The Greene County Commission will consider a resolution Monday requesting special commissioner fees be returned to the county’s general fund instead of being kept by officials as compensation.
Special commissioners, the resolutions states, are appointed by chancellors of the chancery courts of each judicial district in Tennessee, typically to oversee the sale of land due to the closing of an estate for private parties.
The resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Brad Peters, highlights that the compensation or fee for serving as a special commissioner is determined by the chancellor and is typically a percentage of the estate sale or a fixed amount.
Clerk and Master Kay Solomon Armstrong is named in the resolution, having served as a special commissioner.
These commissions are awarded for selling the property, in addition to a regular salary, the resolution continues.
In 2012, Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Justin P. Wilson compiled a “review of compensation available to county fee officials,” which drove this resolution into existence, according to Peters.
“The clerk and master is routinely appointed by Chancellor (Douglas) Jenkins as ‘special commissioner’ over certain property sales and he awards her a commission for doing this work,” Peters explained in an email to The Greeneville Sun.
The comptrollers report, included in the commission packet for Monday’s meeting, highlights that Armstrong received $30,064 from fiscal years 2007 through 2011 in special commissioner fees, Peters emphasized, in addition to her salary.
The report also showed that special commissioner fees paid to county officials in Tennessee in those years totaled $3,434,219.
“These commissions should go into the county’s general fund just like the revenue for recording a deed or purchasing a building permit,” Peters wrote.
In 2012, the State Comptroller made a recommendation to state legislators that they require these fees be returned to the county government in which they were collected.
Peters quoted the comptroller’s report in an email: “Officials often perform their duties as special commissioners during normal county work hours, in the official’s office, using office deputies and assistants to perform much of the work.”
Wilson’s recommendation is also quoted in the proposed resolution.
“Now, with that being said, would we, as county legislators, allow an employee of the highway department, for example, to take a tractor home and use it to mow hay? Would we allow a sheriff’s deputy to use his cruiser as a taxi cab while he’s off duty? Then why does the legislature allow the clerk and master to use county resources — including the employees in her office — to make money on the side?” Peters wrote.
Other persons eligible as “fee officials” outlined by the state comptroller include the sheriff, trustee, county clerk, register of deeds and court clerks.
The resolution also states that allowing officials to receive special commissioner fees creates compensation inequities among county officials.
The fees retained by county officials, the resolution continues, are not subject to oversight, control and appropriation by the county commission.
Lastly, the resolution proposes that state legislation be amended to also require special commissioners to pay back all fees and commissions to the county general fund on a monthly basis.
Armstrong, through an attorney, refuted some of the claims Peters made in his proposed resolution and to the Sun.
“[A]ll fees and expenses of the special commissioners are paid from monies from the sale of private properties, not taxpayer monies,” Armstrong’s attorney, Jim Wheeler, told the Sun. “Mrs. Armstrong serves as the special commissioner pursuant to court orders and renders extraordinary services outside the duties of the clerk and master.”
Wheeler added that most of that work is done outside the hours of operation of the clerk and master’s office, such as sales on Saturdays.
“The services of the special commissioner in this role save the parties monies normally with lower commissions than they would otherwise pay, if they were able to attract a private auctioneer to begin with,” Wheeler continued. “These sales are often dealing with properties of low value or that are difficult to sell for other reasons, including legal issues to be resolved.”
The court also sometimes has a special commissioner hold a hearing with the parties to deal with issues surrounding the sale of the property before the sale, Wheeler added, which saves the parties money in legal fees and other court resources.
He also emphasized that a special commissioner serves under the Order of the Court and are not guaranteed payment.
“No staff from the clerk and master’s office are required to be at any sale or paid by the county to work on behalf of the special commissioner on any sale,” Wheeler said. “Notably, there have been no issues in any audit of the clerk and master’s office related to Mrs. Armstrong serving as special commissioner upon the orders of the court.”
When asked if this resolution came about in retaliation of Armstrong filing a lawsuit against the county seeking more funding for officer staffing, Peters responded: “No matter how I answer this question, people will believe what they want to believe, so I’ll say this — the resolution is not a ‘retaliation’ of the lawsuit, but rather a ‘result’ of it because I had no idea that many of the things that go on in the clerk and master’s office existed until the lawsuit was tried — including her receiving these commissions.”
RESOLUTION TO NIX CLERK AND MASTER POSITION
A resolution to consider eliminating the position of clerk and master in Greene County is also to be considered at the County Commission meeting Monday.
The resolution requests that State Sen. Steve Southerland and State Rep. David Hawk, who represent Greene Countians in the Tennessee General Assembly, take the necessary legal steps to eliminate the appointed position of clerk and master.
Greene County Commissioner Robin Quillen sponsored the proposed resolution, saying that if the position of clerk and master is not eliminated, she would like to see it become an elected position, like the circuit court and county clerk.
When asked in an earlier interview if this resolution came about in retaliation for Armstrong filing the lawsuit against Greene County, Quillen responded: “Absolutely not, it’s because of all the information that we have found out during the whole [lawsuit] process.”
The clerk and master is appointed by the chancellor in each county, who is elected by registered voters. Armstrong serves under the chancellor in the 3rd Judicial District.
Article VI, Section 13, of the Tennessee Constitution provides that “Chancellors shall appoint their clerks and masters, who shall hold their offices for six years.”
“It gives (chancellors) the opportunity to do that, it’s not a mandatory thing they have to do,” Quillen said in a previous interview. “It does give them the right to appoint but it doesn’t make them appoint.”
“It is obvious that the resolution is retaliation against Mrs. Armstrong for the public support that has been shown to Mrs. Armstrong and her deputies,” Wheeler said. “Commissioner Quillen’s suggestion that the Tennessee Constitution can simply be ignored by the chancellor and that he can decide not to appoint a clerk and master shows yet again that she, and perhaps a few other commissioners, are willing to say anything necessary, true or not, to punish Mrs. Armstrong for simply following the statutory process in place in Tennessee for resolving the issue of a dire need for additional staff in her office.”
Wheeler added that Armstrong sees many issues, constitutional and otherwise, that would need to be addressed for the state to make the changes called for in the resolution.
“We do not feel this action should be taken in haste with no formal input or advice from representatives of the county and state legal system and without consideration of the many issues involved,” he said.