A request for the county to pay legal fees for the Rutherford County Election Commission was met with confusion and opposition Thursday night.
Last week, the election commission, in a strict party-line vote, approved to pay legal fees associated with the defense of the Republican members – Chairman Tom Walker, Doris Jones and Oscar Gardner – for nearly $25,000, in addition to $7,500 in legal fees for Elections Administrator Hooper Penuel.
Walker proposed using $100,000 saved by the local Democratic and Republican parties by holding caucuses instead of primaries for the County General Election in August.
But not all on the Budget and Finance Committee were too keen on paying for the settlement.
“My suggestion would be those that were named in the suit pay for it,” Commissioner Robert Peay said, meaning Walker, Jones and Gardner would pay for their own defense.
Commissioner Bob Bullen agreed, saying “We have three commissioners over there that acted rashly. … I feel like we’re covering these characters for trying to replace another guy.”
Bullen was referring to the lawsuit filed by Penuel against the Republican members of the Rutherford County Elections Commission for allegedly breaking state and federal law by attempting to replace him. The suit resulted in an injunction against the commission preventing them from appointing a new administrator.
But it gets confusing when trying to decipher state law to decide whether the state or county is responsible for paying legal fees.
On one hand, there are competing legal opinions on the matter. Tennessee’s Attorney General issued an opinion last year that said election commissioners are county employees. But a lawsuit from Bradley County says they are state employees.
Rutherford County Democratic Party Chairman Jonathon Fagan also chimed in last night and pointed out state law doesn’t clearly authorize the election commission to hire legal council to represent it in cases like this.
It only allows for the hiring of council in the cases of disputed municipal and county elections, in which case the county is liable for court costs and legal fees.
“There is no election involved in this matter, therefore T.C.A. (Tennessee Code Annotated) doesn’t give the election commission the authority to hire their own council. I’ll leave it at that,” Fagan said.
County Mayor Ernest Burgess countered with another state law that allows “the administrator (to) hire legal counsel if necessary to conduct the business of the commission.”
But Penuel didn’t hire the legal council, the Republican members of the election commission did with the Democratic members voting against the measure. Penuel left the room when the commission voted to hire an attorney.
With this information presented, the Budget Committee voted to send the request to the full county commission with no recommendation. The county commission will take up the issue Thursday night with the county attorney present to answer any legal questions.
At a special-called election commission meeting last week, Walker said the Republicans were not sued personally, but in their professional capacity as election commissioners, meaning the county should pay the legal fees. The group also tried to work to lessen the cost to county taxpayers by hammering out an agreement with Penuel outside of a courtroom, he added.
Walker said the county reserves the right to bill the state for the legal fees, depending on how the Putnam County case plays out.
In the settlement Penuel agrees to retire Dec. 31 with all pensions and benefits due and will receive $7,500 to pay his legal fees.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.