After meeting in private with the county attorney, the Rutherford County Board of Commissioners denied paying legal fees associated with a lawsuit against the county election commission.
“I hate it for that bunch over there. And I’d love to vote to settle this tonight but I don’t think we have the authority …” Commissioner Will Jordan said. “I think it’ll take a court order to tell us.”
The matter failed to get a majority in a 8-13 vote. Commissioners Doug Shafer, Gary Farley, Steve Sandlin, Anthony Johnson, Mike Sparks, Adam Coggin, Joyce Ealy, Trey Gooch and Jim Daniel voted for the resolution.
Several commissioners expressed annoyance at the fact the Rutherford County Election Commission hired an attorney without consulting the full commission first, which is a violation of county law.
The legal fees stem from a lawsuit filed by Rutherford County Elections Administrator Hooper Penuel against the Republican members of the Rutherford County Election Commission – Chairman Tom Walker, Doris Jones and Oscar Gardner – for allegedly breaking state and federal law by attempting to replace him. In a settlement Penuel agrees to retire Dec. 31 with all pensions and benefits due and will receive $7,500 to pay his legal fees.
“There’s no clear authority to allow us to pay this and then there’s no clear authority prohibiting us from paying this,” Commissioner John Rodgers said.
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.
To complicate matters more state law says in one statute the election commission can hire council in the cases of disputed municipal and county elections, in which case the county is liable for court costs and legal fees.
And 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.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.