Crossville City Councilman George Marlow thinks fellow Councilman Pete Souza may be wasting his talents on the Crossville City Council.

"If you're a mind reader, you're wasting your time here. You need to be in Vegas playing poker or something else," Marlow said. "I don't want you telling the public what I'm thinking."

The comment came after Souza brought up a company called Vista of Tennessee, a consulting company he has been unable to find much information about.

Souza asked Mayor J.H. Graham III what type of consulting the company offered. Graham declined to discuss the business of his clients. City Clerk Sally Oglesby confirmed the company would have to state what type of consulting services they offered in order to get a business license. The company, which was incorporated in 1999, listed Harold Dean Bennett as the registered agent. There has been no request for a business license yet, Oglesby said.

Souza asked if Graham was a shareholder in the company. 

"I didn't disclose any of that in my reports to the ethics committee or the election commission, and I do not own anything in regard to Vista of Tennessee," Graham said. 

Souza then turned his attention to Marlow, stating other council members had looked at documents he passed out a few months prior with surprise. 

"You were winking and pointing at the mayor," Souza said to Marlow. He then asked, "Do you have any interest in Vista of Tennessee?" 

Marlow said he did not.

Later in the discussion, Marlow said, "Before Pete brought this to our attention, I didn't know what this was and had no knowledge of it. I don't know how Pete can make a false accusation, asking me if I'm a partner in this because of the way I look. 

"He's [Souza] made a statement before that I voted this way because I think this way," Marlow said during the city council's work session Tuesday. "I don't know how Pete knows what I'm thinking...I don't know where he's coming up with this information. I'm tired of these false accusations."

Souza interrupted, "I didn't make an accusation. I asked a question."

Souza said his concerns about the company was the fact there was little information available about the company. 

"You can't find anything," Souza said. "It doesn't have a phone listing. Nothing's listed in the courthouse. There's no website. There's no advertising. It's almost as though it's a secret company out there, and that has my curiosity, as well as some other people's curiosity."

Souza added, "I'm going to sit back and watch this unfold. I believe it will unfold."

The council also held a discussion of its ethics policies, requested by Councilman Jesse Kerley, who did not attend the meeting. 

City Attorney Kenneth Chadwell said, "I don't know what was on his mind or what in particular he wanted to discuss, but we can briefly look at the ethics codes." 

The city adopted a code of ethics in 2007, required by the Tennessee General Assembly. Chadwell noted state law does not specify a particular code, but does mandate the city have a code that is registered with the state. 

"It's not like we were without a code of ethics leading up to 2007," Chadwell said. "We obviously had ethical codes that we followed."

He said the ethics policy does require disclosure of personal interest by officials with a vote. That is to be done during the meeting when a vote takes place, and prior to the vote taking place, so that the disclosure is included in the minutes of the meeting. It does not require a council member to recuse himself or herself. 

"You can go ahead and vote, but you've got to disclose," Chadwell said. "What it all ties back to, really, is financial gain. Ownership interest or monetary interest or employment interest coming back to you."

That also includes family members, with a definition that is broader than what many might consider immediate family, including spouse, parents, step-parents, grandparents, siblings, children, step-children.

If there is a conflict in a non-voting matter, there is a form that is to be completed prior to exercise of that official's discretion and that is to be filed with the clerk. 

Officials may also recuse himself or herself from matters where a conflict may exist.

"These recusals are not required. There's lots of times you may figure the exercise of good sense or common sense or good judgement would dictate that you recuse yourself from some action, but the law does not necessarily require that," Chadwell said. 

He also covered gratuities and gifts, in excess of $100, offering a safe harbor. However, officials or employees are prohibited from accepting any gratuity or gift, of any amount, if that gift is made in exchange for the official's or employee's vote or action on a matter.

"You can't get paid off. You can't accept a bribe," Chadwell said.

"But we have a diminimus rule here of $100. If a good friend takes you out for lunch, is that political? Is that for gain? Is that just friendship? Is that related to business in some other aspect of your life? It could be a lot of that kind of stuff," Chadwell said. "To keep you out of a trap, the law allows you a safe harbor."

State and federal laws are superior to the city's code of ethics, Chadwell noted. There is also guidance on the comportment of the city council in carrying out city business in meetings and carrying out their duties in the city's charter.

Chadwell said he felt the rules in place were adequate and common to most municipalities. 

 

Hether Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.