On Timing Of An
Conflict Of Interest
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Where the county stands on the possibility of legal action against County Commissioner Tim White because of his company's work earlier this year for the Greene County School System remained veiled in ambiguity throughout Monday's meeting of the Greene County Commission.
Greene County Mayor Alan Broyles maintained his "no comment at this time" statement even following direct public inquiries by commissioners during the three-hour meeting held Monday night at the Greene County Courthouse.
In February, a company of which Commissioner White is co-owner, 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 in A&W Farms is Terry Anderson.
The sewer installation was completed in April, with no question raised concerning his role as a county commissioner, White said in an interview with The Greeneville Sun last week.
However, in that interview 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 Mayor Broyles.
An "accusation" of actions that conflict with the state's ethics laws was made during the conversation with Broyles, White said. But he went on to say that, since then, he has not heard of any formal action on the matter.
If the county government pursues the issue and White is found guilty of violating the state's ethics laws, an analysis of state law that is posted on the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) website indicates that he would be removed from office, would be ineligible to run for commissioner or a similar office for 10 years, and would forfeit all compensation from his company's work on the disputed project.
White maintains his innocence of any wrongdoing in winning the bid and completing the project.
He said in the interview with the Sun that he does not believe the state law on conflict of interest applies to this situation since the school board makes specific appropriations of the funds approved for school purposes by the County Commission -- rather than the commissioners themselves making the specific appropriations.
On Monday, Commissioner Robin Quillen directly questioned Broyles as to the timing of the inquiry, which she said came immediately after the property tax increase.
She asked how the matter was brought to the mayor's attention, and how an attorney believed to have been providing consultations on the matter was to be paid.
Commissioner Jan Kiker also joined Quillen's inquiries.
"You can all be assured that, in due time, you will be informed when the facts are together," Broyles offered as his only response beyond "no comment."
The inquiries by Commissioners Quillen and Kiker were prompted by County Commissioner John Waddle's resolution calling for the commission to appoint and set compensation for an attorney should County Attorney Roger Woolsey declare a conflict of interest.
Earlier this month, Waddle requested the Budget & Finance Committee to sponsor his resolution as a matter of appropriations. But the committee declined to do so when he answered negatively to repeated inquiries about whether, to his knowledge, such a problem existed or has ever existed.
Waddle said during Monday's meeting that he had not been at liberty to share his knowledge of the issues surrounding Commissioner White at the time he met with the committee.
He indicated in a letter he sent out to county commissioners late last week that he believed at least two members of the committee had already been aware of the White situation, given their questions to him at the Budget & Finance Committee meeting.
Commissioner Hilton Seay, who said he knew he was one of the two commissioners to whom Waddle was referring, brought the letter into discussion and denied any knowledge of the situation at the time of the Budget & Finance Committee meeting.
Following an article published on Sept. 12 in The Greeneville Sun, however, the situation became public knowledge, and Woolsey has acknowledged that he was approached by Mayor Broyles on the matter.
He declared a conflict of interest since White is a neighbor and therefore one of the county commissioners who represents him.
"I would be hard-pressed to bring a suit against any of you," Woolsey told the commissioners on Monday, saying that he has often had reason to work with many of them individually and has come to consider them friends.
Therefore, for him to recommend for or against any legal action could be construed as prejudicial, he said.
If legal action against Commissioner White is undertaken by the county, Woolsey said, the law calls for Mayor Broyles, as the head of the executive branch of the county, to appoint another lawyer to handle the matter since Woolsey has recused himself from the case.
But it would be up to the County Commission to appropriate the funds to compensate the alternative attoney, Woolsey said, quoting state law.
He acknowledged, however, that the law is not "black and white" on whether the mayor could access the $6,900 within Woolsey's County Attorney budget that is designated for legal services should he declare a conflict of interest.
While he said he always has an opinion, Woolsey declined to offer it on this matter, stating that he had only recommended that Mayor Broyles contact another attorney for their legal advice on that issue.
Broyles declined to indicate whether he had done so. But he did defend his ability to access those funds.
The mayor noted that Woolsey included the funds in his budget for times when he has a conflict of interest, and presented the request in that way to the Budget & Finance Committee earlier this year.
Woolsey clarified that this is perhaps only the second time in 14 years as the county attorney that he has declared a conflict of interest requiring the hiring of another attorney.
After Woolsey's reading of the state law, Waddle amended his resolution to conform to the law. As amended, the resolution acknowledges that the mayor would make the appointment, but says that the County Commission would still meet to determine compensation for the alternative attoney.
Commissioner Ted Hensley expressed some reservations that the resolution was coming up as a direct result of this one incident (the White situation) that he said is prompting mixed emotions amid the commission.
Hensley and Commissioner Robert Bird expressed their desire to not see the balance upset between the executive branch (the mayor) and the legislative branch (the commission.)
Hensley originally recommended amending Waddle's resolution to set compensation at the same rate as Woolsey received, but Woolsey rushed to the podium to caution the commission, "You won't find an attorney that's worth a flip. I work for $125 per hour."
He explained that he works for this rate, which he indicated is lower-than-average, because of the county's willingness to work with him in other areas of his compensation.
The Chancery Court approves an hourly rate closer to $160 or $175 per hour, he added, although he further cautioned that even that amount might not be enough for proper representation in some cases.
"I had no idea," Hensley said after Woolsey spoke. Hensley then amended his motion to say that compensation for an alternate attorney should be set on a case-by-case basis.
Specificallly, he recommended an amendment to Waddle's resolution that would call for the commission to set compensation at a reasonable rate based on the case and the marketplace value of such services at that given time.
The debate about whether the funds are already available, whether Broyles had already contacted an attorney, and whether the commission would have to actually meet to specifically set compensation continued to circle the courtroom for some time.
"We've taken something very simple and made it difficult," Commissioner Nathan Holt said, breaking up the lengthy debate. "This has gotten way out of hand. I think we need to just go on."
Hensley called for the commission to vote on his amendment, which failed 15-4, with Commissioners Wade McAmis, Hensley, Bird, and Jan Kiker its only supporters.
Commissioner White abstained from the vote.
The commission then voted on Waddle's resolution as he had corrected it to allow for the mayor's appointment but the County Commission's specific setting of compensation.
The resolution failed 13-6, with Commissioners McAmis, Fred Malone, Robin Quillen, Waddle, Bill Moss, and Kiker voting in its favor.
White again abstained.
Monday's commission meeting ended with a closed session for a period of about 30 minutes.
State law allows for such closed sessions in very limited situations in which a governmental body needs to consult with legal counsel concerning a pending or potential legal matter, such as a lawsuit.
However, after the consultation with the attorney, deliberations among the members of the governmental body themselves, and any decisions by the governmental body, are legally required to be conducted in open session.
Broyles made no reference to why he called for the closed session when he asked for the public to clear the courtroom.
Immediately following the closed session, the courtroom was opened again to the general public and news media for a brief meeting of the County Commission Ethics Committee.
At Broyles' request, the committee was originally scheduled to meet on Thursday, Sept. 13. But on Wednesday morning the meeting was rescheduled for Monday evening, after the Commission meeting, and described as an "organizational" meeting..
The committee has evidently not met with business since 2007, when the county's Ethics Policy was approved.
The committee's list of members appears to have changed very little, if any, through the years. Mayor Broyles renews appointments yearly and only makes changes if a commissioner requests to be removed from a committee, or in cases where a committee appointment would result in a conflict of interest for the commissioner.
Commissioners on the Ethics Committee have been McAmis, Rennie Hopson, Bird, Kiker, Phil King, Seay, and White,along with County Clerk David Thompson. Another commissioner was needed for the committee to fulfill the state's policy, however, and Broyles announced Monday that David Crum had agreed to join.
The committee held to its "organizational only" agenda and voted Seay as chairman and McAmis as secretary before adjourning.
Kiker questioned when the committee would meet again, saying that she has business she would like the committee to address.
Broyles assured Kiker that he plans to call a meeting soon, but does not yet know an exact date.