In or out?

Dowdy raises question on who sits on Fire Protection District Commission

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

Is there a vacancy on the Blount County Fire Protection District Commission or not?

On Tuesday night Blount County Fire Protection District Commissioner R.L. Dowdy read a letter to the commission protesting the fact that County Mayor Jerry Cunningham had filled when Jimmy Cox resigned in June.

The mayor’s nominee Larry Graves was present at the commission meeting and seated between Dowdy and commissioner Gerald Kirby.

The board is a three-member board, and the controversy began in June when Cox resigned. After then acting county mayor Bob Ramsey decided against a list of nominees the commission sent to him to fill the vacancy, Cox changed his mind
and asked to be allowed to have his commission seat back.

No action was taken. On Oct. 25, Cunningham sent Dowdy and Kirby a letter stating that he was appointing Graves, a county resident and current Alcoa Fire Department chief, to fill the vacancy left by Cox.

On Tuesday evening, Dowdy read a three page letter to the commission and a small crowd gathered at Station II in Eagleton on East Broadway Avenue. Dowdy said it appeared Kirby was given special treatment, took issue with there even being a vacancy since Cox changed his mind and asked that neither Graves or Cox serve until the matter is resolved, either
amicably or through the court system.

Regarding not being asked for advice regarding the appointment, Dowdy said in his letter to the mayor, "I do not understand why you would not take the time to speak with Jimmy Cox or me concerning this action and at least listen to our input, as was afforded to Commissioner Gerald Kirby. There are always two sides that need to be heard before any decisions are made," he said. "Why were we not consulted in this matter. How would you feel if the county commission did the same to your recommendations and refused to approve your selections for appointments?

"In turn, we should decide the nominees and the choice should be one of those we recommended," Dowdy said.

According to Dowdy, he could not agree with Cunningham appointing anyone to fill a position Dowdy didn’t believe was vacant. "I will not accept this issue without doing what I know is right and follow my convictions," he said.

Dowdy said he agreed with state law regarding the authority given the county mayor to fill a vacancy, he just didn’t agree with Cunningham or county attorney Rob Goddard’s opinion that a vacancy exists on the board.

"In my opinion, a vacancy does not exist on the board of commissioners at this time," he said.

According to Dowdy, there are several legal issues concerning the matter that should be decided on by the Blount County Fire Department’s attorney, the fire protection district commissioners, the county mayor and county attorney "before it becomes a matter for our judicial system to rule on."

Dowdy said only he and Kirby should continue the business concerning the fire department until the legal issue of there whether there is a vacancy can be adjudicated by legal action or until the expiration of Commissioner Cox’s term. "I will not vote on any issues concerning the fire department, due to the possibility of making any wrong or questionable decisions that could have a tremendous effect on the fire department," he said. "In my opinion, any mistakes would make the board of commissioners liable for any improper actions until this matter is resolved."

Dowdy said he would be willing to resign immediately if Kirby also would resign and then each be given the opportunity to recommend a replacement to complete their terms and their choice honored by Cunningham. Qualifications should be set, term limits and background checks completed by any persons recommended for the position, Dowdy said.

"My fire department family comes first, and it would be an honor to give up what I truly love and bring an end to this unnecessary conflict," he said.

Dowdy also suggested that to protect the department from outside influence, he would be willing go put forth the effort to change Tennessee Code to let subscribers nominate and elect the commissioners to the Blount County Fire Department. "The Blount County Fire Protection District members should be in charge of their own affairs and not be interfered with by our county government," he said.

Cunningham was contacted at home regarding Dowdy’s letter. "If he has best interest of the fire department at heart, he can forget what he started, accept the appointment and move on about the business of the fire department," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said he has known both Dowdy and Kirby for several years. Cunningham said that when he took office and realized there was a question about whether there was a vacancy, he asked the county attorney. "It was my opinion as an attorney, he had resigned, but I asked the county attorney. He concurred that the resignation was effective. You can’t tender a resignation, and it be accepted by (then acting county mayor) Bob Ramsey and then change your mind," Cunningham said. "You have to be reappointed. They even submitted a letter with names of replacements. Ramsey sent it back and turned down their suggested replacement names."

Cunningham said that if there was no resignation as Dowdy contends in his letter, why did Dowdy send a letter with suggested replacements after Cox left the board. "The more I looked at it, the more I realized, it’s all about control," Cunningham said. "I’m not interested in control or playing control games. I’m interested in picking somebody for that board who would play the role of peacemaker and get on about the business of the fire board."

Cunningham said it was clear to him there was a vacancy, and it was clear that after 60 days had lapsed since Ramsey had turned down the suggestions, Cunningham had authority to name a new board member. "I made an appointment I felt would bring peace to that board, a person with eminent qualifications and a person who would do the right thing and not get caught up in ‘King of the mountain’ and control kinds of games," Cunningham said. "I strongly feel members of that board should have a background as much as possible and an experience in fire protection."

Cunningham said he picked Graves for good reason. "I chose to appoint Larry Graves because there had been an outpouring of support from firemen, both the rank and file and people up the chain of command in support of chief Graves," Cunningham said.

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