Commissioners clash on Sunshine Law violation, Burkhalter succeeds Carter

Some county commission meetings end quietly with everyone parting amicably.

That wasn’t the case at the Oct. 21 Blount County Commission meeting.

As public input for items not on the agenda was wrapping up, commission chair Kenneth Melton expressed his displeasure with commissioner Jim Folts over comments Folts made in the “From the Trenches” column he wrote for the October edition “The Banner of Truth” newsletter.

Melton said it bothered him that Folts accused commissioners of violating the Sunshine Law against meeting without public notice when the majority of commission members voted for Melton as chair, Gary Farmer as Chair Pro Tem.

“I resent that and resent you making that accusation,” Melton said.

“Freedom of speech is one of the founding traditions of this country. I’m proud of what I put in that column,” Folts said as at least one commissioner moved to adjourn. “You are in violation of the rules of the commission by launching a personal attack so you are out of order.”

As at least two commissioners were heard saying, “Move to adjourn,” Melton reiterated his assertion. “I’m saying you are out of order by accusing our commission of violating the Sunshine Law,” to which Folts replied, “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

And with that, Melton adjourned the meeting. While it ended with harsh words, the October Blount County commission meeting was noteworthy in that Maryville attorney Tab Burkhalter was named to fill the seat vacated by the District 1-Seat B incumbent Shawn Carter Sr. The U.S. Postal worker resigned two hours after being sworn in Sept. 1, amid concerns he violated the Hatch Act baring federal employees from partisan political campaigns.

Peggy Lambert, District 5-Seat A commissioner, thanked Carter for his honesty in resigning the position. “I appreciate your self-reporting of this violation of the Hatch Act. This act should be changed. I think we lose valuable people who could serve because of it,” she said.

District 2-Seat A commissioner Brad Harrison nominated Geneva Williams Harrison for the position and District 1-Seat A commissioner Tonya Burchfield nominated Burkhalter.

Harrison, former executive assistant to County Mayor Ed Mitchell when he was fire chief for the City of Maryville, said she worked for the city for 34 years. She also served in place of her brother Richard Williams for 18 months when he died in 2003. “I am qualified, willing and able to serve and I would appreciate your vote,” she said.

Burkhalter also addressed the commission and after making his comments, Folts asked the candidate about back taxes he owed the county on his Harper Avenue office. “You have delinquent taxes dated Sept. 30. You are on it to the tune of $2,000,” he said.

Burkhalter pledged to pay the taxes, said he didn’t know about the debt and said normally taxes are paid through the mortgage company. “I appreciate you bringing that to my attention. I believe we should all pay our fair share,” he said.

Voting for Burkhalter were commissioners Burchfield, Lambert, Mike Caylor, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Roy Gamble, Scott Helton, Gerald Kirby, Holden Lail, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton, Jerome Moon and Gordon Wright Sr..

Voting for Harrison were commissioners Folts, Harrison, Tom Greene, Monika Murrell, Steve Samples and Rick Carver.

In an interview Friday, Burkhalter said he paid his property taxes on the building. The attorney and accountant said it was an oversight because the tax notice was coming to the office instead of going to the mortgage company. “It was 2009 property taxes and they were paid this morning,” he said. “It was just an oversight.”

Burkhalter said the first thing he wants to do is understand the budget. “With my background in numbers I hope to be able to look at the budget and work with the department heads and commission and other elected officials to make sure we allocate our resources as efficiently and effectively as possible to still provide services we need to without jeopardizing the employees and those that work for the count who make the county what it is today,” he said. “I look forward to working to help bring sound fiscal judgment to the commission to where we plan not just for today’s immediate needs but we also look 20 years down the road.”

In other business, the commissioners voted referred to the Budget Committee action on refunding $44,000 in federal grant money back to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. TDOT for more than a year has asserted that the county was liable for the federal grant funds because state procedures weren’t followed in regards to a building constructed by Don Headrick Construction at the Little River Railroad Museum in Townsend. TDOT was holding $140,000 in federal funds pending repayment of the $44,000.

Craig Garrett, county attorney, said Jennings had worked with the state and negotiated the figure down to $36,000. “The state is saying what we did wrong was we got the bid put out and the person who got it, in an effort to save taxpayers money, they allowed the material to be bought by Little River Railroad Museum to save sales tax,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to tell them is maybe we made a technical violation, but it did not cost taxpayers money, it saved taxpayers money. It doesn’t make sense to go into the taxpayers’ coffers.”

During the Oct. 12 county commission agenda meeting, finance director Steve Jennings said TDOT was holding $140,000 in federal grant money until the county repays the funds. At the Oct. 21 commission meeting, Jennings said the county believes no harm was done.

Jennings said it was the county’s position that the taxpayers were not harmed. The bid amount was $22,000 for materials and the construction company was to get the rest. “We added up every invoice the Little River Railroad Museum paid for materials and the total was $19,000,” he said. “The $3,000 went to federal taxpayers. I would say that money was saved and didn’t go to Don Headrick Construction. This is a technical violation of federal purchasing guidelines.”

Garrett said it appeared the state was simply trying to punish Blount County. “We’re looking at everything we can because it seems like a penalty. They’re being hard on us,” he said.

It was concerns about sound fiscal judgment that brought several to the podium to ask the commission not to spend $60,000 in reimbursed funds from the Public Building Authority to extend a parking lot at the Blount County Justice Center. Supporters of the move said it would not be taking money from the general fund but opponents said the money was needed elsewhere.

Linda King of Blount County said the parking problem has existed forever and the expenditure should’ve been brought up three months ago. “Just because we have money coming from the PBA burning a hole in our pocket doesn’t mean we should spend it,” she said.

Jay Polk of Blount County spoke against commissioners using $60,000 of $100,000 to be refunded from the PBA for the Justice Center parking lot. “We need to see deep cuts in the budget and fast,” he said.

The commissioners voted to refer the motion back to the Agenda Committee for its November meeting.

Jim Hinkle of Blount County spoke on behalf of the Louisville Parks and Recreation Committee that organized an OctoberFest event held Oct. 16 that included a fishing tournament and bicycle ride along with assorted activities at Louisville Point Park.

“We went in thinking if we had 300 to 500 it was good day and at last estimate was 2,000 and we had more than 200 kids fishing around Point Park,” he said. “We were able to provide 175 fishing rods and reels along with gift bags.”

Chair of the committee Donielle Stone said more than $8,000 was raised from the event and after expenses more than $4,000 was donated to the Fraternal Order of Police Bud Allison Chapter for their Shop with a Cop program.

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