Eight commissioners voted to abolish constables. Nine commissioners voted against it. Two abstained, and two were absent.
Passage would have required a minimum of 14 votes for a two-thirds majority of the commission in two votes in two consecutive monthly meetings.
The matter was on the agenda because the commission's Insurance Committee voted last month to recommend abolishing the constable position because of liability concerns. The county has 10 elected constables.
Voting to abolish the constable position were: Commissioners Brenda Grogan, Rennie Hopson, Clark Justis, Jan Kiker, Kevin Morrison, Bill Moss, John Waddle Jr. and Tim White.
Voting against abolishing the constable position were: Betty Ruth Alexander, Bill Brown, John D. Carter, John Cox, Alex Edens, Margaret Greenway, Phil King, Hilton Seay and Jerry Weems.
Bill Dabbs and Sam Riley each passed, and then the second time they were asked about their vote by County Clerk David Thompson, Dabbs and Riley abstained.
Dabbs said he abstained because he felt that Monday's meeting put constables "on notice" to begin regulating themselves, and he was fairly sure there were not enough votes for either side.
Riley said he abstained because, as a real estate agent with a house listed for sale that belongs to a constable, he has a conflict of interest.
Commissioners Fred Malone Jr. and Robbie Morgan were absent. County Mayor Alan Broyles said Morgan was absent because his grandfather had died.
If the resolution had passed, it would not have taken effect until 2010, when the terms of the constables elected last year are due to expire.
Cox: Timing An Issue
Commissioner Cox argued in the Republican caucus that it made no sense to abolish the position with three years left.
Cox also noted that a lawsuit is now pending
against a constable, and the "timing" of the county's action, if approved, "could have some impact" on the legal case, possibly resulting in liability for the county government.
A lawsuit filed March 19 in Greene County Circuit Court seeks $500,000 in damages against Gary Cutshaw, an elected constable, alleging malicious prosecution because of spurned sexual advances.
Cutshaw has denied all of the lawsuit's allegations.
County Attorney Roger Woolsey said that the timing might be a concern if the case were to be decided by a jury. But Woolsey said that, since in all likelihood the lawsuit will be decided by a judge, he would be less concerned.
Cox also noted that, in researching back 50 years, he had been unable to find a claim against a constable that the county has had to pay.
Woolsey later said that, in his 21 years as county attorney, this is the first case against a constable he can remember.
Morrison Urges For Action
Commissioner Kevin Morrison said in the GOP caucus that, as a member of the Insurance Committee, he may have heard some concerns expressed by the county attorney and the sheriff that others have not heard.
But he did not state them in the meeting.
Morrison said there may have been a time when constables performed a worthwhile service, but now their training falls short of the training that deputy sheriffs receive.
He argued for taking action now, to avoid having potential candidates for the office spend money to prepare a campaign.
Edens Cites Constituents
Commissioner Alex Edens said several of his constituents had asked him not to abolish constables.
"Scout's honor, I have not had one person ask me to approve, but I have had beaucoups of old mountain boys say, 'Vote to keep 'em,'" he said.
Edens also said he had heard the same request from "some rather - I think -progressive people in Tusculum" who believe the presence of a constable or a constable's marked patrol car in a community is a deterrent to crime.
Opposition To Abolition
During the Greene County Commission meeting, three out-of-county constables spoke against abolishing the position.
John Couch, a constable in Washington County, argued that doing away with constables would remove a "whole tier" of law enforcement from the county, the equivalent of a whole shift of patrol deputies.
Couch said constables are required to take 40 hours of in-service training annually, and said the training is equivalent to what deputies receive.
Couch said there are more than 600 constables in Tennessee.
Constable Larry Rains, of Fentress County, said he is a member of the Tennessee Constables Council, which he said was formed in 2003 to upgrade the standards of constable training.
The council operates three training schools in the state, the closest one in Sevierville.
He said 57 counties in Tennessee still have constables, which several said are the oldest office in the state constitution.
Constable Sammy Scott, of Sevier County, said he is newly elected, but has been through the training, and found it to be very thorough.
Scott said Greene County constables would be welcome to participate in the training offered in Sevierville, at no cost to them or to Greene County. The trainers are Sevier County officers and detectives, Scott said.
Question On Emergency Lights
The question of whether constables are authorized to have blue or red emergency lights in their cars came up. Couch, Scott and others cited state laws that say they can.
County Attorney Woolsey said he had sought an opinion on this question from the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) and been told that the Tennessee Attorney General has issued an opinion that the law that grants this power is unconstitutional.
Woolsey noted, in response to a question, that an attorney general's opinion does not have the force of law.
Commissioner Morrison wondered aloud whether this unsettled question could lead to added liability for the county government.
Local Constable Speaks
Cutshaw, a Greene County constable for 26 years, also spoke.
Cutshaw said that when concerns about constable training were raised in 1994, "the commission and the county mayor agreed" that if constables took 40 hours of in-service training each year, qualified on the firing range, and used only marked cars, then everyone would be "fine."
He said, "We did that."
Cutshaw said he takes in-service training annually, even though he does not have to do so because, as a constable holding office since the late 1980s, he is not required to do so, and others do the same.
Cutshaw said he "researched it back" and, "until my suit," meaning the lawsuit currently pending against him, he could not find another lawsuit brought against a constable.
"There are not many other offices in the
county that could say that," he said.
Cutshaw also said, in response to a question by Commissioner Rennie Hopson, who is a sheriff's deputy, that local constables have never been invited to participate in any training offered in Greene County, and have to go to Morristown for their in-service training.
Before the vote, Hopson noted that the resolution gives constables an opportunity to show "a good faith effort" regarding their training.
Shortly before the vote, Mayor Broyles held up several pieces of paper he said were petitions in favor of keeping the constables.
The county mayor noted that the constable in the Warrensburg district, where he lives, Richard Shelton, had asked him to bring them to the meeting.
Commissioner John D. Carter noted that most, but not all, of the county's 10 constables were present. Carter said that if a vote about his job were being held, he would want to be present.
Carter said some constables have "become lax" and that the county's constables need to organize themselves, and police themselves, regarding training and conduct.
After the vote, there was applause from the constables and others present to support.
A report of other items from Monday's County Commission meeting will appear in an upcoming edition.