Attorneys disagree on issues surrounding firing of Sullivan Highway Department workers

J. H. Osborne • Feb 6, 2014 at 5:57 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Bobbie Manning said Wednesday he has personally paid the $9,000 fee to secure the $100,000 bond required to serve as highway commissioner in Sullivan County. He said the paperwork proving that bond is not yet on file with the county. But the county attorney confirmed with the provider that the paperwork was in process and could arrive as early as today.

Manning said he had also filed the necessary oath of office Tuesday, in writing, to the county clerk’s office — after learning earlier this week that having had the oath administered verbally last month by Mayor Steve Godsey was not sufficient under state law.

The importance of a lack of a bond on file with the county, along with the lack of a properly administered oath, is — as might be expected — described differently by County Attorney Dan Street and Bruce Shine, the lawyer representing six men whose employment by the Sullivan County Highway Department ended last week.

Street says Manning, serving as the temporary successor to Terry Shaffer — who retired as highway commissioner in late December amid an ongoing probe of goings on at the highway department by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation — until an interim highway commissioner is appointed by the Sullivan County Commission, was legally appointed and subsequently recognized as the acting highway commissioner. Street describes the lack of a bond being secured and on file and the not-right oath administration were correctable mistakes that don’t change Manning having been recognized as the de facto highway commissioner when he fired the workers last week.

Shine, representing six men who want their jobs back, says the lack of a bond and the lack of a properly administered oath mean Manning at no time has had the authority to fire anyone.

Shine alleges the firings were in retaliation for most of the fired workers having cooperated with the TBI investigation of the department.

Manning told the Times-News on Wednesday that simply isn’t so. Manning said he made the cuts to trim staffing levels and save the highway department’s payroll budget $260,000 per year plus benefits.

Manning said he did terminate the employment of six workers, and a seventh quit rather than be reassigned.

“What I did was not an easy job,” Manning told members of the Sullivan County Commission’s Administrative Committee. “I was looking out for the betterment of the highway department and the county. We were a little heavy. Overstaffed.”

Manning said none of the workers in question was directly involved in the department’s three basic functions: snow removal, paving and bush-hogging or mowing.

Manning said he did not make the decision suddenly or without input from others in the department — and he had others present when he told the workers they were being terminated.

Manning said he and the others had been talking about it for a week, and he made the cuts all in a single day so he could tell the remaining 95 highway department employees that those were the only personnel cuts coming.

Manning said morale is noticeably improved at the highway department since last week.

“I was put in this position to oversee,” Manning said. “And that’s what I’m doing. I’m doing what I think is best. I didn’t want to do this, but I had to for the betterment of the highway department and the county.”

Street confirmed late Wednesday afternoon that he had spoken with a representative of Edwards, Tipton, Witt and had been told the bond fee had been paid by Manning and that the provider of the coverage would be overnight mailing the actual paperwork once it is complete. Street said some county officials assumed that means it will arrive today, but he was not sure that’s the case.

State law requires elected officials to be bonded. For highway commissioner, the bond is $100,000.

The county pays the bond fee for all the county officials who are required to be bonded — and Sullivan County has historically negotiated with bond companies to find the necessary bonds for officeholders.

Nobody looked for a bond for Manning until sometime within the past two weeks.

By late last week — right about the time Manning made news for terminating the employment of seven workers — county officials were saying they simply couldn’t find anyone willing to bond Manning for the job.

Manning told the Times-News he was told he was turned down for bonding by some companies because of something related to his credit history, but he had a credit report prepared and didn’t think his credit score was abnormally low or bad — and neither did a local bank.

Manning said the bond he did secure is classified as high-risk and that’s why it cost $9,000 instead of the $500 to $1,000 that is typical for such bonds.

That’s why Street and Godsey said the county would expect Manning to make up the $8,000 difference.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Shine had not yet filed any official legal challenge.

“I am giving the county the opportunity to do the right thing,” Shine said. “The right thing would be for the county to call these workers on Sunday and tell them to report back to work on Monday.”

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