Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III has been asked to render a legal opinion on the Murfreesboro Electric Department referendum question, a legislator’s office says.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin has been asked to request the legal opinion from Slatery, said Hannah Crouse, legislative assistant for Sen. Shane Reeves. The Murfreesboro Post reached out to Reeves’ office because he had been mentioned as a possible choice to seek the attorney general’s opinion. Crouse said she did not know which entity had made the request to Johnson.
Some critics of the proposed sale of MED to Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. (MTEMC) have called for a public referendum to decide the matter.
Attorney general’s role
Tennessee Code Annotated 7-52-132 titled “Disposition of plant Election resolution Notice Ballot Election” lays out requirements for selling a municipal utility, including a citizen referendum. The city has maintained that this law calls for a referendum when a city bought a utility using a certain type of bond, which they say Murfreesboro did not use.
The attorney general, according to his website, provides written legal opinions to "the governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, comptroller of the treasury, members of the general assembly and other state officials...in the discharge of their official duties” per Tenn. Code Ann. 8-6-109 (b)(6). He cannot issue opinions to county or local government officials or to private citizens.
Johnson’s and Slatery’s offices could not immediately be reached for comment.
TVA asks for opinion
The Tennessee Valley Authority must approve the sale of an electric provider such as Murfreesboro Electric Department. As the Post exclusively reported on Dec. 31, using documents obtained through records requests, TVA told Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland that it wanted an opinion from the attorney general on whether a referendum should be held prior to a sale.
Jennifer Brogdon, director of Regulatory Assurance for TVA, sent a letter on Oct. 31 to McFarland. She said all legal requirements and approvals by various government agencies must be met before “TVA’s assignment of the wholesale power contract. TVA has received various enquiries and legal opinions from outside parties arguing a public referendum is required prior to the sale of MED. Given the receipt of these legal opinions, TVA requests the City of Murfreesboro obtain a legal opinion from the State of Tennessee Attorney General on whether the sale of MED would require a public referendum based on its interpretation of state law and provide the opinion to TVA.”
The obtained documents also showed that Chris Jones, president and CEO of MTEMC, emailed City Manager Craig Tindall on Oct. 31 saying if the city wanted to “engage the Attorney General, allow me to suggest we have Sen. Jack Johnson (from Williamson County and the Senate Majority Leader) and Sen. Shane Reeves of Rutherford County to petition the Attorney General for an unofficial or informal opinion. As we understand it, an informal opinion would be a non-public opinion, subject to attorney-client privilege. Further, as we understand TVA’s ‘request,’ this type of opinion would fulfill their request. Though we would fully expect to see a favorable opinion on the City’s behalf, should we not, then the opinion would not have to be exposed. We also believe an informal opinion would be faster.”
The Post reached out to City Councilmember Ronnie Martin, who has been asking detailed questions to learn more about the proposed sale. He said he has never been informed by city staff or McFarland that TVA asked for an AG legal opinion or that Johnson was approaching the AG for that opinion.
City feels no opinion needed
During an interview on Friday, the Post asked Tindall about the attorney general matter. He acknowledged TVA has asked for an opinion and the city is discussing that request with TVA. He said he does not believe the AG legal opinion is necessary, nor is it a legal ruling – a legal ruling only comes from a court, while the AG ruling is an opinion, he said.
“We have legal opinions, we feel we don’t need any others,” Tindall said.
The Post asked Tindall if TVA’s request had been brought to councilmembers. He said, “I’m sure somewhere in conversation it’s come up. The council has their opinion. The city attorney represents cities, the attorney general doesn’t. We’ve gone outside and got a legal opinion and that’s been issued. From my standpoint we have all the legal opinions we need. Not to say we wouldn’t placate the TVA.”
Tindall also said that America operates as a representative democracy. The council’s city charter allows it, and only it, to decide to sell MED: holding a referendum would be abrogating that authority. The city’s recent charter change allows the council to sell MED. If a referendum were held, one issue is that businesses, unlike individual residents, do not vote in city elections, and so would have no voice, Tindall said.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to correct a misspelling.