BLOUNTVILLE — In a move initiated by members of his own party and from his own neck of the woods, Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey lost the authority Tuesday to preside over proceedings of the Sullivan County Commission.
He said he is glad it happened.
The commission took no action regarding appointment of an interim highway commissioner, other than to approve the bond for Bobbie Manning, who has been running the Sullivan County Highway Department for several weeks as the named successor of former interim highway commissioner Terry Shaffer.
Godsey had — like all county mayors before him (they were previously called county executive or county court judge) since at least the days of Lon Boyd — served as chairman of the County Commission since his election as county mayor in 2006.
The position is bestowed annually by commission vote, usually in September or shortly thereafter. It had not been voted on, however, for the current term.
Godsey’s tenure ended with a swift vote by the County Commission near the end of the group’s monthly meeting on Tuesday.
From start to finish, the meeting seemed to touch over and over on questions about Godsey’s leadership or lack thereof.
Commissioner Cathy Armstrong, a fellow Republican from the Bristol area, rose during public comment to deliver a speech that took Godsey to task on several points related to the handling of the transfer of authority at the Sullivan County Highway Department following Shaffer’s retirement in December.
Armstrong said she faults Godsey “for not following protocol” and leaving things in a mess.
Armstrong said she believes Manning was encouraged “by our leadership” to release employees.
“Whether it happened at Arby’s over a breakfast biscuit or in private behind closed doors, it doesn’t matter,” Armstrong said. “It happened, as was further substantiated by Mr. Manning.”
Godsey himself took to the public speakers’ podium to respond.
Godsey has said he did not tell Manning to fire anyone — and in fact had advised Manning to rehire the fired employees.
Godsey did admit to having had many discussions with many commissioners over a biscuit at Arby’s.
But he said he has no jurisdiction over the highway department and had nothing to do with the firings.
“I want us to forget all this,” Godsey said. “I want us to get away from all the negative.”
Godsey said he apologized if anything he has done has been “misconstrued” and while in the past he has said he “forgot” about a letter from Shaffer naming his temporary successor, on Tuesday Godsey said he had received the letter months ago — and would not have utilized it in any case, because in his legal analysis, it did not apply.
Godsey said the state law that calls for such letters to be on file by county highway commissioners states they are to be used to name a temporary successor if a highway commissioner resigns, dies or is removed from office.
Godsey said Shaffer retired, so it didn’t matter what the letter said.
County Attorney Dan Street also took a turn at public comment.
Street said the whole highway commissioner issue is very complicated and he’s worked hard to bring it to a conclusion as it has continued to unfold over the past few weeks.
Street said Godsey had sought input from lawyers in Nashville and they said they had no answers, that it was up to the county attorney.
“I have worked on nothing else but this issue the last two weeks, as of Friday,” Street said. “We have not dropped the ball. We are on top of the situation.”
Near the end of the meeting, Commissioner Bryan Boyd, a Republican from the Bristol area, said it is time for the commission to “start following our rules.”
“We haven’t been,” Boyd said. “We refer to them and we go back and forth. We’ve got questions of whether we followed the right procedure ... on the highway commissioner and all kinds of things. One of the things we haven’t done, in this last year, that we are required to do ... is elect a chairman and a pro temp. So I call for that election at this time.”
“That’s a good idea,” Godsey said. “I had forgotten that.”
Robert White, a Republican from the Bristol area, nominated longtime Budget Committee Chairman Eddie Williams as commission chairman. Armstrong seconded the nomination.
Commissioner Ed Marsh also was nominated.
Godsey was not.
Williams received 17 votes. Marsh got three votes. Two commissioners passed on the vote. Another was not present for the meeting.
The commission went on to elect Commissioner John Crawford as speaker pro tempore — the person who fills in if the chairman is unable to preside.
Commissioner O.W. Ferguson will continue to hold the title of speaker pro tempore emeritus.
The complete text of Armstrong’s comments, as well as unedited audio of Armstrong’s comments, Godsey’s response, Boyd’s comments, and the vote on Williams are available at the bottom of this story.
In between Armstrong’s comments and Boyd’s call for election of a chairman, the commission took care of the day’s agenda — which included a resolution to approve Manning’s $100,000 surety bond — which Manning himself paid a $9,000 fee to secure a couple of weeks ago. It arrived last week, but could not legally be recorded in the deed office (as required by state law of all such bonds) because it had not been approved by the county commission.
The resolution’s primary sponsor: Williams, who last month supported appointment of Dwight King as interim highway commissioner.
It was approved with a “aye” vote from every county commissioner present.
After the meeting, the Times-News asked Manning about quotes in recent interviews with other media outlets that indicated he’d changed his story on whether or not Godsey told him to terminate highway department employees.
Manning said his use of the word “instruct” last week wasn’t correct — that Godsey didn’t tell him to fire the employees. But Manning maintains Godsey knew he was going to terminate some employees and that he believed Godsey encouraged him to do so.
As for losing his post as commission chairman, Godsey told the Times-News a couple of hours later that he was “glad” it happened.
Godsey said half the county mayors in Tennessee do not serve as chairman of their county commissions — and was glad to no longer be chairman because it means he can veto decisions of the commission.
Asked if he planned to start using the veto power, Godsey said he will if the county commission approves a tax increase.
Godsey said it leaves him in a better position to watch out for county taxpayers.
A county commission can override a county mayor’s veto by a simple majority vote.