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Health committee holds apparent illegal meeting

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Source says financial documents distributed, rejected by committee members

By BEN CARLSON

Anderson County Public Health Director Tim Wright refused to answer a question Monday about an apparent illegal meeting last week of a committee formed by the Anderson County Board of Health.
On Tuesday, Wright admitted distributing what he said were draft budgets during the meeting — a meeting he and health board Chairman Steve Carmichael initially contended did not happen.
Wright and Carmichael each said Monday that the committee learned just before it was scheduled to meet last Thursday that it had not adhered to open meeting statutes and disbanded.
“It was a very short get-together,” said Carmichael. “We basically met to dissolve the committee.”
“The committee met, was dissolved and everyone left,” said Wright, adding that no minutes of the meeting were kept and no votes taken.
The Anderson News has learned, however, that before adjourning, the committee listened to a report from a nurse employed by the health department and received a packet of financial documents, according to a source familiar with what occurred that night.
On Monday, Wright confirmed that the nurse, Sheila Rose, made a presentation to the board, but refused to say if financial documents were distributed to committee members.
“There was no meeting,” Wright said when asked about the documents.
When pressed about the documents, Wright said, “I don’t know where you’re getting that information, but there was no meeting.”
When asked a third time, Wright paused for several seconds before saying: “You have me in a tough spot. I guess I’m not going to answer that question.”
On Tuesday, Wright contacted The Anderson News, and admitted that he indeed passed out what he said was a draft budget.
“I messed up,” he said.
A source confirmed that those documents were distributed to committee members who immediately handed them back to Wright and said the meeting could not be conducted due to lack of public and media notification.
Formed during a March meeting of the Anderson County Board of Health, the committee, which includes health board members Keith Klink, Matt Byers, Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway and Carmichael, was formed ostensibly to consider tax rates and the agency’s budget for next year.
State statutes about open meetings make it clear that any committee of a public body must meet in public, and only can be closed only when discussing litigation, personnel decisions and property acquisition.
After the committee was created, The Anderson News asked Wright to inform the paper when it was scheduled to meet.
Wright said the committee wasn’t required to meet in public and that the newspaper would not be allowed to attend.
The Anderson News told him it disagreed, and made a formal request to his office to inform the paper of any committee or special called meeting of the health board.
The Anderson News has since learned that a committee meeting was scheduled for April 18. That meeting did not occur and was rescheduled for last Thursday. The paper was not notified of either meeting, as is required by state law.
When answering questions last week, Wright said he declined to notify the paper based on advice he was given by Ron Horseman, branch manager of the Local Health Personnel Branch with the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
He said he relied on that advice until just before last Thursday’s committee meeting when Carmichael, the chairman, received an e-mail that contained an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office that said the meeting must be held in public.
On Monday, a spokesperson with that office said the AG’s office does not provide that type of advice and issues opinions only when a legal challenge to an open meeting is filed.
The spokesperson did say that the office received an e-mail from Horseman requesting an opinion, and was likely provided previous AG opinions on open meetings.
When asked why the committee relied on Horseman for legal assistance instead of County Attorney Bobbi Jo Lewis, Wright said that while receiving director training at the state level he was told to direct questions to Horseman.
Carmichael, who has been on the health board since late last year, said he wasn’t aware that Lewis provides legal assistance to the health board.
Lewis, who has provided assistance to the board for years, said her office was not asked for guidance on the matter.
During an interview Monday, Carmichael said the committee was formed only to gather information and to make it easier for the full board to make coming decisions on tax rates and budget issues when it meets for a special-called meeting May 16.
Carmichael rejected any notion that the committee was dissolved because it cannot hold private meetings to discuss those issues.
“It was never our intent to say we won’t discuss [these issues] in public,” Carmichael said. “It was more of a timing issue” leading up to the May 16 meeting.
On Monday, Wright said no agenda had been prepared for the May 16 meeting, but it is expected the board will consider a proposed budget along with setting a tax rate for the coming year.
In March, Wright said shortfalls in Medicaid payments from a state contractor has left the health department in arrears and that a tax increase from 30 cents to 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value was needed to fill the shortfall. That would give the department a 33 percent revenue increase, well beyond the 4 percent allowed by statute without being subjected to a public recall.

What’s next?
Health board Chairman Steve Carmichael and Director Tim Wright will co-host an event Thursday, May 2 titled Conversations with the Chairman, designed to allow residents to ask questions about the department and offer suggestions.
The event is scheduled from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. at the health department, located on Glensboro Road near Walmart.

The Anderson County Board of Health is scheduled to conduct a special-called meeting 6 p.m. May 16 at the health department, located on Glensboro Road next to Walmart.
Director Tim Wright said Monday that no agenda for the meeting has been released, but that he will present a proposed budget to the board.
The board is also expected to consider a tax rate for the coming year.
The meeting is open to the public.