Bad news for the Tennessee Municipal League
City's financial desperation leads to more legal woes

Judge stops Cookeville's illegal utility cut offs

City Attorney O'Mara can't stop federal court from observing constitutional guarantees, but shouldn't the city attorney be correcting these problems before they lead to lawsuits?
All City Manager Jim Shipley had to do was give folks a few more days and notify them of their right to appeal before he cut off their electricity. But despite one civil rights suit and publication of the possibility of more, Shipley's government insisted on continuing the illegal activity until it brought on a class action lawsuit.  -- Complaint

NASHVILLE (April 5, 2001) -- District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. ordered Cookeville to stop cutting off utilities after Cookeville attorneys Samuel J. Harris, John W. Allen and Jerry Burgess asked the federal court for a Temporary Restraining Order.

More than 550 customers of Cookeville's Electric Department were threatened with discontinued service between Jan. 1 and March 22 this year -- meaning a loss of heat and in some cases, loss of home. City Manager Jim Shipley told The Putnam Pit that those short of cash can come to the municipal Building, 45 E. Broad St., and negotiate a pay-off schedule for delinquent bills. (Story)

But the United States Supreme Court has found that when a utility fails "to provide notice reasonably calculated to apprise respondents of the availability of an administrative procedure to consider their complaint of erroneous billing, [and fails] to afford them an opportunity to present their complaint to a designated employee empowered to review disputed bills and rectify error," the utility deprives the customers of an interest in property without due process of law.

City Attorney Mike O'Mara, who was paid more than $50,000 last year for his part-time services, apparently never told Shipley the city's utility process was on a collision course with the constitution. Cookeville already has a full schedule of civil rights cases pending trial this year. Let's see if he charges the city for his drive to Nashville to defend the case.- More