CLINTON—The legal fees might already exceed $20,000, and they could continue to mount in a bitter dispute between the mayor and sheriff over a $7.7 million salary agreement for the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department.
Efforts to “stop the bleeding”—and avoid extra expenses for Anderson County residents—were unsuccessful after a lengthy, heated debate on Monday night. During that debate, Anderson County commissioners rejected several proposals to cover some legal fees of Mayor Terry Frank in her response to a salary suit filed in July by Sheriff Paul White. Among the rejected options were proposals to pay Frank’s fees so far but no more, capping them at $40,000, or covering all expenses until the matter is resolved.
Frank has refused to sign the salary agreement, saying it includes about $1 million more for salaries and overtime than was approved by commission in June. But the Sheriff’s Department has said the salary agreement is routine and was drafted according to state law, and actual spending will be closer to the $6.6 million approved by the commission as part of this year’s budget.
On Monday, commissioners repeatedly expressed their disappointment that the two sides haven’t worked out a compromise, even after an Aug. 9 hearing in Knox County Circuit Court.
“I don’t understand why this is going to court,” Anderson County Commissioner Myron Iwanski said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we’re hiring a lawyer to sue ourselves, basically. I think we need to stop the craziness.”
“This is making us look like idiots,” Commissioner Tracy Wandell said.
Several commissioners said they were either unwilling to pay anything or, alternatively, cover any more costs beyond what they’re already “on the hook for.”
“The mayor seems to be determined that she’s going to go to court, and that’s the only way it’s going to be resolved,” Commissioner Steve Mead said. “I am not willing to keep paying these lawyers.”
Frank has hired legal help on two fronts, but she is only seeking reimbursement on one. Knoxville law firm Lowe, Yeager, and Brown is representing her in her response to the sheriff’s salary suit, and she is seeking reimbursement for that aid.
But Frank has also hired Memphis lawyer Lucian Pera to consider whether Anderson County Law Director Jay Yeager has a conflict of interest in representing her. The mayor said the law director does have a conflict, and she will pay Pera on her own.
Yeager said commission likely needs to pay the mayor’s legal fees if he has a conflict of interest. But he said he believes the dispute could be resolved, and he raised questions about the reimbursement request for Lowe, Yeager, and Brown.
The law director said his goal is a successful mediation.
“I don’t believe that’s her ultimate goal,” Yeager said. “She doesn’t want me as her lawyer. My goals for this issue are divergent from hers. They’re almost totally opposite.”
Frank and Yeager have also clashed previously.
Frank estimated her expenses so far at $13,000. She said White had a choice whether to sue her, and there are precedents for unsigned salary agreements. In 2011, the sheriff went a whole year without a signed agreement, and other agreements have been signed late in the year, Frank said.
In response to a question about her legal fees, Frank raised a question about the sheriff’s legal spending, saying he was using outside counsel also, rather than the law director.
“I was sued,” Frank said. “I did not do the suing.”
The mayor has said that if she signed the salary agreement, county commission would be committed to the new $7.7 million salary level under state maintenance-of-effort requirements, and that additional appropriation would require an eight-cent property tax rate increase in 2014.
But Anderson County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Mark Lucas has said the two-page salary agreement requires a calculation that envisions the department being fully staffed with 218 employees at full salaries for a full year. And that’s not expected to happen because the department is not likely to be fully staffed, some employees will earn less than full salaries, and 36 of the 218 workers will only be needed for six months to open a new jail pod after Jan. 1, Lucas said.
“We will never get to that,” he said of the $7 million salary level.
Iwanski said the legal battle is costing the county money and could lead to a tax increase. Besides incurring lawyers’ fees, the fight has put the struggling alternatives to jail program on hold and delayed a plan to try to house federal inmates at the Anderson County Detention Facility, a program that could bring in extra revenue, Iwanski said.
“I’m not in favor of continuing to pay lawyers,” he said. “I think we need the leadership of everyone involved to sit down and work this out.”
Frank said she and White have a Dec. 9 hearing in Knox County Circuit Court with Judge Dale Workman, but she hopes for a temporary salary agreement before then. She has submitted a temporary salary agreement that would include current employees plus 15 new ones, but she hasn’t heard back from White, Frank said.
The mayor took more fire from commissioners than the sheriff did on Monday, but a few commissioners, primarily Dusty Irwin and Zach Bates, were sympathetic to her case.
“I agree that it was a conflict for the mayor to sign,” Irwin said of the salary agreement. The sheriff could also end the lawsuit, said Irwin, who unsuccessfully proposed providing funding for the mayor’s legal fees as necessary until the matter is resolved.