Alderwoman Kathy Bullen and Town of Unicoi County Mayor Johnny Lynch exchange words during a heated meeting of the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Monday, July 16. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

With Unicoi Town Hall filled with concerned citizens, the July 16 meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Alderman included heated debates regarding a resolution addressing employee compensation as a result of miscommunication and the town attorney’s enrollment in the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS).

The first resolution up for discussion dealt with “administrative errors” made from October 2017 through December 2018 regarding the representations of the cost of dependent health insurance benefits and included an additional increase of $5,445 to affected employee’s wages to cover the benefits cost.

Alderman Roger Cooper inquired as to whether there was any faulty or misleading information in the resolution and asked which specific employees were affected.

“The employees affected are any employee whose premium amounts were described to them to be less than what is actually charged,” replied Town Attorney Lois Shults Davis.

Cooper then turned to town City Recorder Michael Borders, who informed him that one current employee was affected.

“The resolution has false information and/or misleading information in it,” Cooper stated. “It should say affecting one current employee, not employees plural.”

Shults-Davis stated that the resolution was supposed to be written in a more generalized matter, in order to cover any additional employees that could have been affected.

At the request of Cooper, Borders delved into the history of the matter and shared that he discovered the town administration made an error in reflecting the cost of a dependent’s healthcare to an employee when he came on board as the town’s recorder.

“To add to what he’s telling you, our previous recorder (Mike Housewright), made some serious errors concerning his wife,” Cooper informed the crowd of attendees at the meeting. “As a result, there are several dollars he owes this town.”

He continued on to say that Lee Manning, Mountain Harvest Kitchen manager, has gotten stuck paying a “small amount rather than a large amount of money” and stated that the town is paying approximately $820 a month to supplement her insurance.

Cooper said he looked over the contract that Manning signed with Housewright, which Cooper said states that the employee pays 100 percent of spousal coverage.

At Cooper’s request, Shults-Davis attempted to contact Housewright over the matter, yet had not heard anything back as of the Monday night meeting.

“The information we have at this point is the misrepresentation is not a payment for the obligation under personnel policy of pay, but the information as to how much she was to pay,” Shults-Davis said. “That was given prior to accepting the job, uprooting a family, and moving to a new location. There appears to have been, based on the records we have so far, some reliance on misinformation, leading to a very significant life change.”

The resolution, as Shults-Davis explained, was intended to bring the matter to a close.

“She did sign it,” Cooper said about the contract.

Alderman Jeff Linville said she had relied on information “through no fault of hers” and added that to pay the high premium would have been a financial burden.

“She was told it was $40 every two weeks,” Linville said.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said although the intent of the resolution was broad, it was specific to one employee.

“This resolution contradicts itself,” Bullen said.”I almost feel like the town is being held hostage.”

Following Bullen’s remarks, Mayor Johnny Lynch gaveled her and stated she was out of line according to Robert’s Rules of Order.

“You accused the person of holding the town hostage … that’s a personal attack,” Lynch said. “You can apologize to the board or remain silent.”

“I’m entitled to voice my opinion,” Bullen responded.

Alderman Doug Hopson stated that he felt the town was “going to make the situation worse” if a remedy wasn’t agreed upon.

Linville made a motion to approve the resolution and it was seconded by Hopson before it passed with Linville, Hopson, and Lynch voting in favor. Bullen and Cooper voted in opposition.

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The board moved on to discuss Shults-Davis’ enrollment in the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS), a topic that was requested to be brought before the board by Cooper, who stated that according to the town’s personnel policy and the TCRS employee handbook, only full-time employees could be enrolled in the system.

Cooper said back in 2013 a former town clerk entered Shults-Davis into TCRS as a part-time employee and stated that the town’s auditor recently caught wind of “questionable payments” by Shults-Davis into TCRS.

“I was looking at the billings and picked up that on every billing of Shults & Shults, that 13.23 percent was being deducted for TCRS,” he said. “In questioning TCRS on it, they told me that yes, the town does have Lois Davis as a participant in TCRS.”

Cooper said in going through the TCRS employee manual, that it lists specific eligible and ineligible employees. According to Cooper, contracted employees and those with a retainer fee, such as a town attorney, are listed as ineligible employees.

“At this point, the state has told the town to stop any more future payments to Miss Davis until they finish their investigation,” he said.

According to Cooper, no town records could be found that show the approximately $30,000 in premiums that he says have been paid by the town.

Shults-Davis said the resolution passed in 2013, also refers to elected officials, appointed officials, and also employees who do work “intermittently” or “periodically.”

She said a former alderman was interested in employee benefits on a number of fronts and felt that not only full-time, but also part-time employees were deserving of benefits, prompting Shults-Davis to do research of her own on the topic.

“My feeling was this is complicated …,” she said. “I began consulting with TCRS … at the conclusion of that what I reported to the board is they had not given me any additional information.”

According to Shults-Davis, it was believed by former city recorder Larry Rea that she was covered under the resolution and also shared that her paystubs clearly show the TCRS deductions.

“I’ve been a town attorney for 18 years,” she said. “There may have been a time when I was a contracted employee … the real question is whether the method and means by which you do your job is part of the town. This job, over 18 years, has become more taxing than it was in the beginning.”

She also voiced concerns that she says she has brought up in the past, concerning a “hostile work environment” in the town, which she cited as a contributing factor to the high turnover rate with city recorders.

“I wish you had brought these concerns to my attention before contacting Nashville,” Shults-Davis told Cooper. “I don’t know if this treatment to me is because of my age after 18 years of service to the town, or if it’s because I’m a woman, or it it’s because there’s this group that wants to control the outcome of the election and who sits on the board … certainly, that’s something voters have a right to know.”

Cooper said his concerns all stem from the fact that the register does not list her as an employee of the town, and added that he was just “bringing out history” and wanted citizens to be aware that a comptroller’s investigation was being held on the matter.

“Currently we are trying to get this settled … where are you going with this?” Lynch asked Cooper.

Cooper replied that the board and those in the town had a right to know what was going on.