Home Lakeland Schools City Given Deadline to Respond to Lawsuit

City Given Deadline to Respond to Lawsuit

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Lawyers in court this morning, from left, Van Turner, A C Wharton, Chris Patterson, Robert Spence, Will Patterson and Jeffrey Smith.

The City of Lakeland has 30 days to answer the complaint in the school-funding lawsuit filed by a Lakeland couple in December.

Attorneys for Lakeland (defendant) and Cary and Lillie Melton (plaintiffs) were in Shelby County Chancery Court this morning (2.2.18) before Chancellor Walter L. Evans.

Bench awaiting Judge Walter L. Evans this morning.

Robert L. J. Spence, Jr., attorney for the plaintiffs, was seeking to compel Lakeland to provide discovery relating to a compliant of violations of the Open Meetings Act (OMA).

Speaking for Lakeland, A C Wharton, attorney and former Memphis mayor, said the alleged open meetings violation, if there was one, was remedied by a subsequent meeting on Dec. 5 where there was public notice, open discussion by citizens and commissioners, and a vote by commissioners.

He said the discovery request by Mr. Spence is quite extensive and there is no need to proceed on it because it no longer is an issue.  “The law is very clear,” Mr. Wharton said.  “That (subsequent meeting) cures it.  Then, there is no need for discovery.”

Mr. Spence said his clients allege that city officials came to the December meeting knowing their vote about school funding because they discussed the issue in private, breaking the OMA.

Mr. Spence said the City of Lakeland is overdue in responding to the lawsuit.  He said a response was due within 30 days of the suit being filed (12.8.17).  He suggested the Court compel the City to respond.  He said he has the burden to prove whether there was violation of the OMA.  “And to prove, I need the discovery,” he said.

Mr. Wharton said he and other lawyers for Lakeland have been working on their interlocutory appeal to have the lawsuit dismissed.  That appeal was denied Monday (1.29.18) and he asked the judge to give him 30 days to respond on the lawsuit.

Rather than acting on the motions to compel discovery or protect against discovery, Judge Evans agreed with lawyers on both sides and said the next step should be for Lakeland to respond to the lawsuit and he allowed 30 days for that to occur.

From Chris Patterson, city attorney, after the ruling

“We are pleased with the Court’s ruling today, which we believe validates the City’s legal position and moves the case closer to a favorable conclusion.  City officials acted properly and well within their legal authority under Tennessee law, and we are confident that this lawsuit will end with the construction of a high school in Lakeland.”

From Mr. Spence after the ruling

“The Chancery Court’s ruling today was in line with the law.  The City of Lakeland and the IDB desperately want to hide from the public their surreptitious violations of the Open Meetings Act, which is intended to promote openness in government.  The information and documents we seek will prove that they violated the Open Meetings Act in passing the Resolutions approving the issuance of the $60,000,000.00 bonds at issue.  The Court’s ruling requiring the City of Lakeland and the IDB to answer the Complaint and to either admit the violations or deny the violations puts the ball squarely in their court.  If they admit the violations and that they acted unlawfully in passing the Bond Resolution, my clients will be vindicated.  However, if they deny the violations, then we will be entitled to the discovery we need to prove the violation.  Either way the purpose of the Open Meetings Act will be promoted and the citizens of Lakeland will win.”

Background on the case

Two Lakeland residents filed suit Dec. 8, 2017 seeking to block the sale of bonds to finance a high school wing at Lakeland Middle Preparatory School.  The lawsuit against the City and the IDB (Industrial Development Board) also asks the Shelby County Chancery Court to require a referendum before the issuance of any bonds for Lakeland schools.

The suit was filed by Cary and Lillie Melton on the following basis:  declaratory judgment and injunctive relief prohibiting the defendants from issuing bonds they say violate state law; requirement of a referendum to vote on spending money for a high school; and violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.

The Meltons were joined in the lawsuit by James D. Abbott, William T. Mallard, Brian Tipler, Deborah Tipler, Christopher J. Smith, Melissa K. Smith, Heather Long and James L. Murray Jr. and are represented by Mr. Spence and Bryan Meredith.

In addition to Mayor Wharton, other lawyers representing Lakeland include Van Turner, Shelby County Commissioner, along with Mr.  Patterson and lawyers from his firm, Wiseman Bray PLLC, and Al Bright and Jeff Smith with Waller Lansden, Dortch & Davis LLP who represent the IDB.  Also assisting are Karen Neal, bond counsel, and Eric Plumley, Lakeland School Board attorney.

Links to other Lakeland Currents stories related to the lawsuit and the Dec. 5 meeting:

http://lakelandcurrents.com/lakeland-school-funding-lawsuit-appeal-denied-chancery-court-friday-2-2-18/

http://lakelandcurrents.com/boc-second-of-three-boards-to-approve-school-financing/

…Photos by Jim Willis, Lakeland Currents