During the first day of testimony in a lawsuit filed against the Rutherford County Planning Commission, opponents of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro said they believe the government should do more to inform residents about public meetings.
“I should not have to chase down information from the government, especially when (the issue) involves an ideology that I do not agree with,” Murfreesboro resident Kevin Fisher said, while testifying in Rutherford County Chancery Court.
“The county has a history of doing just the bare minimum, which hurts residents,” Fisher said. “We have a right to be involved with decisions. We have a right to be present.”
Fisher is one of the plaintiffs suing the Planning Commission on the grounds it did not provide adequate public notice to residents prior to approving construction of the Islamic Center on May 24, 2010, during a regularly scheduled meeting.
The plaintiffs contend public notice about the Planning Commission meeting that was published May 2, 2010, in the print edition of The Murfreesboro Post was not adequate because, at that time, it was not a newspaper of general circulation.
“This is about whether The Murfreesboro Post was a newspaper of general circulation in May 2010,” said attorney Joe Brandon Jr., who is representing opponents of the Islamic Center, during a pre-trial hearing last week. “Today, it is a paper of general circulation.”
Attorney David LaRoche, who represents The Murfreesboro Post, was also in attendance and participated in the first day of trial, which is scheduled to reconvene Thursday, April 26, at 8:15 a.m. in the Judicial Building on the Square.
In November 2011, Corlew ruled the newspaper could intervene in the case to defend itself against allegations it was not a proper medium for public notices, as Brandon has argued.
“Some of these arguments have been made in an attempt to sway the court of public opinion, where the plaintiffs would probably prefer this trial to be held,” LaRoche said, as he spoke to Chancellor Robert Corlew III during opening arguments.
“The plaintiffs’ self-serving arguments are, at best, without legal basis,” he said. “At worst, they are blatant untruths that threaten not only the economic viability of The Murfreesboro Post’s business model, but also that of dozens of other public information and news sources throughout this state."
LaRoche said the locally owned newspaper has been forced to intervene in this lawsuit to “disallow the plaintiffs to make further slanderous statements without legal and factual opposition."
County attorneys agreed, saying The Murfreesboro Post was, and remains, an acceptable place for public notices because it meets the legal standard of a newspaper of general circulation.
“There is conclusive proof there was adequate public notice,” county attorney Josh McCreary said. “The Murfreesboro Post has the largest circulation in the county on Sundays.”
According to Tennessee law, a newspaper of general circulation is a publication that is distributed in the area where the notice is required, 50 percent or more of its content is articles of general interest and not advertisements, and it is at least published weekly.
“If the plaintiffs believe the law should be changed, then they are in the wrong place," McCreary said. "They need to be lobbying in Nashville or Washington, D.C., to change the law – not here in this courtroom.”
However, much of the plaintiffs’ testimony during the four-hour proceedings repeatedly pivoted from the debate over newspaper legalities to essentially placing almost all responsibility of having an informed citizenry on the government.
“The job of the county is to represent my interests,” Fisher said, adding it is the government's job to make sure information about a matter of “pervasive public importance” is made available through multiple media outlets, as well as other means best-suited for residents.
He did not, however, specify as to how he thinks the county should finance any additional costs that would be associated with those efforts.
The plaintiffs also argued an agenda should have been included in the public notice, so that residents would have known members of the Islamic Center wanted to build a 52,000-square-foot mosque on Veals Road, located off of Bradyville Pike.
Rutherford County resident Ronald W. Todd, who lives on Millwood Drive near the new Islamic Center site, said the government erred by not mailing announcements about the matter in advance to people who live in the area.
“I just honestly feel that if I can get tax notices in the mail, then someone should have told me about the mosque proposal,” Todd said, adding he was unaware of the Islamic Center site plans until he heard about people forming a group in opposition.
“I heard from Sally Wall,” he said, “and then I joined the lawsuit.”
Wall, who is an influential Murfreesboro resident, is also one of the plaintiffs in the case, and she has helped Fisher lead the charge against the county.
When McCreary asked if he had ever filed a lawsuit over approval for construction of Grace Baptist Church, which is located next to the Islamic Center site, Todd said, “No sir, I did not.”
Brian Gregory, who also lives on Millwood Drive, said the county treated residents unfairly because “issues in this case are extremely important to the public.”
He said the government should have used whatever means necessary to inform the community, noting fliers should have been posted at nearby stores.
“I did not know I was supposed to be looking for (public) notices about something so detrimental to my neighborhood,” Gregory said.
When pressed to identify what type of news sources he reads on a regular basis, Gregory said he had canceled his subscription to The Daily News Journal before May 2010 and admitted he “did not seek out notices until the mosque controversy.”
Instead, Gregory said he relied on friends and “word of mouth” to stay up to date on local news.
“I thought the county should notify me,” he said. “Should I be expected to go down to the Square every day and pick up newspapers?”