Friday, May 31, 2013

The Islamic Mosque: Adequate Notice Given

The Tennessee Court of Appeals released an interesting opinion on Wednesday relating to the well-known Islamic Mosque controversy in Murfreesboro. As you may recall, the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved a site plan for the development of the mosque. A group of neighbors sued the planning commission alleging various constitutional law violations as well as a violation of the Tennessee Open Public Meetings Act, Tenn. Code Ann. §8-44-101 et seq.  Fisher v Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission, Tennessee Court of Appeals, May 29, 2013; copy posted here.

The trial court dismissed all claims but the Open Public Meetings Act challenge and refused to issue a temporary injunction. But after the final hearing, concluded that there was in fact a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, and enjoining the county from issuing any further permits with respect to the development of the property.

As the Court of Appeals explained, shortly after the trial court's final decision, suit was filed in federal court under the terms of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and a federal court in Nashville issued a mandatory injunction requiring the County to allow completion of the mosque.

The appeal in this case was brought by the county itself, concerned that the trial court’s determination that it had violated the Open Public Meetings Act might have a lasting effect on how it conducted business. The trial court had concluded that at least under the circumstances of this particular case, the use of the Murfreesboro Post to give notice was inappropriate, and that the terms of the notice in the Post under the circumstances was also deficient.

The Court of Appeals reversed. The court first examined the issue of mootness, concerned that because the federal court had already ruled that construction could be completed under the terms of the federal act, that the case no longer could serve as a means of providing relief. The court however concluded that because of the public interest in this matter, that the exception to the mootness doctrine applied.

As anyone who has ever dealt with the Tennessee Open Public Meetings Act, Tenn. Code Ann. §8-44-101 knows, the statute is not particularly helpful in so far as understanding what notice must be given. In fact, §103 only indicates that “adequate public notice” must be given. There’s not a whole lot of direction there.

But as the Court of Appeals points out, the adequate public notice is of the meeting, not of the items on the agenda of the meeting. The trial court seemed to conclude that because of the great public interest in the Islamic Mosque, that there was some higher degree of notice which must’ve been provided by the county. Of course, it’s difficult for the county to know before hand which cases may engender the most public interest. There must be some basic notice which is adequate under the terms of the statute, and which does not change based on the nature of the application.

In any event, the Court of Appeals concluded that the fact that the notice did not specify that the Islamic Mosque would be considered on the agenda within the terms of the notice, was not a defect.

In addition, the court also concluded that the circulation of the Murfreesboro Post was too small and limited to suffice in terms of adequate public notice. However, in a similar case involving the Nashville Record, the Court had looked at four factors in order to conclude that it was a newspaper sufficient for the purposes of notice. Those included (1) whether it is published at regular intervals; (2) whether it is intended for circulation among the general public; (3) whether it contains matters of general interest; and (4) is it in the form of a newspaper? The court concluded that the Murfreesboro Post met these requirements and summarized:
In reaching the conclusion that publication in the MURFREESBORO POST was insufficient, the trial court cited evidence “that few opportunities existed for those who lived near the proposed site to receive a copy of the MURFREESBORO POST because there was no home delivery in the area, and the nearest free distribution rack was some three miles away.” The evidence also showed, however, that the newspaper was published weekly, was intended for circulation to the general public, and contained matters of general interest. Over 21,000 copies were distributed throughout the county on Sundays in May 2010. This was the customary location for the county planning commission’s notices, and any interested person could obtain a copy at a distribution rack or on the newspaper’s website. We conclude that the county’s publication of the notice in the MURFREESBORO POST was sufficient under the [Open Public Meetings Act]. 
The failure to publish the agenda, and the use of the Murfreesboro Post, both were sufficient under the terms of the Open Public Meetings Act. The court reversed the trial court to the extent that it had held that the notice given contravened the act, but upheld the other holdings of the trial court.

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