A Ridgetop Police Department patrol car
© Nicole Young/Robertson County Times
A Ridgetop Police Department patrol car.
The city of Ridgetop, Tennessee, has disbanded its police force after a special-called meeting Monday night.

"It was all budget," said Ridgetop Mayor Tony Reasoner. "We can't afford it. Hopefully, and I'm going to float this idea with the board, but I think we need a 4-5 member board of citizens to come up with ideas on our future. Do we need a full-time or a part-time police department, or do we let the sheriff ... cover it?"

The Ridgetop police department had a budget of $429,000, said Reasoner, who also serves as the city's fire chief. He's been with the city since 1989.

The police budget included revenues of $258,000, mostly from ticket writing, but Reasoner said that figure had been steady since 2006, when it jumped up from $120,000.

"The department wrote six tickets in May, but the chief (Bryan Morris) kept saying he could keep a fully-staffed force for $289,000," Reasoner said. "We told him we had $129,000 in the budget because we couldn't count revenues from tickets.

"We never heard anything else."

Controversy over recorded conversation

The police department has been at the center of debate in Ridgetop for months.

Trouble began earlier this year after Morris released audio of a conversation that took place between himself and city leaders during a city meeting. The chief had asked for a new officer for his department.

"They told me: you will write 210 tickets or we will take the position away," Morris said.

Reasoner said it didn't happen that way.

He also said he and the council were unaware that they were being recorded at the time.

"I didn't agree with the secret taping," Reasoner said in an earlier interview with the USA TODAY Network - Tennessee. "But I remember in the workshop, he wanted to hire another officer, and he was told that the pay for the officer would equal the revenues from about 210 tickets. We never said he had to write those tickets."

Ridgetop's police department covered 1.4 square miles and just over 2,000 residents.

It was a 24-hour department, with patrols scheduled around the clock, Reasoner said.

On average, officers wrote about three tickets apiece during shifts, he noted.

Five police officers were employed by the city before the disbanding of the department Monday. Reasoner said they would all be paid with insurance through the end of June.

A question of public notice

Ahead of Monday's special-called meeting, Ridgetop city officials posted three public notices around town advertising the proceedings. The documents, posted June 6 at the Farmer's Bank, Ridgetop Post Office and City Hall, specified that city leaders would be "meeting on the budget and police department."

Adequate public notice for city meetings is not defined under law, but there have been court rulings in Tennessee that clarify its meaning.

"If there is a change to a regular meeting date or a special-called meeting is called, they have to go above and beyond for notice, according to the courts," according to Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Fisher has spoken extensively on this issue with the USA TODAY Network - Tennessee in the past.

"The notice has to be in a place where residents would expect to see it and make plans to attend ... And it has to include enough specificity for people to know what was being voted on," she has said.

In this case, Fisher said Tuesday that it would be up to a judge to decide if Ridgetop city leaders had provided enough notice to its residents.

"If someone wanted to allege that it was not adequate, they'd have to file a petition in court," she explained. "If (city leaders) put on their notice that they were going to discuss the police department and the budget, and it came out of the blue that they actually were going to dissolve the police department, I would question if it was adequate notice."

There's also a higher standard for special meetings under the law, Fisher said.

"If my town was considering dissolving the police department, I would want the notice to say they were considering dissolving the police department," she said. "I would think it's a distinction that matters in this case."