The latest antics involving the Sullivan County mayor and the county’s highway department demonstrate yet again why Tennessee counties should hire professional managers, rather than leave executive responsibilities to whoever wins a popularity contest.
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As well, appointed professional management should extend through the various departments of county government, as is the case with cities.
The fiasco surrounding a successor to former Highway Commissioner Terry Shaffer brings — yet again — embarrassment to the county, and — yet again — demonstrates County Mayor Steve Godsey’s incompetence.
Shaffer retired last December in the midst of an investigation into alleged improprieties within the department — this, coming three years after former Commissioner Allan Pope was found guilty of various charges. When Shaffer stepped down, Mayor Godsey named Jim Montgomery temporary director of the highway department, either ignoring or in ignorance of state law that required Shaffer — not Godsey — to name a temporary successor until the county commission appointed someone to serve until the next election.
Shaffer sent such a notification by letter to Godsey, naming department employee Bobbie Manning as temporary director. But Godsey, who later said he had forgotten to open the letter, named Montgomery.
This all came to a head several weeks ago at the first meeting of the commission since Shaffer’s sudden retirement, when commissioners voted to delay appointing an interim commissioner.
Commissioner Michael Surgenor asked Godsey about the requirement that Shaffer name a replacement and whether Godsey had received such a letter. Godsey said that he had, but that he had forgotten to read it.
And so, the mayor left the meeting to fetch the letter, so that he could then read it and inform commissioners that indeed, Manning and not Montgomery, had been named by Shaffer as acting commissioner.
This is curious in and of itself. Why would a highway commissioner who resigns — or who might be removed from office in the midst of wrongdoing — name his own successor? Shouldn’t that vital function be left entirely to the county commission?
The mayor then verbally administered an oath of office to Manning. It was later learned, however, that the mayor’s “swearing in” of Manning did not comport with state law, which requires Manning to file the oath in writing — a matter the mayor should have been aware of or could easily have educated himself about.
Then, only days into his stint as temporary commissioner, Manning took it upon himself to start firing people. Reportedly, seven employees of the department have been canned by the temporary commissioner. Manning said he terminated the employees for budgetary purposes.
However, the department is operating under a budget that Manning did not write. And what in the world is a temporary commissioner doing firing anyone? Why would he even presume to have such authority?
Meanwhile, six of the employees have retained very effective legal counsel. Will that put county taxpayers at financial risk if these terminations are successfully challenged?
County taxpayers next learned that the mayor and commissioners were notified that Manning had failed to file proof of a $100,000 security bond, a requirement under state law even for a temporary highway commissioner. Typically, the county pays that bond. But in the case of Manning, no one immediately looked into a bond for Manning.
Why not? Isn’t it the mayor’s responsibility to ensure his department heads are properly installed?
When county officials finally began the bonding process for Manning, they reportedly said they couldn’t find an agency willing to bond him. Why not? What don’t taxpayers know that would give bonding agencies such concern?
Manning said he was told he was turned down by some agencies due to his credit history, so he personally paid $9,000 for a “high-risk” bond that typically costs the county $500 to $1,000. Why is Manning at “high risk” for bonding? Will that satisfy county commissioners who have yet to make an interim appointment?
But it doesn’t end there.
Wednesday, County Attorney Dan Street informed Manning he couldn’t legally perform duties because the commission has yet to approve his bond. Manning ignored Street’s admonition that returning to his duties would be a violation of state law, and then released an extraordinary statement that said in part: “... there is the question of firing seven highway department employees. These are separate factors but have a common denominator in how I was advised to handle each one. Consistently this advisor has recommended me take a position that may have been for reasons other than the county’s best interests. While I completely accept any and all responsibility for decisions I have made, I want to clarify that my advisor in these matters has been Mayor Steve Godsey, and now his position seems to be completely opposite.”
So here we have the temporary highway commissioner accusing Mayor Godsey of giving him advice contrary of the county’s best interests. We can’t begin to imagine what might come next — unless the county commission, which meets Tuesday, takes control of this mess and cleans it up.
The commission should appoint as highway commissioner an individual who is capable of gaining the full confidence and trust not just of the commission, but of county taxpayers. In so doing, the commission also should, by vote, express its view of Mayor Godsey’s performance in this matter.