Sullivan commissioner rewrites resolution that would ban hiring felons

J. H. Osborne • Aug 26, 2013 at 7:54 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Commissioner Eddie Williams has toned down his effort to ban felons from the county payroll.

Williams earlier had sought to have the Sullivan County Commission go on record that “individuals convicted of a felony are not to be hired in any capacity as a Sullivan County employee.”

Last week, however, Williams pulled that resolution and substituted another that instead states “the conviction of a felony may be grounds to deny employment with Sullivan County.”

After Williams and co-sponsor Dwight King introduced the earlier proposal, some commissioners questioned the resolution’s legality, while others said they wondered if it was just too unforgiving.

Williams, however, said he was concerned about potential negative impacts to the county if it welcomes felons to the payroll — and pointed out the county’s employee handbook lists arrest and conviction on a felony charge as one of 21 things that could lead to immediate termination of employment.

Williams said if it is good policy on the back end, it should be policy from the get-go.

Williams said hiring felons is difficult for businesses.

“I can’t get them on my insurance,” Williams said. “Most of us in business, we can’t do that.”

Instituting a policy to not hire felons “is fairly customary” and “is not out of the ordinary” for businesses throughout the region, Williams said.

In an earlier discussion of the issue, Commissioner Bill Kilgore asked if the county has had “a problem” with hiring felons.

King said the resolution isn’t in response to a particular, current situation — but King noted he understands it has happened at least twice in the past. King said one of those employees “left” and “maybe the other retired.”

“Are they not to be trusted?” Commissioner Michael Surgenor said. “If they’ve served their time and paid their debt ...?”

Commissioner Matthew Johnson said he’d like time to consider the issue — and questioned whether the county could be accused of discrimination by instituting such a policy.

Commissioner Cathy Armstrong pointed out to Johnson that Tennessee is a “right to work” state — which means employers don’t have to give a reason for dismissing a worker.

“It is,” Johnson said. “But you’ve also got the right to sue.”

Williams’ substitute resolution, stating conviction of a felony may be grounds to deny employment by the county, could come for a vote by the full commission next month.

State law prohibits convicted felons from holding certain elected offices.

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