Published: March 10, 2010
Last week, the Rutherford County Budget Committee voted to send a request for the county to pay legal fees for the Rutherford County Election Commission to the commissioners with no recommendation.
The Rutherford County Sommission will take on the issue at its regular monthly meeting Thursday night.
Last week, the Election Commission, in a strict party-line vote, approved to pay legal fees associated with the defense of Republican Party 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 Committee were too keen on paying for the settlement.
Some suggested the election commissioners pay for the legal fees out of their own pockets and others wanted to talk to the county attorney before making a decision.
The legal fees stem from a lawsuit filed by Penuel against the Republican members of the Election Commission 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.
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 counsel 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 counsel, 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.
Commissioners to consider bond approval
The commission will also consider approving a resolution to allocate more than $12.7 million in recovery zone facility bonds for MidTMD LLC.
MidTMD will use the funds to finance a portion of the cost to construct and equip a medical office building to be located on the Middle Tennessee Medical Center campus, adjacent to the hospital located at 1700 Medical Center Parkway.
Last month the County Commission approved a resolution designating Rutherford County as a recovery zone, which made it possible to access dollars for bonds from the federal stimulus program.