County attorney says interim highway chief must step aside

J. H. Osborne • Feb 14, 2014 at 9:15 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — County Attorney Dan Street said Thursday he had no doubt the Sullivan County Highway Department would continue to operate if Bobbie Manning took his advice and stopped performing official duties of the highway commissioner.

“I have all the confidence in the world in the employees over there,” Street said. “The highway department should continue to function.”

Manning, however, had not stopped leading operation of the highway department. He told the Times-News on Wednesday he had no intention of abandoning his role as successor to former interim highway commissioner Terry Shaffer, who retired in December amid an ongoing probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

State law requires highway commissioners to file a letter naming their temporary successor in the event they leave office during a term. Shaffer’s letter named Manning.

The person named in such letters only serves until the county commission appoints someone to serve as interim highway commissioner until the next election. The Sullivan County Commission has met once since Shaffer retired. It meets again next week.

The letter naming Manning was not made public until Jan. 21. Between Shaffer’s retirement and that date, Jim Montgomery was “looking over” operation of the Sullivan County Highway Department, at the request of County Mayor Steve Godsey. Godsey has said he just completely forgot about the letter naming a temporary successor.

Street said that had Manning taken his advice to cease performing official duties on Wednesday he had thought Godsey could ask someone, perhaps Montgomery, to “look over” things at the department again.

The Times-News asked Street if Godsey could solve things by naming someone to “look over” things, couldn’t Manning be that person.

Street said in his opinion, no.

Street maintains Manning was properly appointed successor. And Street maintains Manning was “de facto” in charge and acting with recognized authority when he terminated several workers a couple of weeks ago.

Since that time, however, the county tried and failed several times to find and secure a surety bond for Manning, Street said. A bond was eventually found and Manning paid the $9,000 fee to secure it himself. It finally arrived earlier this week and that’s when the latest problem came to light.

When Street and Manning attempted to record the proof of bond, as required by law, with the Register of Deeds office, they were told it couldn’t be filed because state law requires county commission approval of such bonds. Street said with the county commission not meeting until next week, that’s what drove him to advise Manning that he was putting himself at legal risk and the county at possible financial risk by continuing to perform official duties without county commission approval of the bond.

Street said the various state laws involved, coupled with the time it typically takes to secure a surety bond, creates an unavoidable “void” in this case. When an official is elected during the normal election cycle, there are a few weeks between Election Day and taking office. In some other offices, such as county clerk, there are deputy clerks already bonded. No one else at the highway department is bonded.

Until the county commission meets Tuesday, “there is no answer,” Street said.

If the county commission appoints someone other than Manning on Tuesday, or if the seat were to be declared vacant, clearing the way for Godsey to appoint someone, that person would be in the same predicament as Manning, Street said.

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