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Commission to act on Election Commission fees again

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Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess is seeking $32,000 from tax payers to pay the legal fees of the Republican members of the Election Commission.

Burgess will make the request in the county's Budget and Finance committee meeting this Thursday. The funds sought will pay the legal expenses of Election Commissioners who settled a lawsuit filed by Administrator of Elections Hooper Penuel.

County Finance Director Lisa Nolen said if the tax payers don't pay $32,000 now, it could cost far more.

"Penuel is saying if we pay his request he will pull out of the laswsuit," Nolen said."If we don't agree to settle, the lawsuit will continue."

Both Penuel and his attorney John Ray Clemmons would not provide comment citing an ongoing federal lawsuit.

In February, the Election Commission voted to accept a $7,500 settlement that pays Penuel's legal fees. Nolen said she was unaware of the settlement.

"If there has been any agreed to settlement, I haven't seen it," Nolen said.

Settlement documents from earlier this year, however, state Penuel will be paid $7,500 by the Election Commission for attorney fees, litigation and discretionary expenses. Legal fees of the defendants were not addressed, but the County Commission has yet to approve the terms of the settlement.

Election Commissioners Tom Walker, Doris Jones and Oscar Gardner were named in the lawsuit filed by Penuel. The lawsuit claimed the Republican members acted in an unlawful and partisan manner when it attempted to replace Penuel.

Burgess and County Attorney Jim Cope refused to provide legal advice to the defendants arguing the state should pay. The defendants then secured their own attorney in the lawsuit without consulting the County Commission.

State Attorney General Bob Cooper issued an opinion in June 2009 stating "the county has the responsibility to pay for the fees and expenses associated with such a lawsuit against the county election commission."

The defendants chose to privately settle the lawsuit and are now seeking reinbursement of their legal fees from Rutherford County tax payers.

This will be the second attempt by Burgess to request tax payers pay the legal fees of members of the Election Commission. The request is seperate from payments defined in the February settlement.

In March, the County Commission voted 8-13 to deny paying the legal fees of the defendants after several commissioners express annoyance with the Mayor that the defendants hired their own attorney and settled without consulting the commission.

The previous attempt by Mayor Burgess was made in executive session avoiding Tennessee's Sunshine Law that allows media and citizens access to government proceedings.

The County's Budget and Finance Committee meets this Thursday and will hear the Mayor's request as well as a continued review of next year's budget.
Read more from:
Elections, Hooper Penuel, Lisa Nolen, Tom Walker
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Members Opinions:
May 03, 2010 at 4:02pm
For the record, "no money" goes to Penuel, but for his legal fees triggered by action of the Election Commission.....
May 04, 2010 at 8:27am
I thought this was a right to work state. Did he have a contract? If not he can be fired at any time for any reason. Just like me and the rest of the people work at will.
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