizens of Troy, in which he summarized three pending lawsuits against city officials and called for the city officials to produce details on the hiring of defense attorneys; attorney fees and costs; and evidence of compliance with the Alabama Open Meetings Act.

“My clients feel that a real issue exists as to whether the interests of the citizens of Troy are best served when a group of city council members and the mayor repeatedly refuse to properly notify the public of secret meetings, secret deliberations and secrete expenditures spent on attorneys’ fees for defending lawsuits filed against them for violations of the Open Meetings Act,” Hutchins said. “Such free legal representation is to the exclusive benefit of the mayor and defendant council members but at the expense of the citizens of Troy who are deliberately kept in the dark about what is truly going on.”

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Hutchins represents Councilwoman Dejerilyn King Henderson in a federal suit in which she says her free speech rights were violated and that Mayor Jason Reeves and council members Charlie “Sarge” Dunn, Greg Meeks, Marcus Paramore and Johnny Witherington have violated the Alabama Meetings Act “by denying her the right to vote on and deliberate on the position the City of Troy will take on the lawsuits filed against it,” Hutchins said.

The suits stem from the hiring of a new fire chief in January. Hutchins initially filed suit on behalf of Willie Jones, the current fire marshal, who was a candidate for the chief’s position but was not appointed by the council. Jones’ initial suit claimed the mayor and councilmembers, excluding Henderson, had violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act during the selection process. That suit was dismissed in circuit court and an appeal has been filed, Hutchins said.

In February, Hutchins filed another suit in circuit court on behalf of Jason Thomas and three other Troy residents, citing ongoing violations of the Open Meetings Act that deny the public access to secret meetings and deliberations. That suit also has been dismissed, and Hutchins said Tuesday he plans to file an appeal.

At the center of Hutchins’ press conference on Tuesday was the role of the attorneys hired to represent the defendants in each of the suits, including Ross Ranier Cotter III of Enterprise and Randall Morgan of Montgomery. Hutchins said the city council did not deliberate the hiring of the attorneys during open meetings.

“The real issue the people need to look at is this: Their taxpayers dollars are being spent to the benefit of city council members without being voted on to decide what attorneys you’re going to hire,” Hutchins said. “We have asked the City of Troy and council members to provide public information, public record, showing where there is a contract (with this attorneys) …

“The position their attorneys have taken is that it’s protected by attorney-client privilege, but you can’t get to saying it’s attorney-client privilege until you’ve followed the procedures under the Alabama Open Meetings Act.”

Hutchins said city officials have had more than 95 days since the initial lawsuit filing to provide information requested but refuse to do so. Meanwhile, he said the individual officials are benefitting from taxpayer dollars. “They’re getting personal benefit from the City of Troy having attorneys to represent them,” he said. “They’re costing the city thousands upon thousands of dollars and they refuse to disclose how much those lawyers are getting.”

Richard Calhoun, attorney for the city of Troy, said after the council meeting he could not comment on Hutchins’ statements. “In my opinion it’s inappropriate to comment on pending litigation,” Calhoun said.

The press conference took place on the main floor at city hall, just outside the council chambers, with Hutchins; Henderson; and nearly 20 community members gathered. It was held during the time the council was meeting upstairs for its regularly scheduled work session prior to the council meeting.

“They’re meeting upstairs, in a room, which requires card key access,” Hutchins said. “They mislabel this meeting as an executive committee meeting of the Troy City Council. But when you have the whole council and mayor convening at the same place, that’s a meeting.”

Henderson said she chose not to attend Tuesday’s work session and has stopped attending the sessions. “I don’t feel like they are appropriate meetings,” she said. “They’re not made accessible to the general public and I don’t want to participate.”

City hall employees provide key-card access beyond the security doors to members of the public who seek to attend the work sessions.

“This is about transparency, about being able to see where the taxpayers’ dollars are spent,” Henderson said. “That’s why were here: to ask for transparency and accountable for all our elected officials.”