By Kendal Groner

During the Monday, March 19, meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the board passed a resolution in support of open records legislation protecting the privacy of food-based business incubator entities such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

The resolution endorsed legislation in the Tennessee State Legislature that when originally filed would have “made confidential the records of a food-based business incubation service provider created by a municipality.”

However, after the executive director for the Tennessee Open Records Coalition spoke with Senator Rusty Crowe, the bill has been amended with a subdivision to specifically protect the proprietary, trade, and marketing information of those who utilize the kitchen.

“This whole issue came about because the director of the kitchen had grave concerns about folks coming in, maybe they have a novel idea or special recipe, or something unusual they want to develop,” said Town of Unicoi Attorney Lois Shults-Davis. “Based on her experience in working with the Small Business Administration and the federal government’s regulations, was that every single thing about the client’s experience was confidential.”

Shults-Davis continued by saying that Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, had concerns about offering someone these services and then their private information potentially becoming public.

It was also mentioned by Shults-Davis that there is a number of exceptions in Open Records Law that deal with similar activity and stated that the Town of Unicoi was supporting those efforts to protect that information.

“Their proprietary information is already protected,” Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said about the Tennessee Open Records Law.

Alderman Roger Cooper said he has been following the senate bill since he became aware of it, and stated that he agreed the client’s proprietary information should be protected, but his concern stemmed from the original wording of the bill.

“The original bill actually protected everything,” Cooper said. “Luckily the amended bill talks about proprietary information … it doesn’t say anything about the financial records of the kitchen.”

Cooper said he ran the resolution by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, and it was suggested to him that the resolution by the town should be clarified so it should not be misunderstood to close the records of the kitchen, which is a government entity.

“Records of the kitchen include financial records, including the names of the clients and the amount they paid to use the kitchen,” Cooper continued. “They are saying we need to add this to our resolution to remove any doubt.”

Cooper made a motion to amend the resolution to state that it does not close the records of the kitchen.

Shults-Davis felt the added amendment would not add clarity to the resolution, and expressed concerns that private information of the clients could become records of the Town of Unicoi.

“What about when it becomes part of the town’s records, that’s the issue,” Shults-Davis said.

Cooper’s motion to amend the resolution failed with himself and Bullen voting in favor. Vice-Mayor Doug Hopson, Aldermen Jeff Linville, and Mayor Johnny Lynch voted in opposition.

The original resolution supporting the bill in the Tennessee State Legislature passed with Lynch, Linville, and Hopson voting in favor. Bullen voted in opposition, and Cooper abstained.

“Let’s just wait and see what the state legislature decides,” Bullen said.

The bill was last awaiting further action on March 20 in the State Senate and Local Government Committee.

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Following the discussion of the open records legislation, Cooper initiated a discussion on Tennessee Open Records Law and read an article from the Knoxville News Sentinel that stressed the importance of open records, and the need to reexamine exemptions to the law that keep information private from the public and elected officials.

Cooper mentioned that last week was Sunshine Week, an annual celebration that celebrated access to public information and highlighted the dangers of unnecessary secrecy.

“Public and elected officials have a legal right to know how an entity is being managed and how money is being spent,” he said. “Prohibiting access to public records hurts everyone. We need to see what we can do to work through this and not have this come up again.”

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Security at Unicoi County Elementary School was also a topic raised by Cooper during the meeting. With 353 children and 49 adults at the school, Cooper would like to see increased security measures.

“As we have all seen, security at our schools is mandatory … we need to see what we can do to help the security at Unicoi Elementary.”

Cooper said that as elected officials, he felt their number one priority should be protecting the welfare of the citizens. He suggested that the board discuss in their upcoming retreat the possibility of putting a School Resource Officer in the school as well as a deputy on the road. Based on the estimates he had, he believed it would cost approximately $80,000 for one officer.

“We need to look at this as a challenge, because as a town we need to support our citizens … they are in our care,” said Cooper. “This is a small amount for us to invest to protect them.”

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In other business, the board passed a resolution to amend the Town of Unicoi personnel policy to remove the two month probationary period before new employees can become eligible for health insurance.

New employees will now be eligible to participate beginning the first day of the month following their hire month.

The board also passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to make an application and sign necessary documentation for a Local Parks and Recreation Fund Grant in the amount of $248,000 for the construction of an amphitheater.

In order to qualify, the Town of Unicoi must be willing to provide a 50 percent match of $248,000 for a total project cost of $496,000.

The board also passed a resolution adopting the Town of Unicoi’s updated 2017 official strategic plan.