A special called meeting of the Red Bank Commission on Friday was contentious from the start. Mayor Hollie Berry and Vice Mayor Stefanie Dalton contend that a vote for a contract to retain Tim Thornbury on an on-call basis at the April 26 meeting was not legal because the city had no representation present. City Attorney Arnold Stulce has recused himself from matters concerning that meeting and Mr. Thornbury, but he had asked Attorney Harry Cash to appear at the meeting on behalf of the city.
The mayor said that her conversation with Elisha Hodge at MTAS made her think that the council needed to vote before hiring an attorney to represent Red Bank. “I have to say this, said Attorney Stulce, "it bothers me saying that was illegal.” He said he had personally sat in on decisions made by the Chattanooga City Council based solely on a phone call to represent the council. He said on those occasions, no mayor made an appointment and it was never questioned.
The longtime city attorney said, "The first time I heard 'illegal vote,' the implication feels that I did something wrong when asking Mr. Cash to appear with five days notice."
Commissioners Ruth Jeno, Pete Phillips and Ed Lecompte indicated they all felt railroaded into a vote to choose an attorney with only one choice. “It seems like the resolution is written for one outcome and I’m not thrilled with that,” said Commissioner Phillips. The resolution being voted on was for the retention of special counsel Attorney John Harrison of Evans, Harrison Hackett.
“How was this firm decided on, and was it a collaboration of all commissioners?” How did it come about?" asked Commissioner Lecompte. The response from the mayor was that after speaking to MTAS she asked attorney Phil Noblett for a recommendation. Mr. Noblett is the city attorney for Chattanooga, though his replacement has been announced.
Commissioner Jeno said, "Our own city attorney made two recommendations - Mark Litchford and Harry Cash, and Mr. Cash did sit in on the Zoom meeting. "That was inadmissible," said the mayor because Mr. Stulce had recused himself.
Commissioner Jeno retorted, "I trust his knowledge and dedication to the city and feel it is offensive not to consider his recommendations."
City Attorney Stulce said, "Apparently someone else has said my suggestion is somehow a conflict. I was unaware of this until the mayor just said Phil Noblett told her it would be a conflict.”
"Elisha Hodge also said it," said Mayor Berry.
Commissioner Jeno said that she had spoken to Ms. Hodge just two hours prior to the meeting and her suggestion was to hire legal counsel specializing in municipal law. The council had concerns because attorney Harrison specializes in employment, not municipal law.
“I don’t know why Harry Cash was not good enough,” said Commissioner Phillips. "It seems to me that this whole process is asinine. We had a special meeting to decide on the agreement with Mr. Thornbury and voted. This is just being dragged on as if it’s good for the city. I want to work with you and move the city forward, but we’re not lawyers, let’s do our job.”
Commissioner Jeno said that she had assumed that at least three of the other commissioners had agreed to the attorney (Harrison) who had been selected, however she found no one except the mayor and vice mayor knew about it. “We’re a team and are supposed to work together,” she said, adding that the mayor only had to ask the city recorder to send a group email to the commissioners. “This is just another stunt from you girls - or women. You go around us. Your opinion doesn’t matter any more than the rest of ours.”
Attorney Harrison told the board he has no stake in the controversy and that everyone being considered is a fine lawyer. He said this case has the potential for expertise in both fields. He said the first action would be to determine if the decision made at the April 26 meeting is legally binding, and if the conclusion is that it is not binding, then it would get into employment law. He said Mr. Litchford is experienced in both, but he said he is too, although his specialty is employment law.
“It’s not you,” said Commissioner Jeno. "I have a problem with the whole process. You have a wonderful reputation. It is common knowledge that this board is divided."
A vote on the resolution to hire attorney Harrison failed with only the mayor and vice mayor in favor.
It was decided to have another special called meeting to give the commissioners a choice of which lawyer to hire - Harrison or Litchford. A motion passed to set the special meeting for Monday at 11 a.m. The agenda will be to retain either Attorney Harrison or Litchford for legal counsel for deliberation and a vote. Since there is not adequate time to advertise the meeting, the mayor said it could be put on the city’s website and that she would put a notice at the Red Bank Food City and Post Office. “This is ridiculous,” said Commissioner Jeno.
The special meeting to consider the actual contract that had been scheduled for Tuesday may need to be moved so that whichever lawyer is hired has enough time to review the documents and familiarize himself with the case. The date for that public meeting will be decided Monday after the vote on the attorney.