County Election Comission files lawsuit against city
Issue: Who controls use of Brentwood Library as polling place
Updated at 6 p.m. Monday
By SUSAN LEATHERS
Brentwood Home Page
A Williamson County judge will ultimately decide if the city-owned Brentwood Library must be made available for use as an early voting venue by the Williamson County Election Commission, which administrates all local, county, state and federal elections held in the county.
The Jan. 19 hearing is the result of a lawsuit filed late Friday afternoon against Mayor Paul Webb, City Manager Mike Walker and the Brentwood City Commission by the State of Tennessee for the Williamson County Election Commission. At issue is whether or not the election commission has the right to designate the library as a county-wide polling place without the city’s consent.
Representatives on both sides of the issue stand firm in their insistence that the ruling with ultimately go in their favor, according to interviews with the respective parties on Monday.
Robert (Bob) Brown of Brentwood is chairman of the county’s appointed election commission, which voted 3-0, with two members absent, to file the suit last month. Brown insists the library is the best place for the early voting to be held, and that the commission by state law has the right to hold them there.
Walker says the city has tried to work with the commission and has offered three legitimate alternatives to the library, which serves not only as a depository of books but as an active community center. The library’s meeting space is already booked for the dates included in the petition, Feb. 22-28, according to Walker.
If the city allows the library to be used for next month’s Presidential Preference Primary, the county then would have the right to use it for all future early voting periods, including ones in July and October that fall on the same dates as the scheduled Friends of the Brentwood Library’s quarterly book sales and Summer Reading Program.
'Heavy-handed abuse of power'
In an emailed statement issued Monday morning, Walker described the commission’s action as “without question, a heavy-handed abuse of power.”
Election Administrator Ann Beard, who signed the Petition for Writ of Mandamus – which asks for an official decision on the law – on Monday said she had not read the document filed in the Chancery Court for Williamson County on Friday. The suit was submitted on behalf of the commission by Buerger, Moseley & Carson, PLC, attorneys for Williamson County.
Among the documents filed to support the commission’s action was a letter from Beard to Brentwood Library Director Susan Earl dated Nov. 8, 2011. In it Beard wrote that the letter was Earl’s “official notice” that the Williamson County Election Commission would conduct early voting for the March 6 election at the library. She cited Tennessee Code and noted that rooms had already been reserved at the library on official election days, May 6 and August 2.
The library has long been used as an Election Day precinct for local and general elections and is used for early voting for municipal elections, most recently in April of last year.
Walker responded to Beard’s letter on Nov. 18. In his response, Walker denied the library’s use, stating the lack of available space due to previous commitments to community groups in Brentwood and the adverse impact that early voting will have with ongoing programs.
“There are reasonable alternative facilities available for early voting nearby,” Walker’s letter noted. He encouraged Beard to contact Williamson County officials about using the county-owned Indoor Sports Complex, located within a quarter mile of the library.
Beard said Monday that “the law says we can use facilities that are maintained and paid for with taxpayers money and we think that’s the case with the Brentwood Library.” She said Brown initiated the action and that the election commission made the decision to move forward with it.
At least one election has been held at the ISC on Heritage Road, but Beard said it was not an ideal situation. She said her office received more complaints about the polling place from voters and election workers than any other site used in the county. Among the complaints were handicap accessibility, safety concerns about wet floors and privacy issues, she said.
Asked about using the Indoor Soccer Complex in Crockett Park, also a county-owned facility, and suggested by the city as an alternative site, Beard said, “Yes, it would be compliant, but it’s not really convenient for voters going to and from work. That’s one of the things we look at.”
Walker said the implications for the city are many if it is forced to allow the library’s use for early voting.
Potential alternative sites
Though the lawsuit only spells out the most immediate election, Walker said, “It’s a reasonable assumption to assume all future elections from here on out would be held there. … There’s no doubt in our mind that if they win this one, they’ll want to use it for all future elections.”
Walker stressed the city acknowledges the importance and value of early voting, it just firmly believes an alternative to the library can be found.
In addition to suggesting the election commission consider the Indoor Sports Complex or Indoor Soccer Complex, the city has offered its Safety Center East on Sunset Road as an option. That facility could serve voters in both Brentwood and Nolensville, given its northeast Brentwood location.
Brown said the commission has looked at the alternative sites suggested by the city and “we found them to be unsafe.” He added that the Indoor Soccer Complex is “not located in a convenient spot” and the Safety Center East is “a very difficult location to get in and out.”
Brentwood Home Page attempted to reach Williamson County Parks Director Doug Hood to discuss the viability of the two county-owned recreation centers as potential voting sites but our call was not returned Monday.
In its statement in response to the lawsuit, the city maintains that “use of Library meeting rooms for three early voting periods in 2012 would require cancellation of long-scheduled events, resulting in unfairness and inconvenience both to library patrons and groups who have already scheduled events.”
Those events include two of the Friends of the Brentwood Library’s quarterly book sales, which traditionally each raise thousands of dollars used for library programming. As well, early voting would impact the library’s Summer Reading Program, which serves over 600 Williamson County School children.
“Sufficient and appropriate space does not exist to conduct early voting at locations in the Library other than the meeting rooms,” the city states.
For his part, Brown says he has made numerous overtures to the city staff, elected officials and library staff concerning the use of the library for general elections. He said the city only wanted to use the library for early-voting for its own municipal elections. “They do not want us to use the library for state, county and federal elections,” he said.
Walker noted that the city incurs the entire cost of the city’s Municipal Elections, held every two years, and the library knows well in advance the dates of early voting so it can block the space required.
Both parties confident they'll win
Though Brown told BHP a written request to use the library for the upcoming election was first delivered 18 months ago, Jeffrey Moseley, the attorney who filed the suit, said he only had Beard’s Nov. 8 letter in his file.
The city maintains the November correspondence was the first official request for the space it received. “That was the communication,” Walker said.
Brown reiterated Beard’s contention that by state law, “any taxpayer supported building can be used as a polling place. All the election commission has to do is request it.” And he contends that Brentwood “has offered no compromise position to having the library as a location.”
Walker contends that Brown and the commission have taken the same stance.
“The City never wanted to be in litigation and has attempted to work with the Election Commission to identify cost effective alternative locations that meet the needs of all parties and allow voters in northeast Williamson County a convenient location to exercise their right to vote early,” Walker stated.
Time is of essence for all concerned. As of Friday, only 46 days remain before early voting legally must begin and there are legal requirements for public notices that must be published by a certain date announcing where early voting will be held.
The lawsuit also will cost the city financially. Walker said he expects the lawsuit to cost the city between $20,000-$30,000 off the bat. And if the city loses, it will be responsible for paying all of the costs associated with the case.