Politics dominate county news in 2014

Published 9:48 am Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Photo by Brandon Hicks Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, right, greets John Holsclaw during a campaign stop in Elizabethton. Haslam spoke in Elizabethton to lend his support to Holsclaw, who was seeking a seat in the state legislature as the Republican candidate.

Photo by Brandon Hicks
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, right, greets John Holsclaw during a campaign stop in Elizabethton. Haslam spoke in Elizabethton to lend his support to Holsclaw, who was seeking a seat in the state legislature as the Republican candidate.

In a year filled with lots of activity in Carter County, budget battles and a controversial proposed school project dominated the news for the county in 2014.

Talk of a new middle school in the Stoney Creek community has been ongoing for some time but the proposal began taking center stage in May when school officials announced they had located a potential site.

That month, members of the Carter County Board of Education unanimously voted to have Director of Schools Kevin Ward make a request to the budget committee and full County Commission to approve the purchase of the land and also fund the school construction project.

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Ward asked that the Budget Committee approve the purchase of the proposed property for the new school at a price of $200,000. Ward said the money to purchase the property would come from the school system’s referendum money and would be no additional expense to the county.

Members of the budget committee as well as the full Commission gave approval for the purchase of the land, but acquiring funding for the construction project proved contentious as commissioners debated whether or not the county could afford such a project.

The subject of funding was hotly debated in budget committee meetings, but eventually the committee did pass a proposed budget which allocated an additional 12 cents on the tax rate to the debt service fund in order to balance a pre-existing deficit in that fund but did not include any new allocations for the proposed new middle school project. The committee did vote to allow rollover funds from the 2013-14 budget to be turned over to the school system to pay for architect and design fees for the project.

At the July commission meeting, Commissioner Buford Peters made a motion to strike the proposed 12 cents for debt service and move 10 cents from the General Fund tax rate over to the debt service tax rate. He also asked another 10 cents be added to the debt service tax rate and be earmarked for a one-time capital outlay note to fund the architects’ fees for the proposed new middle school.

During debate on Peters’ proposal, Commissioner Nancy Brown questioned the legality of altering the recommendation from the budget committee for funding of the debt service, citing state law and an opinion by the state attorney general. Brown’s concerns went unanswered and despite objections by County Finance Director Ingrid Deloach, who said removing funding from the General Fund would create a shortfall in that budget before the year was over, Peters’ proposal passed on a split vote of 13-9.

Two days after it was passed, Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey vetoed the budget, citing concerns with the legality of altering the debt service funding after a public hearing had been held and his own concerns with how fast the school project was being pursued.

In response to the veto by the mayor, members of the commission held a special called meeting and voted to override the veto.

Some members of the commission 7 and even one member of the Board of Education 7 voiced concerns that the project was progressing quickly but also cited the need to at least keep the project moving forward in some way by helping fund the design work.

After much debate, the school system pulled back on the project and agreed to meet with the county commission to develop better communication about the project. The project is now on hold and the school system is proposing using the funds set aside for design work to pay off existing school system debt.

The debate over the legality of altering the budget seemed to be over, but in October, Humphrey and members of the commission received a letter from Comptroller of the Treasury Justin Wilson, who said the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget as well as the 2013-2014 budget passed by the county had raised concerns with his office.

In a reference to alterations made to the county’s budget following a public hearing, Wilson says language in state law, as well as an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General, sets the requirements for alterations or revisions by a county legislative body to its proposed budget and debt service. “The County Commission has not followed those best practices in their adoption of the two most recent budgets,” Wilson said. “Therefore, going forward, we strongly recommend that the County Commission comply with the budget adoption guidelines applicable to the counties operating under the County Financial Management System of 1981.”

In December, members of local community action group Carter County Citizens In Action filed a formal request with the District Attorney’s Office asking for an investigation into the actions of the County Commission in altering the budget after the public hearing.

Additional stories that led the news in 2014 include:

Open Meetings Violation — In September members of the commission voted to make appointments to the body’s various committees. Members of the commission had previously received a letter from the former-chairman Tom “Yogi” Bowers, who did not seek re-election, directing the three representatives of each of the county’s eight districts to meet together and decide among themselves who would serve on which committees.

During the September meeting, members of the commission said they had met with their fellow district representatives to discuss the appointments but one commissioner, Nancy Brown of the 2nd District, said she was not in agreement with the appointments for her district. Commissioner Sonja Culler, who as vice-chair of the previous commission, presided over the first portion of September’s meeting. She called a five-minute recess to the public meeting to allow the three representatives from District 2 — Brown, Mike Hill and Al Meehan — to privately discuss the committee appointments from their district.

Following that meeting, the Elizabethton Star filed an inquiry with the state Office of Open Records Counsel seeking clarification on whether or not the process used by the commission to make the appointments violated state law that requires elected officials to conduct business in a public forum. In response to the inquiry, attorney Elisha Hodge with the Office of Open Records Counsel sent a letter to Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey saying it appeared members of the County Commission may have violated state law in its handling of committee appointments.

“Based upon the language (of state law), it is the opinion of this office that in order for multiple members of a governing body to meet and deliberate towards or make decisions on public business, the meeting is required to be adequately noticed to the public, open to the public and have recorded minutes,” Hodge said.

After receiving the letter from Hodge, Humphrey met with County Attorney Joshua Hardin and it was determined a special called meeting would be held to revisit the committee appointment issue and correct any possible meeting violations.

At the called meeting, commissioners from each district were given an opportunity to address the full commission regarding their education, experience and any other qualifications and state their preference of committees. After each of the three members of the district had an opportunity to speak, the district representatives discussed the appointments and voted on them publicly. During their opportunity to address the commission, many of the members brought up the discussions that had previously taken place among the commissioners; some stated conversations had taken place in Murfreesboro while several commissioners were attending a training seminar.

2014 Elections

  • Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey fended off a challenge from County Commissioner Joel Street during the May primary to become the Republican nominee for the post. He went on to face former State Rep. Kent Williams, who ran as an Independent candidate for Mayor. Humphrey won the General Election by a margin of nearly 700 votes.
  • Dexter Lunceford defeated incumbent Chris Mathes to capture the Republican nomination for Sheriff during the May primary. Mathes then launched a write-in campaign in an attempt to retain his post during the General Election but that bit was unsuccessful. Lunceford soundly defeated Mathes by a margin of nearly 1,600 votes and won 20 of the county’s 22 precincts.
  • Local businessman John Holsclaw Jr. was elected to serve as the State Representative for the 4th District. Holsclaw defeated challenger Judy Veeneman to win the Republican nomination in August then fended off Democratic nominee Rob Martin.

Other key news items for 2014 include:

  • Two Roan Mountain teens were arrested in July and charged with first-degree murder and numerous other charges in connection with a crime spree through Roan Mountain on July 3 and 4.
  • Two Carter County schools — Hunter Elementary and Valley Forge Elementary — were named as Reward Schools by the State of Tennessee in August. The designation is given to the top schools across the state which show improvement in student achievement scores.
  • The new 911 Communications Center opened in July.
  • Corrections Officer Chancellor Presnell was fired in August following an investigation into allegations he assaulted an inmate at the county jail while on duty. Presnell was later indicted in September by a Carter County Grand Jury on charges of assault and official misconduct. Those charges are still pending at this time.
  • The Miller Farmstead at Roan Mountain State Park was named to the National Registry of Historic Places.
  • The TLC Community Center completed its 11th annual Summer Food Program in August, serving nearly 73,000 meals to children in Carter County over the summer.
  • Local health officials were busy with training and preparation during the fall as Enterovirus and Ebola outbreak scares erupted across the country.
  • Local landmark restaurant Dino’s went up for sale for only the second time in its half-century of existence.
  • Voters in the city limits approved a local option referendum to allow wine to be sold in grocery stores.
  • Joshua Fair, 24, a substitute teacher at Unaka High School, was arrested and charged with sexual assault by an authority figure, possession of Schedule II drugs, violation of the drug-free school zone and two counts of possession of weapons on school property. Fair is alleged to have sexually assaulted a student at the school. The charges against Fair are still pending at this time.
  • Crystal Dawn Poore, of Hampton, was sentenced in federal court to 27 years in federal prison on charges of producing child pornography using her own children.