It was a party that resembled a rally as 45 people turned out Friday evening to support two Blount County commissioners embroiled in a controversy over conflict of interest.
The supporters gathered at Green Meadow Golf and Country Club Friday night to encourage Blount County commissioners Wendy Pitts Reeves and Bob Proffitt.
The mantra shared by many at the gathering was that Pitts Reeves and Proffitt are facing criticism not for committing conflict of interest but rather for asking too many questions about how the county is run and how money is spent.
The controversy started Oct. 3 when legal council for a state advisory agency answered a query from County Mayor Jerry Cunningham saying the two commissioners were violating conflict of interest law because they were paid by the county, which is self-insured, to care for patients or clients who are county employees through Highland Health Partnership. Proffitt is a family practice physician, and Pitts Reeves is a licensed clinical social worker. Cunningham indicated in his letter that the request was being made at the request of “several commissioners.”
Both Pitts Reeves and Proffitt denied they had a conflict of interest and said the matter wasn’t about conflict of interest allegations but anger by others on the commission and in the county mayor’s office that they were asking too many questions.
Pitts Reeves and Proffitt told those gathered at Green Meadow they were thankful for the support. The meeting was hosted by Linda Hageman, a friend of Pitts Reeves.
“It’s very, very humbling, that’s what this shows,” Pitts Reeves said. Of her actions and questioning of county business and processes, she said, “It’s tapping into a need in Blount County.”
Talk of conflict of interest began when Pitts Reeves asked, during the July commission meeting, for the county commission to request the county attorney to see if fellow commission Mike Lewis had a conflict by serving on the Purchasing Committee. Lewis is a vice president for GreenBank, where more than $36 million of the county government’s money is deposited.
Lewis wasn’t at the commission meeting, and fellow commissioners struck down the motion. Lewis then, on his own, asked the state attorney general through State Rep. Joe McCord if there was a conflict. When the attorney general confirmed there was a conflict, Lewis said he turned the bank shares over to Lewis’ wife.
At the August commission meeting, commissioners Scott Helton and Tonya Burchfield raised questions to the commission about conflicts of interest on the part of Pitts Reeves and Proffitt and Highlands.
Pitts Reeves said at the time she would look into the matter. She said Friday evening that what she didn’t know at the time was commissioners had requested Cunningham check with the legal counsel of the County Technical Assistance Service to see if she and Proffitt were violating law. The CTAS is a state-wide service connected to the University of Tennessee that serves municipalities and county governments with legal and technical assistance.
Pitts Reeves said one question asked of her was why she didn’t go to the state attorney general with her concerns about conflict of interest with Lewis before the July vote was made to put him on the Purchasing Committee. “It didn’t occur to me I had to,” she said. “When I think of something, and I have a question, and all I knew to do was bring it to the commission.”
Pitts Reeves was asked how her bringing Lewis’ potential conflict to the commission was different from commissioners Scott Helton and Tonya Burchfield bringing to the commission the potential conflict she and Proffitt had.
Pitts Reeves said that on the day of the July commission meeting, the county was beginning to operate under the 1957 budget law and that law had a strict rule forbidding conflict of interest. She asked the commission about Lewis serving on the Purchasing Committee, and said it appeared to be a conflict. She made a motion referring it to the county attorney, and the commission voted down the motion.
“The difference is I brought it to the table, and he (Helton) did not submit it to the commission. I did not even know it was happening,” she said of commissioners asking for the county mayor to ask CTAS if she had a conflict of interest.
“Several folks fussed at me for not calling Mr. Lewis,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me. I had to bring it up. I did not personally call Mr. Goddard,” she said of the county attorney. “I assumed we don’t call him. He’s not my attorney.”
Proffitt said the two situations did not compare. “I really don’t think it’s comparing apples to apples. I have a lot of misgivings about Mr. Lewis,” he said.
Proffitt said he had a problem with Lewis selling his stock to his wife to get out from the possibility of having a conflict. Lewis told Blount Today in an earlier interview that the State Attorney General told him that if Lewis turned his stock in GreenBank over to his wife, that would do away with any conflict of interest. “I have a problem with that,” Proffitt said Friday.
Several high profile guests were on hand including Blount County Circuit Judge Mike Meares, Commissioner David Ballard and Blount County Democratic Party chair Dave Finch.
“I’m here out of respect for (Wendy),” Meares said, adding that he didn’t want to get involved in the “politics of the situation.”
The majority of the guests characterized the spat as one side of the commission angered that others were asking questions. Jim Folts with Citizens for Good Government said, “This is about Wendy and Dr. Proffitt and David Graham, David Ballard, Joe McCulley and Monika Murrell, a group of people who have dared to ask probing questions about what’s going on in Blount County.”
Sam Greene, Pinewood Drive, Maryville, said, “I think Wendy is one of the few commissioners really trying to do what is right. This is a blatant attempt to discredit her. I don’t think she has a conflict of interest and if there is, it’s nothing compared to the others.”
Connie Greene, Pinewood Drive, Maryville, said, “I just want to support her. I think she’s doing a good job. She cares about us and that’s what we need. She’s not doing anything. She’s just asking questions and for some reason or another, it’s making them upset. I back her 100 percent.”
Carol Gallagher of Louisville said, “We’re always talking about wanting to know what’s going on in local politics, and all the people asking questions on commission are asking what’s going on.”
Kay Lloyd, Blount County, said, “We do feel Wendy is being railroaded, maybe. It seems like a lot of fuss is being made over something that shouldn’t be an issue. From what I’ve seen, there’s no direct conflict of interest with her being on the commission.”
“It sounds all political to me. I believe it all stems from them asking questions,” David England said. “It’s gotten to where they don’t like questions being asked.”
“I’m a fan of open government and that’s what we want. I’m a big fan of hers all the way,” Kenny Anderson said.
Former Blount County mayoral candidate Joe Gallagher said, “Wendy is my hero,” and thanked her for being willing to ask questions. “It takes courage.”
“This gathering here is bipartisan. It’s people who care about good government and honest government. Our goal is honest, conflict-of-interest free government. We accept high standards. All office holders should have high standards. Dr. Bob (Proffitt), Wendy, David (Ballard) and others on county commission all have these high standards,” he said.
Bob Proffitt thanked the people for their kind words. “I appreciate the support. This is as basic as you can get. County commission is a level of government. Questions are good to ask. I see no direct or indirect conflict of interest. It’s hard to read the motivation of those who bring these (conflict of interest allegations),” he said.
Linda King of the community group Citizens for Blount County’s Future said, “We have support for people doing what is right and Wendy is one of them.
King said more accountability was needed from government officials. “Everybody in the courthouse sticks together, and they get their people out to vote,” she said. “If we had 11 people to ask questions, we would have already made changes in this community.”