Don’t Trust County Attorney Taylor’s Gag Order

Friday, January 18, 2019

At this point, most of us are aware of the WWTA debacle on site selection and the half-baked planning for a new treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road.


There were also untruths given to the public about the basis or need for a new treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road by WWTA.  That, my friends, is offensive.  


Pam Sohn of the Times Free Press outed the WWTA’s false contention that our regional treatment facility owned and operated by Chattanooga did not have adequate capacity.


When Ms.

Sohn writes about environmental, I pay attention and read the article twice.   For decades Pam Sohn was the go-to for environmental regulators, activists, and anyone with interest in a forefront environmental issue.   As a former TDEC NPDES program engineer in the old days, Ms. Sohn was our go to when the politicians attempted to force the issuance of an NPDES discharge permit contrary to state law and promulgated rules.


You see signs called, “The Insider,” well that is Pam Sohn on environmental issues. Ms. Sohn is well versed on environmental to a technical level. Her politics I would recommend ignoring, respectfully to Ms. Sohn.


Ms. Sohn is the most knowledgeable environmental writer in Chattanooga. She wrote an article worth a second read titled, “Would WWTA, County Play Us for Chumps?”


“On the WWTA's web page of FAQs about the proposed plant is a question asking why WWTA can't just pump the wastewater to the Moccasin Bend facility. Answer: "The Moccasin Bend plant is presently operating at maximum capacity and the WWTA has already reached our current capacity that was recently negotiated with the city of Chattanooga. If a new agreement was in place with the city of Chattanooga, and they had available capacity, the WWTA would have to pump the wastewater approximately 40 miles due to terrain and availability of easements. Pumping such distances increases the risk of failures [spills] and is very costly.


"Most of that is bunk. Moccasin Bend is not - repeat, not - operating at capacity, according to city officials and County Mayor Jim Coppinger. The city's plant has a treatment capacity of 140 million gallons per day. It now treats, on average, 65 million gallons a day - leaving plenty of room for the 10 million to 20 million gallons a day the proposed Mahan Gap facility would have handled. During wet-weather events, the city can pump an additional 90 million gallons a day through its wet weather storage system, creating a total wet weather capacity of 230 million gallons a day."


Let’s not sugar coat this, WWTA lied to the public. When a government entity lies, you wonder what else they are fabricating.


I am concerned, because now I read that Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor has issued a gag order preventing our elected representation, let me repeat, elected representation from discussing the proposed Mahan Gap site, the treatment plant, or WWTA.  


The gag order is strategic, and County Attorney Taylor is likely leveraging a pending Agreed Order from TDEC, and using this as an excuse to shut down citizens from discussing their WWTA concerns with elected representation in a public venue.


First and foremost, every wastewater treatment system in our region has a TDEC Agreed Order of some kind. While WWTA plays a TDEC card as a state of emergency, it is simply a common order issued by TDEC to complete specific tasks within a framework of deadlines.  I have worked these orders in my career, and it is simply a matter of formulating a plan.


Problem is, WWTA’s plan is inappropriate.  WWTA proposed to build a plant in a residential area, and pump treated wastewater seven miles or so to the river, and with WWTA’s history with pump operations and maintenance. Well, others have published photos and articles, and it ain’t good.


Now, here comes Hamilton County Attorney Taylor this Wednesday to say, shhh, we can’t talk about WWTA and issues a gag order.  Given the history of WWTA, that is more the reason for the public to engage their elected representation on concerns.  


Foul, County Attorney Taylor.


It is our government, not your legal call because there is no lawsuit pending, and not a scrap of paper has been filed to seek damages from Hamilton County government in any regard, other than a regulatory agreement, and that is not a lawsuit.  I am very troubled by the idea that our elected representation cannot discuss WWTA in a public venue or with constituents.


Completely unacceptable.


Of course, I am not surprised at this action.  Acquiring WWTA records is a fight.  Each time I have attempted to collect open records from WWTA, it has required 1) legal intervention, or 2) filing a complaint to the state of Tennessee Open Records Office.  


When I did review open records with a WWTA attorney hovering over me at a desk, I found that WWTA had reissued the same contract for services for over 10 years without advertising for Requests for Proposals (RFP).  I was doing the research on behalf of a local effort called Hire HERE.  Of course, WWTA did not want review of their contract practices. I found that WWTA reissued the same contract annually with no advertisement for competition, or RFP.  Competition in cost and service is core to the best use of public funds.


WWTA has since abandoned their very questionable contracting practices, at least I hope so.


My point, WWTA has a pattern of behavior in conveying untruths as Ms. Sohn has again exposed. WWTA cannot be trusted to disclose to the public a full scope of their activities.


So, acquiring records is challenging from WWTA. That is well established.


Now, County Attorney Taylor is cutting off public access to elected officials to openly discuss WWTA concerns at public meetings. 


The county attorney needs to disclose his basis for a gag order, because it has an appearance of impropriety and is unwarranted. It is a very serious matter to encroach on public dialogue with our elected officials without a basis for such action.


County Attorney Rheubin Taylor would not provide PILOT records to me, and stated that all the records were attorney-client privilege. Attorney Taylor advised me that every document in his office is exempt from public records.  A lawsuit had not been filed, or had one been threatened in the matter I was researching. Yet, the PILOT records were in his office and were not subject to public review, and I was denied access.


On the contrary, the state of Tennessee Open Records Office stated otherwise. There must be a basis for withholding records, and in this case intervention in communication between elected representatives and the people they represent, or constituents.


Attorney Taylor has issued a gag order to our Hamilton County Commissioners to stop public discussion with elected representation for WWTA concerns in a public venue.


There is no pending litigation, lawsuit filed, so why is there a gag order?


I believe the gag order is to ensure that we the people are locked out of the conversation.

County Attorney Taylor stated the following at the Wednesday Commission meeting,


“I must respectfully ask the commission to forgo any discussion right now of the WWTA.”


We the people should not trust a gag order from County Attorney Taylor.


Hamilton County government, disclose your basis for a gag order. Shutting down public venue dialogue with our elected officials is a very serious matter.


April Eidson

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