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RuCo refuses to represent Election Commission

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Rutherford County’s Election Commission appointed a new attorney Monday night and tasked him with finding out who will pay his fees.

So far County Mayor Ernest Burgess and County Attorney Jim Cope have refused to give the commission any legal advice about a lawsuit pending against its Republican members.

“At one point they decided to let us fend for ourselves,” Chairman Tom Walker said.

Walker said Burgess thinks the election commission is a state body, so the state should pay for its defense. But the state thinks the counties should pay. And state law is unclear about who is responsible for the legal fees.

“We are not in any way in an adversarial role with the county or the state, but this is something we need to get decided,” Walker said.

So, the commission voted three for and two abstaining, along party lines to hire attorney John Harris of Nashville to first petition Rutherford County Chancery Court for a ruling on who is responsible for paying his fees – the state or the county.

The commission then charged Harris with defending Republican members, Walker, Doris Jones and Oscar Gardner, in a lawsuit filed by Rutherford County Elections Administrator Hooper Penuel, which preempted a search to possibly replace him.

Chattanooga attorney Wes Kliner had been hired last month, but he withdrew from the case when he couldn’t secure any clients from the five other counties named in the suit.

Kliner’s abandonment left the commission high and dry during two preliminary hearings for the suit, with Walker even representing the county at one.

“It was an unnerving experience,” Walker said about being in federal court.

The commission also voted 4-0-1 with Denice Rucker abstaining to keep Harris on retainer for future questions.

Although Penuel still has his job, he joined the suit and is seeking stop the election commission from firing him until the case is resolved. He was asked to reapply for his post along with 90 other applicants.

The federal lawsuit contends local election commissions may have violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, as well as the Tennessee Constitution by firing Democratically appointed administrators for Republican appointees.

The main issue is a Tennessee Attorney General opinion issued earlier this year, which said it is against state and federal law to fire an employee based on political affiliation, unless they are in a policy-making position and elections administrators are not policy-making posts.

•••

The commission also approved the ballot for the Aug. 27 primary election to fill the unexpired term in Tennessee House of Representatives 62nd District.

On the Democratic ticket, Ty Cobb II is the only candidate.

On the Republican side, Joseph C. Byrd, Pat Marsh, Bobby Scott and Casey Walters are running.

Early voting will be held from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Aug. 7-22, Monday through Friday. Extended hours will be from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 13, 17 and 20 and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 22. All early voting will be held at the Rutherford County Election Commission office on the Historic Square in Murfreesboro.

The primary election will be Thursday, Aug. 27 in the following precincts: Blackman United Methodist Church, Eagleville Community Center and Rockvale Community Center.

The general election will be held Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or mwillard@murfreesboropost.com.
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Denice Rucker, Doris Jones, Election Commission, Elections, Ernest Burgess, Hooper Penuel, Jim Cope, John Harris, Oscar Gardner, RuCo, Tom Walker
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Members Opinions:
August 04, 2009 at 4:19pm
This is another example of petty politics creating a problem that shouldn't even be...Mr. Tom "Genius" Walker should have to pay the attorney fees. (This isn't a partisan opinion on my part...I am Rupublican for the most part, but this kind of stupid petty junk is what gives politics a black eye...A MUCH DESERVED BLACK EYE.
August 04, 2009 at 5:38pm
Its amazing that this issue is now a problem as the party in power as shifted and the process is NOW a problem. Why are crying fowl at this point. Now that a previous power party appointment MAY lose his post lets not change thru the legislative process. Lets use a judge and we know how that works these days.

Question? If it is a problem now why wasn't it a problem when the last party in power used the same tactics.

It's amazing that its OK for this kind of tactic when its to your benefit but not when you lose. Remind anyone of the recent labeling of legal civil disobedience as rabal rousing when it was OK while the previous administration was in power.
August 05, 2009 at 3:02am
We've had honest bi-partisan elections under Mr. Penuel...a proven honest public servant...no guarantee of that in future...
August 05, 2009 at 3:06am
Party of administration has nothing to do with these appointments. It is the party that controls the legislature that is at issue. Correct me if I am wrong but is this not the first time that the General Assembly has been controlled by GOP? If so, there is no precedent for the present situation. Also, what are chances of GOP continuing to control both chambers of legislature? Could well be that Republicans appointed as election administrators this year could not be removed when (if) Democrats return to power. A temporary one vote margin in favor of Republicans now could assure permanent tenure for these Republican appointees.
August 05, 2009 at 7:38am
Tax money is going to go into a attorney's pocket so what do'es it matter who writes the check.
August 05, 2009 at 12:36pm
Is this the 10 dollars in debt payments we make?
August 09, 2009 at 8:58am
Whow!! How about Mr. Penuel's latest national honor being among the most qualified, educated election officials with responsibility of preserving Democracy. Give me educated qualified folks over non-proven unknown political cronies "good ol' boys..."
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