BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Several county officials have indicated that Greene County's governmental leadership is making ethics inquiries surrounding the commissioner known for his "swing vote" in the county's recent decision to increase property taxes by 20 cents.
In February, County Commissioner Tim White's company, A&W Farms Excavating & Hauling, LLC, won the bidding process for the sewer installation at Chuckey-Doak High School's new fieldhouse.
White's partner with A&W Farms is Terry Anderson.
The installation was completed in April, with no question made of his role as a County Commissioner, White said in a recent interview.
However, he confirmed reports that, within the last few weeks, he has heard several inquiries into the matter, the first of which he said came from County Mayor Alan Broyles.
An "accusation" of actions that conflict with the state's ethics laws was made during that conversation, White said, but he went on to say that since then he has not heard of any formal action on the matter.
Should the county pursue the matter and White be found guilty of violating the state's ethics laws, an analysis of state law on the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) website indicates that he would be removed from office, be ineligible to run for commissioner or a similar office for 10 years, and would forfeit all compensation from his company's work.
White, who maintains his innocence of any wrongdoing in winning the bid and completing the project, said Broyles referred to him as the "swing vote" during their conversation.
'SWING VOTE' HISTORY
During the August commission meeting, the 20-cent increase was originally proposed by Commissioner Bill Moss, but defeated on a 9-8 vote, with White opposed.
White then proposed a 13-cent increase, but that was also defeated. Such an increase would have been just enough to cover the county school system's $1.19 million deficit.
He then moved for a reconsideration of Moss's proposal, which passed 10-7, with White voting in the majority.
The following vote on Moss's proposal was then approved 10-7, with White again voting in its favor.
Those voting in favor included members of both political parties. White, for instance, is a Democrat, while Moss is a Republican.
County Mayor Broyles, a Republican, and a majority of the members of the County Budget and Finance Committee had opposed Moss's proposal, although some voted for it at the County Commission session.
On the day of the County Commission meeting, 10 votes was the minimum number needed for a majority, since one member of the 21-member commission, Brenda Grogan, had died earlier in August, and another commissioner, Anthony Sauceman, was ineligible to vote on the budget since he had become a county employee after being elected commissioner.
"I'll go one step farther and say that I feel like this is totally politically motivated," White said of the ethics inquiries that have arisen since that time.
Mayor Broyles said he could not comment on the matter at this time, including commenting on whether any official action has been taken or will be taken.
Broyles had called a meeting of the County Commission's Ethics Committee for 3 p.m. Thursday, but rescheduled the meeting this morning for immediately following Monday's 6 p.m. County Commission meeting.
The agenda was originally unknown, but is now being described as an "organizational" meeting.
This appears to be the first meeting of the Ethics Committee since the county ethics policy was approved in 2007.
Commissioner White is a member of the committee.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
County Attorney Roger Woolsey confirmed in an interview this week that Mayor Broyles approached him with the matter two to three weeks ago, but he said that he immediately declared a conflict of interest in dealing with the issue.
"I wouldn't feel good being a part of that situation either way," he said, explaining that White is a neighbor and therefore Woolsey's county commissioner. "I told Alan early on, 'I'm sitting this one out.'"
"It was going to be a lose-lose situation for me," he added.
Woosley said this is only the third or fourth time in his long tenure as county attorney that he has had a conflict of interest. He indicated that the county mayor would most likely be the one to appoint a replacement.
Complicating the appointment of another attorney could be the fact that Third Judicial Circuit Court Judge Tom Wright is White's brother-in-law and has been his business partner in a broiler chicken business.
Meanwhile, Commissioner John Waddle plans to present a resolution calling for such appointments in any case of a conflict of interest for the county attorney to be made by the full County Commission.
He will present the resolution during the commission's upcoming meeting on Monday at 6 p.m. in the Greene County Courthouse.
Waddle recently proposed his resolution to the Budget & Finance Committee, requesting sponsorship by the committee as a matter of appropriations.
The committee declined, however, after Waddle said he knew of no specific instances in which this had been or is a problem for the county.
White provided what he indicated is further indication of the politics involved in that county officials, he said, knew he was working the job at Chuckey-Doak High School back in April.
In fact, he said some officials were even there at the school while he was on the job.
"There has been no official complaint that I know of filed anywhere. Therefore my stand is this: I don't think [the ethics violation] applies to me," White said.
"I have done nothing wrong. I feel 100 percent sure of that. The school board has done nothing wrong. I feel 100 percent sure of that.
"I also feel that if the situation wasn't what it is, that this wouldn't have been a problem at all. Because it hasn't been a problem up until now. Nobody ever said anything, questioned anything, until now.
"When I became the quote-unquote 'swing vote,' I began to get questioned. That's why I feel it has been politically motivated."
Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk confirmed that several officials knew of White's work in April, noting that an incident when White's company accidentally hit a gas line prompted the notification and involvement of County Attorney Woolsey, among other officials.
The incident was an accident, and the school system never received a bill related to those costs, she said.
As for the bid, Kirk noted that W&W Engineering formed the specifications for the job and oversaw the bidding process.
The Bid Committee did meet at the bid openings, and White's business was the clear low bid at $22,190, nearly $10,000 less than the next-lowest bid, the superintendent added.
"Almost all of the vendors were there. So everybody in the room was aware of who was bidding and who actually had the low bid," Kirk said.
"I happen to know that lots of people knew that Tim's group was doing this work, and nobody ever questioned us about it. Nobody ever questioned him about it.
"So I didn't know anything about this, really, until after the [property tax] vote."
At the time, Kirk said she was unaware of any legalities associated with County Commissioners' bidding on projects, and viewed White as just another local vendor.
White has since also performed some other work for the school system that was inexpensive enough that it did not have to be bid, she added.
This has included twice using one of his company's dump trucks at the cost of $70 and $100 when the school system's truck had a flat tire, and also having White's company tear down the old bleachers at North Greene High School for $6,000, Kirk explained.
She added that the schools maintenance director, David Myers, had told her this would have cost "significantly more" had White not done a lot of volunteer work on the field for free, and carried out the demolition at a reduced rate.
"When I heard about [the inquiries], I did call our board attorney, Chuck Hagle. He assures me that we did everything as we were supposed to do," Kirk noted.
"I'm comfortable with what I've done. I haven't done anything wrong. I've followed procedure as I should.
"Tim and I didn't discuss his vote. This didn't have anything to do with that."
In fact, she said, he had bid on jobs in the past and had not been the winning bidder.
"I find this unfortunate," Kirk continued. "I know that I haven't done anything wrong, nor has anybody associated with the school system. I'm very confident of that.
"Neither do I think that Mr. White has done anything wrong," she added. "I feel sure that, if he had known, he wouldn't have involved himself."
THE ETHICS LAW
White agreed that he did not have any knowledge that his work could be considered a conflict of interest at the time he made the bid and performed the work.
Even after having read through the information he said Broyles supplied to him from CTAS, the commissioner said he still does not believe he has done anything wrong.
According to general Conflict of Interest information on the CTAS website, Tennessee Code Annotated 12-4-101 says that it is "unlawful for a public official, or other person, whose duty it is to vote for, let out, overlook, or in any manner to superintend any work or any contract with the county, to be directly interested in any such contract.
" 'Directly interested' means any contract with the official personally or with any business in which the official is the sole proprietor, a partner, or the person having the controlling interest."
White pointed to the first part of this section, saying that he is not responsible for performing such duties for the county school system as a county commissioner.
"As a county commissioner, I do not do any of those things. I don't let it out, I don't vote for it, I don't do anything," White said.
"That's the school board's job. The only thing my job is as a county commissioner is to approve the funds that the school board asks for. What they do with those funds has nothing to do with me after the fact.
"That's why I feel it doesn't apply to me."
The CTAS information continues on to quote the Tennessee Supreme Court's ruling in Madison County v. Alexander that, "The underlying principle is that no man shall be allowed to make a contract with the county, whose duty it is to pay for such contract.
"In other words, he cannot make a contract to pay himself out of the public treasury for any purpose.
"That such a rule may operate harshly is no argument against it. It is based on a wise purpose and principle, that is, to prevent public officials from using their public functions and duties to subserve their private interests.
"It does not matter that the service is rendered faithfully and inures to the benefit of the county, or that the material may be necessary and cheaply furnished."
The website also includes numerous opinions made over the past few decades on the matter by the Tennessee Attorney General, including:
* "Because the making of a general appropriation out of which contractual funds are eventually expended makes the appropriating body a superintending agency, a county commissioner may be said to be superintending county contracts;" and,
* "A county commissioner whose duty it is to provide funds for construction contracts entered into by the county school board cannot enter into a construction contract with the county board of education without violating T.C.A. §12-4-101(a)."
Until such a time as he hears of any official action, White said he will continue with business as usual.
"I have done nothing wrong. I will not act like I've done something wrong," White said.
"Until somebody confronts me in a way that I need to do something, I'm the same commissioner I was yesterday. I'm the same commissioner I was back in April when I did the Chuckey-Doak job."
In fact, he said he is the same commissioner he was when he was first elected 10 years ago, only wiser.
"I'm going to continue to try to do what's right and what's in the best interest of this county," he said, including being an advocate for education.
"I'm not looking for self gain -- no way, no shape, no form or fashion. Anybody that knows me knows that's true," White concluded.
"I'm going to continue to be an advocate for education, whether I'm a commissioner or not."