BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Commission declined Tuesday to suspend normal operating rules in order to address an off-agenda item related to allegations of sexual coercion and discrimination filed against the county concerning County Clerk David Thompson.
Commissioner John Waddle called for the commission to suspend the rules in order to hire Suzanne Cook, an attorney with the Knoxville-based Hunter, Smith and Davis law firm, as county attorney pro-tem.
"Pro-tem," the abbreviation for pro-tempore, signifies "for the time being," indicating a temporary position.
In July, Michelle Diane Burke filed a formal complaint against the county with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging in her complaint that Thompson sexually coerced her, discriminated against her and retaliated against her on the basis of her gender.
Burke's lawyer, Sandra Stanbery-Foster, has also collected statements from five other women who allege that Thompson abused his role in office or otherwise behaved inappropriately towards them.
Thompson has declined to comment on any of the allegations at the advice of his personal attorney.
County Attorney Roger Woolsey has declined to make public the county's response to the EEOC complaint.
Federal law prohibits the EEOC from commenting on, or even acknowledging, an ongoing investigation.
Woolsey has told The Greeneville Sun that he believes Greene County provides a safe working environment for its employees, free of sexual harassment or discrimination.
In addition, he said he believes that the county will be shown to have maintained a working environment of that quality in the past.
Since that time, Woolsey has declined further involvement in the case, citing a conflict of interest since he represents the entire county, including the County Clerk's office.
According to a copy of his resolution that Waddle provided commissioners prior to the meeting, the Greene County Insurance Committee, of which Waddle is a member, hired Cook to conduct an independent investigation concerning the alleged misconduct and its related liability issues.
The basic decision by the Insurance Committee to hire Cook would have taken place within the committee's closed session, during which members may legally discuss liability issues and lawsuit matters with the county attorney.
The committee would have then voted in open session to hire Cook by simply voting to approve an assigned case number.
Cook, who identified herself to the commission from the audience Tuesday, has been present during portions of the open session of the Insurance Committee for the last few months, but has never spoken during open session.
According to Waddle's proposed resolution, during the Insurance Committee's most recent meeting on Jan. 15, Cook "outlined her initial findings to the committee [and] the appointment of a county attorney pro-tem is appropriate and necessary to further investigate and take such action as she deems necessary."
"The county legislative body has the power to engage an attorney to investigate alleged misconduct by an elected official and take such action as is necessary to protect citizens and employees of the county and to safeguard the interest of the county," the proposed resolution says.
It concludes by stating that hiring Cook would allow her to "investigate the activities and conduct of the county elected official at issue and to prosecute and file an ouster suit if same is called for."
The resolution does not directly refer to Thompson, nor did Waddle mention Thompson when he called for the commission to suspend the rules in order to consider his resolution.
However, Waddle makes clear he's referencing Thompson in an attached letter that he also provided to commissioners. [Please see related text, A-??.]
County Mayor Alan Broyles took a straw poll vote related to Waddle's first motion to go into closed session, noting that it would require majority consent to do so.
Thompson, acting in his capacity as clerk, counted the number of raised hands and announced that eight commissioners voted in favor, while 11 voted to not enter closed session, meaning that the motion failed.
Waddle then moved forward with his motion to suspend the rules, which failed 15-6, with commissioners Fred Malone, Tim White, Robin Quillen, Bill Moss, Jan Kiker and Waddle voting in its favor.
Those voting against the suspension of the rules in order to consider an off-agenda item were commissioners Wade McAmis, John Carter, Rennie Hopson, Ted Hensley, Robert Bird, Lloyd "Hoot" Bowers, Phil King, M.C. Rollins, Anthony Sauceman, Hilton Seay, Margaret Greenway, Nathan Holt, Bill Dabbs, David Crum and Jimmy Sams.
In other business, the commission voted with little-to-no discussion to approve the following;
* allowing an $809,000 expenditure from the school system's fund balance (or savings) for projects such as roofing, HVAC, exterior door replacements and safety measures, plumbing and computer purchases;
* allowing mid-year budget adjustments in the school system's general fund as a result of $118,000 in increased revenues from various grant sources;
* budgeting $52,000 from the annual sign-on bonus from the jail telephone service for the Sheriff's Department to purchase law enforcement equipment;
* budgeting $5,222 in reimbursements from traffic patrol and background checks for the Sheriff's Department to purchase law enforcement equipment and other items; and,
* budgeting $15,000 from the sale of surplus equipment for the Solid Waste Department to purchase equipment, machinery parts and gasoline.
Sauceman abstained from this vote due to his post-election employment with the Solid Waste Department.
Finally, the commission also heard from Eddie H. O'Brien concerning a proposed retail project located near Interstate 81 in Mosheim.
Commissioner Kiker also called on Dr. John Shaw, of Panoramic View Dr. East, who said he had a petition signed by just under 30 individuals in his neighborhood who oppose the expansion of the current firing range on Hal Henard Road, calling instead for its relocation to a "more isolated area."