BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
County Commissioner Tim White was not guilty of violating the county government's Code of Ethics in connection with his handling of work for the county school system earlier this year, according to an 11-7 vote by the Greene County Commission on Monday evening.
After more than an hour and a half of questions, information-sharing and debate, the commission took the matter to a vote to simply decide whether White violated either the County Code of Ethics or state law, or both, or neither, in connection with his work for the county schools and his related activity as a county commissioner.
A&W Farms Hauling & Excavating, LLC, an excavation company of which White is a co-owner, laid the sewer line for the new Chuckey-Doak High School fieldhouse project earlier this year.
After his company made the successful bid for the work on Feb. 16, White voted as a member of the County Commission on Feb. 21 to authorize a transfer of funds from county school system savings to a county schools Capital Projects line item to pay for two parts of the C-DHS project, including the one that his company performed.
He did not give any indication at the County Commission meeting on Feb. 21 that he had a financial interest in the project.
Section 2 of the County Code of Ethics states that "an official ... with the responsibility to vote on a measure shall disclose during the meeting at which the vote takes place, before the vote, any personal interest that affects or that would lead a reasonable person to infer that it affects the official's ... vote on the measure. In addition, the official ... may, to the extent allowed by law, recuse himself or herself from voting on the measure."
Even with this language in place, White has maintained through weeks of controversy that he did not see the situation as a conflict-of-interest and was not guilty of any ethical violation.
"I'm glad it's over and done is all," White said in his only comment following the meeting.
County Mayor Alan Broyles contacted The Greeneville Sun this morning to issue a statement, saying that he felt the substitute county attorney, Benjamin Lauderback, had presented the case well.
"Obviously, the commission didn't see that there was an ethics violation, so we'll just go from there," the mayor said.
"I thought that it was, of course, a lengthy meeting. It took longer than I thought it would.
" ...I think that the guidelines were laid down, and I think that [the commissioners] will be on their toes more now as to what the ethics policy states.
"I think we can move forward."
Although some commissioners expressed discontent with such a black-and-white consideration of the matter, the vote moved forward with the following.
Those voting that there was no ethics violation were Commissioners Wade McAmis, Fred Malone, John Carter, Robin Quillen, Lloyd "Hoot" Bowers, Phil King, M.C. Rollins, John Waddle, Bill Moss, David Crum and Jan Kiker.
Voting that there had been a violation of the County Code of Ethics were Commissioners Rennie Hopson, Ted Hensley, Robert Bird, Anthony Sauceman, Hilton Seay, Nathan Holt and Jimmy Sams.
Commissioner Margaret Greenway was absent due to family responsibilities.
Tim White abstained from the vote, per the requirements of the county's Code of Ethics.
However, he expressed repeated concern with County Mayor Alan Broyles serving as chairman of the commission and the meeting and, potentially, as tiebreaker, since the mayor was the person who officially referred the complaint about White's actions to the County Commission's Ethics Committee for consideration in October.
Broyles, however, declined to step down at White's request near the beginning of the meeting, noting that no charge against White had yet been made.
The mayor conducted the meeting strictly, beginning by calling on Attorney Benjamin Lauderback, who served as county attorney for the matter after County Attorney Roger Woolsey declared a conflict-of-interest and recused himself from involvement in the case.
Lauderback noted each of the documents related to the case, including:
* the formal bid White filed as a partner of A&W Farms, in which he was determined at a bid opening to be the low-bidder on the sewer work at the Chuckey-Doak Fieldhouse by nearly $10,000;
* County Commission meeting minutes in which White voted as a county commissioner to allow the Greene County School System to transfer money from the General Purpose School Fund to the system's Capital Projects Fund to cover to the cost of site work and the sewer work his company would later complete, as well as County Commission minutes from a later meeting to transfer additional funds for the actual fieldhouse construction (not the sewer installation, however);
* copies of three payment warrants from the school system's Capital Projects Fund to A&W Farms, totaling $31,100;
* Broyles' formal complaint to the Ethics Committee;
* the Code of Ethics for Greene County; and,
* potentially related state law.
Lauderback highlighted portions of two state statutes:
* T.C.A. 12-4-101, the general conflict of interest statute that prohibits "anyone who votes for, lets out, or in any manner supervises any work or contract from having a direct financial interest in that contract, purchase or work, and it requires disclosure of indirect financial interests by public acknowledgment";
* T.C.A. 5-14-114, for counties under the County Purchasing Law of 1957, which prohibits "the purchasing agent, members of the purchasing commission, and all county officials from having any financial or other personal beneficial interest in any contract or purchase of goods or services for any department or agency of the county."
Lauderback did note that the Tennessee Supreme Court has found unconstitutional subsection C of 5-14-114, which declares any violation a criminal offense.
"The purpose of my being here right now is solely to guide you along and answer questions you might have about the ethics complaint," Lauderback said. "Nothing further. There's no criminal action pending; there will not be criminal action pending."
Lauderback noted that the vast majority of countyies, including Greene County, adopted the 1957 purchasing act, which stated that "you cannot vote for yourself to receive funds."
He then called attention to the fact that White received the winning bid and A&W Farms was paid for the work, also suggesting that White's involvement was, in his opinion, directly or at least indirectly involved in the matter.
The attorney concluded by recommending the commission discuss the situation and follow this by a vote on whether or not there had been an ethics violation.
"If the vote is no, then [the issue] dies," he said. "If the vote is yes, then we'll have a different discussion and talk about [what action to take], if necessary."
After several attempts prior to and during Lauderback's address to the commission, White was finally given permission to give what he described as a five-point speech in his own defense. (See related article, Page A-11.)
These points included:
* objections to Broyles, as his "accuser," serving as chair of the proceedings;
* concern that Lauderback was present to represent Broyles and not the county as a whole;
* the question whether Lauderback's services had been legally and properly obtained;
* skepticism about the timing and motivation of the claim (See related article, Page A-6); and,
* what he perceived as lack of direct oversight by the County Commission of the school system's budget.
CALL TO VOTE
White's passionate defense seemed to come as a surprise to Commissioner Hensley, who read from his own research on the matter, noting that case law makes no allowances for intent or even savings to the county.
"He stated that he did not do this willfully," Hensley noted. "Well, his appearance here tonight doesn't seem so humble to me.
"If he now realizes that there was a conflict, I would suggest a different demeanor, rather than one that appears to be, even now, that he is above the law."
This statement prompted a momentary outbreak in the courtroom, both within the commission and throughout the larger-than-normal audience.
White later responded, saying that he is merely confident that he would not be ousted from office because no one yet knows the whole story.
"If you live in a glass house, you'd better not throw rocks," he said. "If this goes to an ouster suit, I'm going to be on this commission. I can say that with arrogance - not because I'm above the law, but partly because Mr. Broyles didn't handle this correctly."
Commissioner Bowers then made a motion to take the matter to a vote, seconded by Commissioner Hopson.
Commissioner Seay objected, noting his confidence in White's good intent but that "all indications" suggest that a violation had occurred.
The matter had already been brought to the County Commission and been the subject of so many public meetings and so much news media coverage that Seay suggested White had already been, in effect, "publicly censured": one of the corrective actions provided for under the Code if a Code violation occurs.
Rather than declaring if White's actions were or were not an ethics violation, he asked that the commissioners consider that they had already taken proper action under the Code [i.e., by White's having, in effect, been "publicly censured"] and "put this thing to sleep."
Seay's plea was unsuccessful, however, and the matter ended soon thereafter with the 11-7 vote.