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Commission will meet Jan. 5

A special meeting of the Unicoi County Commission has been called to address the vacancy on the Unicoi County Board of Education created by the death of board member Dwight Bennett last month.
According to a public notice sent last week from County Mayor Greg Lynch’s office to The Erwin Record, the commission is scheduled to meet in special session on Monday, Jan. 5, at 6 p.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse. The notice states that at that meeting the commission is set “to consider and vote on candidates to fill the unexpired term for a member of the board of education for the Third Civil District.”
Also during the Jan. 5 meeting, the commission is set to “consider and adopt rules of procedure for eliminating nominees in case of multiple nominations to this position.”
In order to be considered for the position, registered voters of the Third District should submit his or her name to the county legislative body for consideration. The names may be submitted in writing to Marie Rice, chairwoman of the commission, in care of the Unicoi County mayor’s office, prior to the meeting. Names may also be submitted in person at the meeting on the date and time specified above.
Upon Bennett’s death, the responsibility of appointing someone from the Third District to fill his seat fell on the Unicoi County Commission to do so at its next regularly scheduled or special called meeting. This is stipulated in Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-202 (e)(1).
The commission typically meets in regular session on the fourth Monday of each month. Due to the Christmas holiday, the panel voted 7-2 to cancel its scheduled Dec. 22 meeting during its November meeting. Commissioners John Mosley and Loren Thomas voted against canceling the meeting.
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As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline for the Dec. 17 issue, whether or not the commission would meet in a special called session was still unknown.
Around 1 p.m. on Dec. 16, Thomas, who represents the First District, submitted a petition to Lynch’s office bearing the signatures of himself and four other commissioners requesting that the commission meet in a special called session prior to the school board meeting to vote on the contract of Director of Schools Denise Brown. Brown’s contract stipulates that the board must vote on her contract by Jan. 15.
Joining Thomas in signing the petition were commissioners Glenn White, John Mosley, Walter Garland and Bridget Peters. Mosley, Garland and Peters are the three Third District representatives on the commission.
“Two weeks ago, I began getting calls from commissioners in the Second and Third Districts asking me what I thought about having a special meeting,” Loren told The Erwin Record on Monday, Dec. 22. “These commissioners had been told by the county mayor, Greg Lynch, and the chairwoman, Marie Rice, that they would not call this meeting. I then saw in a news report that the mayor stated he had polled some of the commissioners and sort of got the feeling that the majority did not want a special meeting.
“Had Greg Lynch and/or Marie Rice took 10 minutes out of their busy schedules, they could have easily called each of the nine commissioners and known for sure how the majority felt. This led me to believe that they did not care what the majority of the commission wanted, but rather what they wanted personally,” Thomas continued. “Seeing no other options, I began researching the TCA codes and found that TCA 5-5-105 declared that ‘upon written application to the chair of the legislative body by a majority of the members of such body, then in that instance, it shall be mandatory for the chair to call a special session of such body’. This same TCA code further stated that ‘the convening date of such body shall not be more than 15 days nor less than 48 hours from the filing of such application with the chair’.”
Thomas went on to say that he was “very glad” when he learned last week that the commission would meet in a special called meeting on Jan. 5.
“I was very glad when I received the notice,” Thomas said, “however all of the effort could have been avoided in the first place had the mayor or chairwoman shown the decency to call each commissioner rather than just doing what they wanted. This meeting is of course highly controversial due to the fact that the commission may opt to appoint a replacement school board member during this meeting, which could affect the outcome of the contract for the Director of Schools Denise Brown.”
Thomas also said that he believed because all three commissioners from the Third District wanted Bennett’s seat on the school board filled as soon as possible, the commission should appoint someone as soon as possible.
“Knowing that all three of the Third District commissioners wanted this vacancy filled as soon as possible, and being that they are the representatives of the citizens of the same district where we have the school board vacancy, I believe that if that is what the people of the Third District want … “ Thomas said. “I have always stood up for fairness to be shown to the First District and by having this meeting, we can essentially be fair to people in the Third District and all Unicoi Countians on both sides of this issue. My personal feelings are that the position should be filled with whoever the three Third District commissioners choose.
“A lot of people have suggested that the vacancy be filled with the person next in line in the last election, which is Norman O'Dell. This man obviously had a lot of support from voters in the Third District – 393 to be exact, and I have yet to hear anything negative about him to cause me to disagree with this way to fill the position.”
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Bennett, who passed away on Nov. 25, won a seat on the school board during the August election and began serving on the board in September. Bennett was elected to represent the county’s Third District.
The remaining five members of the school board are First District representatives Cathy Thomas and Garland “Bubba” Evely, Second District representatives Lisa White and Tyler Engle and Third District representative Steve Willis.
On Friday, Dec. 12, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch announced that a special called session would not take place and that the commission will consider appointing someone to fill Bennett’s seat on the school board at its Jan. 26 meeting.
“There are commissioners in favor of calling a special meeting and commissioners not in favor of this and some who don’t care either way. Our next regularly scheduled meeting is January 26, 2015,” the news release from Lynch’s office stated.
“Normally filling this vacancy quickly would not even be considered necessary; however, the Unicoi County Board of Education is scheduled to meet Jan. 8, 2015 to vote on contract renewal for Director of Schools Denise Brown. It has been rumored that this board was on course for a tie vote 3-3, which would essentially be a vote not to renew Director Brown’s contract.
“I would note that two county commissioners have a spouse serving on the school board and though there is nothing wrong with this legally, it has an air of conflict of interest, which can in fact be remedied by the reading of conflict of interest statement when a vote is taken on filling this vacancy,” Lynch continued.
“Since this issue is obviously very politically charged, contentious, seems ripe with personal agendas and appears to be closely split, I think it would be in the best interest of the county commission, school board and the school system to either choose or start the process of choosing someone to fill that vacancy at the regular Unicoi County Commission session in January.”
The two commissioners Lynch mentions with spouses serving on the school board are Loren Thomas and Glenn White.
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The day prior to the release of Lynch’s news release, the Unicoi County Board of Education met for its regularly scheduled board meeting. After the board conducted the business of the school system, such as approving a budget amendment and hearing a program update from Special Education Supervisor Dr. Mindy Myers, the board almost adjourned but was stopped when White asked for an opportunity to address the board. Recognizing visitors was not included on the agenda. White was given permission to address the board.
“… I come here tonight as a citizen, a county commissioner and a 25-year veteran teacher of the Unicoi County School System,” White said. “Fulfilling my duties as a county commissioner several days after the death of one of our school board members, I researched the process by which his seat would be filled. According to Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-202 (e)(1), and I quote: ‘When a vacancy occurs, the unexpired term shall be filled at the next regular meeting of the county legislative body or at a special meeting of the county legislative body.’
White then reminded the school board that the county commission had canceled its December meeting and was not scheduled to meet again until Jan. 26.
“… Acting on my responsibilities as a county commissioner, I met with Mayor Greg Lynch in his office for the purpose to ask if our commission would be called into special session in order fill the vacancy on our local board of education,” White continued. “Respectfully, Mayor Lynch informed me of the process in which he or Madam Chairman (Marie) Rice would have to call the commission into special session.
“I expressed my support for a special meeting for the purpose to ensure equal representation are the board of education for all Unicoi Countians,” White continued. “As we know next month, this board of education will make your most important decision in which to determine the employment status of the director of schools. According to your own association, the Tennessee School Board (Association) interpretation, Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-202 (g) states, and I quote: ‘A majority of all the members constituting the board, and not merely a majority of the quorum, shall be required to transact all business coming before the board in regular or special meetings.’
“Your board policy states that the board is made up of six members. According to state law, you need a majority of the members to transact business and not just a majority of quorum. Per your policy and state law that means you need four members to renew the superintendent’s contract and not just three based on members present at the meeting,” White continued. “Mr. Bennett’s seat is vacant. It has not been removed from the board. There are still six seats on the board and not five.”
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Bennett was also serving as an alderman for the Town of Unicoi at the time of his death. The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to appoint Jeff Linville to fill the vacancy left by Bennett on that board during a meeting on Dec. 15.