Rutherford County’s Election Committee settled a dispute with the Elections Administrator at a special-called meeting Monday night.
The election commission voted 3-0-2, with Democratic members John Taylor and Denise Rucker abstaining, to accept an agreement hashed out by attorneys to end a dispute with Elections Administrator Hooper Penuel.
“This is something we needed to clear up before the election cycle gets into full swing,” Penuel said, adding elections don’t need distractions such as this. “I feel like this distraction is over and we’re going to move forward and work for the betterment of the voters.”
Last year, Penuel filed suit against the Republican members of the Rutherford County Elections Commission for allegedly breaking state and federal law by attempting to replace him with another political appointee.
The suit resulted in an injunction against the commission preventing them from appointing a new administrator.
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.
Penuel’s attorney Gary Blackburn said the administrator was planning retirement anyway and he wanted the “dispute handled in a professional way.”
As for the monetary compensation, Penuel said he was “not going to let issues with attorneys fees hold things up.
“I didn’t start this to get anything out of it,” he said, adding he only wanted to keep his job until he could retire.
The election commission also voted to pay legal fees associated with the defense of the Republican members – Chairman Tom Walker, Doris Jones and Oscar Gardner – to the tune of almost $25,000.
Walker proposed using budgeted money saved by the local Democratic and Republican parties by holding caucuses instead of primaries for the County General Election in August.
“There are funds available from the election worker line item,” Walker explained, adding the county had budgeted $100,000 for the county primary but that money will not be used this year.
Rutherford County Democratic Party Chairman Jonathon Fagan was none too pleased by the move.
“We saved the county $100,000 and the election commissioners who were sued personally spent it on themselves,” Fagan said.
Walker said the Republicans were not sued personally, but in their professional capacity as election commissioners and the group tried to work to lessen the cost to county taxpayers.
“I did talk to the mayor (Ernest Burgess) about what they thought was the cleanest approach was and this is what they came up with,” Walker said.
But there is still one outstanding lawsuit that could affect who finally foots the bill for the lawsuit.
In Putnam County, a suit similar to Penuel’s also asks if the county or state is responsible for legal fees because state law is unclear on the matter.
Walker said the county reserves the right to bill the state for the legal fees, depending on how the Putnam County case plays out.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.