Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Area News

May 21, 2013

City reverses decision limiting interim manager power

CROSSVILLE — Meeting in special called session Friday, the Crossville City Council reversed a unanimous decision from earlier in the week concerning the interim city manager and more than one council members seemed to have admitted to violating the sunshine law.

During their regular May meeting, the council approved a motion presented by mayor pro-tem Danny Wyatt to require interim City Manager Jack Miller to bring any personnel changes to the council for approval, essentially removing a major part of his responsibilities from the city manager. The item was not specifically on the agenda but was brought up under the city manager’s report.

Wyatt said the reason for the action was a series of rumors brought to his attention about alleged politically motivated firings and/or reassignments of city employees. He said he felt the best way to quell those rumors was to take the action he proposed. Wyatt’s motion was approved unanimously by the council.

Prior to the first vote at the council’s regular meeting, Councilman Jesse Kerley asked city attorney Ken Chadwell if the action was legal. Chadwell responded that it was legal.

A called meeting was requested by Kerley and Councilman Pete Souza the following day to revisit that action. Kerley said he felt the action was not allowed by the city charter.

Kerley said the reason he had voted for the original motion concerning the interim city manager was to be able to bring it back up at a later time. Under rules, only a council member who voted with the prevailing side can bring an item back up for discussion. During Friday’s meeting, the discussion of the action became heated at times and both Kerley and Souza discussed state law and the city charter that they interpreted as not allowing the action.

Souza reported he had talked to two individuals at MTAS, the Municipal Technical Advisory Service of the University of Tennessee, and both had indicated the council’s previous action was not allowed. Chadwell then read from a copy of an opinion concerning an interim city manager that he had pulled from the MTAS website stating that the action could be taken to restrict the power of an interim or temporary city manager position. Chadwell also spoke to the issue of the Crossville city charter, saying that it does not address an interim city manager, only an “acting city manager.”

The motion to rescind the previous action was made by Souza and seconded by Kerley. Wyatt reminded the members that Miller had twice agreed to accept the restriction and asked if he still felt that way.

Miller’s responded, “In retrospect, it seemed like an affront to my integrity.”

Miller recounted his many years as a city manager, including eight years previously at Crossville. Miller said he is a member of the International City Managers Association (ICMA) and is a credentialed city manager through that program. He added that he follows a strong code of ethics required by the organization. According to the ICMA website, Miller is one of 19 credentialed city managers in Tennessee.

Miller said, after the meeting, he thought more about the action and said he felt “offended” and “neutered” by the action.

Miller stressed, “I wouldn’t be a professional hit man for any one of you,” and he asked that the council express some degree of confidence in their interim manager.

During discussion of the motion, Kerley accused Wyatt of spreading the rumors about the issue and Kerley. Wyatt said he was not on trial and he refused to respond to Kerley’s accusations.

Souza said that Wyatt had first approached him about possible firings directed by Kerley and Souza to be carried out by Miller. Souza continued that he then discussed it with Kerley and told Kerley, “I will not participate in any firings, which he (Kerley) did not ask for anyway.”

The discussions above appear to be in violation of the sunshine law.

Kerley said he also talked to Miller about firings and Miller assured him there would be none.

“Now there’s a rumor out there that there was a conspiracy to fire Mr. Miller,” said Souza. Souza concluded saying that he would not be part of any politically motivated firing.

Councilman George Marlow commented that Miller had said he was OK with the action and, according to Marlow, told him after the meeting that it might make his job easier.

Kerley again spoke and took aim at Wyatt, describing his anger and strong words following the hiring of Miller as interim manager. Kerley described the motion Wyatt made as an action of harassment.

According to Kerley, “Lots of people heard (Wyatt) saying this stuff.”

Marlow spoke saying, “I’ll take some of the responsibility for Councilman Wyatt being upset because he and I discussed this prior.” In a statement that again appears to be an admission of sunshine law violation, Marlow said he hoped to hire someone from inside city hall for an interim position, but the person he supported felt it was not in their best interest to take the position.

Marlow continued, “About an hour before the meeting, I got the information and I didn’t have a chance to contact Councilman Danny Wyatt so I’ll agree that I voted opposite what I had discussed with him and he probably had a reason to be upset.”

Tennessee’s sunshine law prohibits elected officials from discussing official business privately or in groups outside of a public meeting that the public is notified about. It is often done but can create problems for elected bodies, as the Knox County commission found out several years ago when a series of appointments were overturned by a judge.

While there is no criminal penalty, a lawsuit can be filed to have a decision set aside, requiring the elected body to revisit the decision at a later time. It can create a lack of confidence in elected officials as well cost taxpayer money to pay for the plaintiff’s attorney.

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