Leah Dennen

Leah Dennen

A Sumner County political organization is allowed to meet at a county-owned facility despite being told otherwise by Sumner County Mayor Anthony Holt, the county’s law director acknowledged last week.

Kurt Riley, chairman of the Sumner County Republican Assembly, says he was surprised to receive a call from Shackle Island Volunteer Fire Department Chief Marty Bowers earlier this month informing him that the group will no longer be able to hold its meetings in the fire station’s community room.

When he pressed Bowers for the reason for the change, Riley says that Bowers told him he received a call from Holt.

“He said he didn’t like you guys and you guys were radicals,” Riley said the volunteer fire chief told him.

“I asked if he wasn’t allowing other groups to meet there and [Bowers] said Holt told him that anybody can use it but our group. I asked [Bowers] can he do that? And he said as far as I know, yes.”

Riley then called attorney Kirk Clements who sent a letter to County Law Director Leah May Dennen on Sept. 11.

“I am writing to respectfully request that Holt rescind his unlawful fiat and allow the SCRA to continue to lease the aforementioned space without further interruption or harassment,” wrote Clements. Clements added that the group was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting on Sept. 19, “and the failure of the county to cooperate as requested herein will result in federal civil action.”

Clements went on to write that a governmental entity can’t withhold a public meeting space based on an individual or organization’s political views without a compelling governmental interest.

Bowers said he rents the fire hall’s community room to a variety of groups and individuals for parties and meetings.

“We rent to anybody who wants to use that hall,” he said, adding that some groups are allowed to meet for free while others make a donation to the fire hall.

The Sumner County Republican Assembly, a conservative group affiliated with the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, has met at the fire hall once-a-month for the last two years and makes a $50 donation to the volunteer fire department for their two-hour meetings, according to Riley. The group recently endorsed candidates in the Nov. 3 Hendersonville and Gallatin municipal elections.   

When asked what he was told by Holt regarding the group meeting at the fire hall, Bowers said the issue has been resolved.

“I was just the messenger,” he said. “I’d rather not comment.”

Dennen responded to Clements’ letter on Sept. 16.

“I was not aware that the building was being leased out by the volunteer fire department for use by the public,” she said. “It took me a few days to review our insurance policy on the property you referenced. It is okay for the group to meet there.”

When contacted by a reporter, Dennen said she didn’t know what reason Holt gave for saying the group couldn’t meet at the facility.

While the county owns the building, it has given the volunteer fire department the ability to run it, Dennen noted.

“If the fire department leases the facility out to various groups, I said OK, when you do it for one, you’ve got to do it for anyone that wants to use it,” she added.

Holt, a Republican who was elected to his fourth term as county mayor in 2018, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

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