Sullivan County Commission meeting to discuss possible settlement of sheriff's lawsuit

J. H. Osborne • Apr 6, 2013 at 7:44 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet in an open, public, special called session Monday regarding potential settlement of Sheriff Wayne Anderson’s lawsuit seeking more funding for the public safety concerns under his charge — such as patrol, investigation, and operation of the county’s crowded jail.

The Times-News will live-stream the 7 p.m. meeting online at http://www.timesnews.net/ustream.php.

Discussion among county commissioners last week indicated that the proposed settlement is in excess of $1 million.

Anderson originally sought nearly $10 million. The amount was later reduced to under $3 million due to a state law that limits what an officeholder can seek through court relief to nothing more than officially asked for in previous budget requests.

As a matter of following state law, Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey is named as the defendant in the lawsuit.

Godsey’s lawyer said earlier this year that if the case goes to court, Anderson could win upwards of $2.4 million.

Lawyers for both sides have been meeting with Anderson, Godsey, and staff from the sheriff’s office to try to reach a settlement in mediation rather than going to trial.

Under state law, Godsey has the authority to settle the lawsuit.

Godsey has said he would prefer to let the county commission weigh in on any such settlement, rather than make a decision on his own — a decision that the county commission ultimately would have to fund.

Several county commissioners have told the Times-News they would prefer to see the case go to court.

County Attorney Dan Street has told county commissioners, the public, Godsey, and Godsey’s lawyer that it is illegal for the county commission to meet in private to discuss the lawsuit outside the public eye.

Godsey and Godsey’s lawyers — James Logan of Cleveland, assisted locally by Steve Darden of Johnson City — have argued that Street is wrong, and that they and Godsey can legally throw the public out.

Public information on file with the county’s accounting department shows that to date Thompson and Darden have been paid nearly $20,000 in taxpayer money for representing Godsey, as mayor, in the case.

Invoices paid on March 7 covered billing for the two lawyers for the period of Aug. 27, 2012, through Feb. 4 ($2,196.25 for Darden’s firm and $17,372.05 for Thompson’s firm).

The county hasn’t yet received a bill from Anderson’s lawyer, Interim Accounts and Budgets Director Gayvern Moore said Friday afternoon.

State law allows constitutional officeholders, like a sheriff, to seek court relief if they can show county funding isn’t sufficient to provide the services they are required by law to provide.

Anderson told county commissioners early last year that he would consider such a lawsuit if funding wasn’t increased for his department — which state law requires to include patrol, investigation, crime prevention, courtroom security, and operation of the county jail (which locally includes multiple facilities).

The Sullivan County Commission ultimately voted to increase the county’s property tax rate by 20 cents per $100 of assessed value for the fiscal year that began last July 1, but did not provide any new funding for the sheriff’s office or jail. The increase instead went largely to schools, the county highway department, and to try and build up the county’s surplus.

Anderson said his budget hasn’t increased in six years, despite rising costs for staple supplies like fuel, medical treatment and food costs for jail inmates.

In addition, Anderson and his staff have pointed out increases in call volume and the number of inmates in the county jail.

In 2005, the sheriff’s department dealt with 39,047 calls, Anderson’s staff said, and by 2011, that number had grown to 60,028.

In 2006, county jail facilities averaged 435 inmates per day, Anderson’s staff have said, while during the first two months of 2012, the daily average had increased to 742.

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