ROGERSVILLE — There’s one clear winner in the recent legal battle between the Hawkins County Election Commission and Rogersville Board of Mayor and Aldermen over the relocation and merging of city voting precincts: the lawyers.
On Tuesday, Elections Administrator Donna Sharp threatened to sue the BMA if it doesn’t reimburse the more than $14,000 in legal fees incurred by the county over the city’s recent precinct lawsuit.
Sharp cited a statute which she said indicates the city is liable for the Elections Commission’s legal fees, but City Attorney Bill Phillips argued that the statute doesn’t apply.
Phillips argued that the city didn’t file a “lawsuit” seeking to reverse the Election Commission’s changes to city precincts.
It was a “writ of certiorari,” Phillips told the BMA Tuesday, to bring the records before the court and let the court decide, and the case was resolved by a compromise in June with an order signed by Chancellor Doug Jenkins.
Sharp replied that the “compromise” Phillips referred to wasn’t a compromise, but was something the city already was receiving — permission to hold stand-alone municipal elections at the courthouse.
The BMA voted 4-1 not to pay, with Alderman Craig Kirkpatrick offering the only dissenting vote and Alderman Mark DeWitte abstaining. Although Alderman Eloise Edwards voted not to pay, she said she would prefer to see this new dispute resolved in mediation.
The history behind the lawsuit
As a cost-cutting measure, last year the Election Commission combined the two city precincts (Rogersville North Inside and Rogersville South Inside) with Rogersville South Outside, which was not in the city but a part of the county’s 5th District.
Rogersville South Outside used to vote at Rogersville Middle School, while Rogersville South Inside voted at the courthouse, and Rogersville North Inside voted at Hawkins Elementary.
The new combined precinct, which has more than 4,000 registered voters, is called the Rogersville 5th Precinct, which now votes at Hawkins Elementary.
As a result of the change, the only voting that would take place at the courthouse would be early voting, although the Election Commission stated prior to the lawsuit that the city could request to use the courthouse for its stand-alone BMA elections every four years.
In January, the BMA filed suit seeking to have the courthouse returned as an Election Day voting precinct.
A resolution drafted by Phillips and approved by the BMA last November stated that it is in the best interest of Rogersville citizens, particularly business owners and merchants in the downtown area, that historic downtown Rogersville be promoted by the encouragement of its residents and others to visit downtown Rogersville and become patrons of its shops and businesses.
The BMA was concerned that the diversion of voters from the courthouse to a polling place outside the downtown area would be detrimental to the continued viability and development of historic downtown Rogersville.
The Election Commission’s argument
Sharp contends that the city agreed to dismiss the lawsuit after the Election Commission agreed to adopt a resolution stating the current commission agrees to honor the city’s request to hold stand-alone municipal elections at the courthouse.
That’s the same offer the Election Commission made to the BMA prior to filing the lawsuit, Sharp added.
She noted that TCA 2-12-101(c)(1) states: “ ‘If the legal proceeding names the County Election Commissioners as defendants in a lawsuit that involves a municipal election, the municipality concerned shall furnish counsel to representative commissioners.’
“If the Election Commission is forced to file a lawsuit to recover these attorney fees, then it will also be seeking reimbursement for fees incurred in the second lawsuit,” Sharp told the BMA.
City attorney responds
Phillips said the writ of certiorari wasn’t dismissed, but that it was resolved with a compromise and a court order.
“(The order states) they could have the county election out there at the school if they wanted to, but that the city election would remain at the courthouse,” Phillips told the BMA. “That order has been filed and has been final for more than two months. Any issue that could have been raised during the litigation period had to be raised then. You’re now in what’s known as ‘collateral estoppel.’ You can’t raise it now.”
Phillips added, “To come in here after that order has been filed and say you want us to pay your legal fees is ludicrous to me. If anybody’s legal fees should be paid, it’s ours for trying to enforce the law. If they file another lawsuit, the first thing I’m going to do is file a motion to dismiss for collateral estoppel. If they intend to file suit, they’re going to have to incur more attorney’s fees. Not us.”