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Five commissioners request called meeting

As of last week, it appeared that when the Unicoi County Board of Education meets to vote to renew the contract of Director of Schools Denise Brown by Jan. 15, as required in her contract, it would most likely do so with a vacant seat, which was met with disagreement by some local officials.
On Friday, Dec. 12, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch informed local media outlets that he would not call the Unicoi County Commission for a special called meeting in order to appoint someone to fill the vacancy on the Unicoi County Board of Education created by the recent death of board member Dwight Bennett.
However, on Tuesday, Dec. 16, Commissioner Loren Thomas presented a petition to Lynch’s office bearing the signatures of five commissioners, which is a majority of the nine member commission, requesting that Marie Rice, chairwoman of the commission, call a meeting for Jan. 5 to discuss, and possibly vote on, filling Bennett’s vacant seat.
As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline Tuesday afternoon, the meeting requested by the five commissioners had not be called.
Joining Thomas in signing the petition were commissioners Glenn White, John Mosley, Walter Garland and Bridget Peters.
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.
The commission’s next scheduled meeting is on Jan. 26. In order to appoint someone prior to Jan. 15, the commission would have to meet in a special called session.
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The petition Thomas submitted requesting a special called meeting follows in its entirety:
“According to Tennessee state law, the chair of the county legislative body may call a special meeting upon application in writing by a majority of the county commissioners. The following commissioners, making up the majority of the county commission, do hereby apply in writing for a special called meeting to be held on Jan. 5, 2015, to decide and vote on the following two items on the agenda:
“1. Decide how to appoint someone to fill the vacant school board position of Unicoi County’s Third District.
“2. Appoint someone to fill the vacant position on the Unicoi County School Board.
“We respectfully request that this special meeting be published in The Erwin Record and Johnson City Press no later than Dec. 19, 2014, which will meet the open meetings requirements and filling of vacancy requirements according to (county attorney) Doug Shults. Also, we ask that each commissioner be notified of the meeting no later than Dec. 19, 2014, to meet the 10-day notification requirement, also verified by Doug Shults.”
The five signatures, including the dates they were signed, are then listed.
After submitting the petition to Lynch’s office on Tuesday, Thomas said he believed having a special called meeting with those two agenda items is the “fairest way” to handle the situation.
“I think all of the commissioners have been getting phone calls and emails,” Thomas told The Erwin Record. “People are concerned over the issue of appointing a school board member. Some people don’t want us to rush into it. Some do. To me, the fairest way to handle it is to call a special called meeting for Jan. 5 and have those two items on the agenda.
“The first would be to discuss how to go about appointing, because there are options. Such as, we could appoint someone using the person who was next in the line during the last election, which would be Norman O’Dell. Or, we could take applications and publically interview people. I thought we needed to decide how we would appoint someone first.
“If we decide that we go with the person next in line in the election, which is Norman O’Dell, then we could go to number two on the agenda and appoint that person,” Thomas continued. “Or, if we decided we need more time and we were going to take applications and interview people we could table item number two on the agenda. This way, we as a group of commissioners, could make the decision and it would be made in public.”
Thomas went on to say that “a lot of people in the Third District are upset that they were not going to “have full representation on the school board” for its January meeting.
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Thomas also said he spoke with Lynch on Monday and was told by Lynch that if he returned with a petition bearing the signatures of a majority of the commissioners, a meeting could possibly be called.
Lynch said Tuesday afternoon state law says that Rice would have to call the meeting and that Rice was supposed to meet with Shults.
As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline, the meeting requested by the five commissioners had not be called. The Erwin Record also did not receive information that the meeting would not take place.
Rice could not be reached for comment.
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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. Lynch’s news release, which was emailed to The Erwin Record follows in its entirety:
“After the death of Third District school board member Dwight Bennett on Nov. 25, 2014, I was contacted by a couple of commissioners concerning his vacancy on the school board. After consulting with our county attorney, I was told the county commission does appoint someone from the Third District at the next regular session of the county commission or in a special called county commission meeting called by the mayor.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“I recommend the county commission take action to increase the school board to nine members to avoid situations such as this and other issues that could potentially be locked down by an evenly split board.
“I would recommend that anyone who is a resident and a voter from the Third District possessing a minimum of high school diploma or GED, who would like to be considered for this position bring your bio or resume to the county mayor’s office before Jan. 16, 2015. You may also mail, email or fax your information to addresses below. The county commission will have access to these and may or may not use these documents as they nominate and vote on the Third District vacancy on the school board seat either at the Jan. 26, 2015 meeting or at a later meeting.”
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 and was given permission.
“… 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 on 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.
“Information has been received that in fact, this board of education was given the interpretation by your attorney (Chuck Cagle) concerning Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-202 (g), which states that only three members voting in the affirmative will be required to transact any business and when the sixth member is appointed by the county commission the number needed to transact business will rise to four.
“I state here tonight that a controversy exists within the public eye because of these two interpretations,” White continued. “Without equal representation on this board of education, when determining the most important decision of the school system, an obstruction will occur. I call upon this board of education to join me to call upon Mayor Lynch and Marie Rice, madam chairman of the Unicoi County Commission, to call the Unicoi County Commission into special session for the purpose to fulfill the law states in Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-202 (e)(1).
“By joining me in this request, you as the governing body of our school system do state that you agree with equal representation,” White continued. “In closing, … (I have) exercised my right of freedom of speech afforded to me by Amendment 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America, as an employee of this system, in the future at any time that I feel that I am being persecuted by my supervisors by exercising my First Amendment right of freedom of speech, I will return to this body and file a formal grievance. If at this time, the persecution continues, then I will seek legal counsel and sue in federal court on the grounds of nationalization.
“And I quote from our American government textbook, page 357: ‘nationalization means that when a citizen believes that a state or local authority has denied them their basic rights, may take their case to a federal court. If a decision of a lower federal court goes against them, they may pursue their claim all the way to the United States Supreme Court’.”
Engle then responded to White’s statements: “There are several things that should be said. The Tennessee School Board Association is only a lobbying organization. They do not represent us in a court of law and they really don’t have any standing in a court of law as far as interpretation of the law.
“Ultimately, the attorney that is engaged by this board by its pleasure is Chuck Cagle … Currently, at the pleasure of the board, Mr. Cagle’s interpretation of the law is what this board has to go by. Not what the Tennessee School Board Association says,” Engle continued.
Engle also asked White why “the county commission is so eager to replace someone?” And referenced Bennett’s “track record of public service.”
“I think the county commission would be hard pressed to find someone to serve that was as qualified as he was,” Engle continued. “I don’t understand how a called meeting is going to achieve that.”
White again asked the school board to “join” him in asking Lynch and Rice have a special called meeting.
“It’s not about filling the seat,” Engle said. “The fact of the matter is that it seems to me that there is a conflict of interest. … It seems to me that there is some sort of personal grievance against the director here.”
“From me?” White then said.
“Yes,” Engle responded.
“Well, you’re wrong,” White then said. “I am an elected official of the Unicoi County Commission. I am doing my conscience. …”
White’s wife, Lisa, then asked Bennett’s widow, Debbie, who was in attendance at the meeting her feelings on the issue.
“I believe truly and strongly that a six member board should be six members. …” Debbie said. “The people of the Third District have the right to have representation of two people. … (Dwight) was only trying to do the right thing. He had no other motivation. … This was not for me. …
“I can’t bring him back, but I can tell you this that the stress that was put on that man for trying to make good decisions is what prompted his early death,” Debbie continued. “Shame on you for trying to move forward with anything without a representative for my husband.”
School board member Steve Willis asked White what the county planned to do. White told him the county, at that time, did not plan to meet until Jan. 26.
The meeting adjourned shortly thereafter.