- Associated Press - Friday, January 23, 2015

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A judge in northeastern Tennessee has denied an effort to throw out a lawsuit arguing the public has right to hear deliberations under the state’s open meetings laws.

The ruling by Chancellor Douglas T. Jenkins on Thursday stems from complaints by members of a group called Save the Nolichucky that they could not hear the deliberations when the Greene County Industrial Development Board in July approved a 12-mile pipeline connecting the river with a US Nitrogen plant.

One man was arrested and charged with disrupting the meeting for voicing complaints that members of the panel were speaking too quietly for the public to hear by declining to use available microphones. The charges were later dropped.

The board and US Nitrogen argued that open meetings requirements were met by allowing the public to attend, but that the law doesn’t require the proceedings to be heard by all present.

While Jenkins denied their bid to toss the lawsuit seeking to vacate the approval of the pipeline because of open meeting violations, media report the chancellor also refused the group’s motion to halt construction while the case heads for trial.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance of media, citizen and professional groups, including The Associated Press, had intervened in the case.

“We were concerned the IDB and US Nitrogen were trying to get a ruling that would wreak havoc on the law,” Deb Fisher, the transparency group’s executive director, told the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Jerry Laughlin, an attorney for the defendants in the case, said the development board said it regrets that not everything could be heard by those attending the meeting.

“On the other hand, we believe the video recording and audio recording of that meeting that was made from near the back wall demonstrates that anything of substance that occurred should have been audible to anyone present,” he said.

Justin Freeark, US Nitrogen’s plant manager issued a statement saying that the company “remains committed to the pipeline project, and our contractors will continue construction.”

He said that once the project is complete, the company will turn over ownership to the town of Greeneville and the county’s industrial development board, while US Nitrogen will serve as a contractor to the board by operating and maintaining the pipeline.

The ammonium nitrate plant is scheduled to be fully operational by this spring.

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