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Three seek Sullivan County attorney position

April 19th, 2014 9:33 pm by J. H. Osborne

Three seek Sullivan County  attorney position

BLOUNTVILLE — The Kingsport Times-News asked the three candidates for Sullivan County attorney in the Republican party primary to answer five questions.

The county general election is not until August, but the race for county attorney — a job that pays nearly $111,000 per year — will be decided in the Republican primary next month because no one is running as a Democrat or independent in the general election.

Voters will pick between incumbent County Attorney Dan Street, Alice Alexander, and John K. Gillenwater in the GOP primary on May 6.

Each candidate's unedited responses are below. They were limited to 200 words for each answer.

1) Who does the Sullivan County Attorney work for?

Alexander: "Ultimately, the County Attorney works for all residents of Sullivan County, because her decisions affect everyone. More directly, the County Attorney works for all County officials and departments, department heads, county committees and boards. The County Attorney works closely with the Mayor, Commissioners, Sheriff, Finance Department, School Department, Register of Deeds, Court Clerks, Trustee, Property Assessor, County Clerks, Highway Department, and Purchasing Department to ensure legal formalities are met and to provide legal advice regarding the decisions these entities make on a daily basis. The County Attorney handles litigation involving the County. Currently however, some departments of our County government are choosing to pay other attorneys for their legal advice, resulting in additional costs to our taxpayers. It was reported recently that our current Mayor has sought the advice of attorneys in Nashville, instead of from the incumbent County Attorney. Confidence must be brought back to the County Attorney's office so that these government officials will use the County Attorney's services and save the County money."

Gillenwater: "Sullivan County Attorney's duties are described in the Tennessee State Statute for Sullivan County which was sent you in full yesterday. Any attempt by me to summarize that statute would not give you the full meaning expressed by that Legislation."

Street: "The Sullivan County Attorney works for Sullivan County, an independent legal corporate entity. As such, the Sullivan County Attorney works for the citizens of Sullivan County. The leaders of Sullivan County, both elected and appointed, are also clients of the Sullivan County Attorney because Sullivan County functions only through its leaders, just like a corporation. The County Attorney is available to county leaders to provide legal advice to assist in the day-to-day and future workings of Sullivan County and to provide them legal representation when they are named in suit, or accused of wrong doing; the protection of innocent county officials is necessary to the health and working of Sullivan County; but Sullivan County is the foremost client; it must be protected. When action or intended action by a county official skirts close to or crosses over the line of what is legally permissible, at that point it is the responsibility of the County Attorney to look out for Sullivan County, which could result in the County Attorney taking an adversarial position against such official."

2) Should the county attorney be reactive or proactive?

Alexander: "The County Attorney must be both reactive and proactive. Of course, the more proactive the County Attorney is, the less there is to react to. For example, the most recent Highway Commissioner appointment did not meet legal formalities. These involved simple issues of a bond requirement and a swearing in ceremony. The County Attorney should have ensured these legal requirements were met. In other words, the County Attorney should have been proactive. Because he was not, a legal battle against the County arose. At that point, the County Attorney should have been reactive. Instead, the County Mayor had to seek legal advice from Nashville attorneys, who advised him that the issue should be handled by the County Attorney. Several weeks later, the legal issues have not been resolved and the County Attorney does not have a good plan for resolution of this issue. Because of the incumbent's lack of proactive measures, litigation against the County has increased. Since he took office in 1994, the office has gone from being a part time position to being a full time position, resulting in bigger government and a high price tag to the taxpayers of Sullivan County."

Gillenwater: "Both, depending on the situation and circumstances. For example, the County Attorney may be called upon during the County Commission meetings to respond to matters the Commissioners, the Mayor, Department Heads, or the general public present. Some of these may be addressed at the time. Other issues may require investigation, research, or further analysis. In all matters, it is the responsibility of the County Attorney to use his/her experience, training, and judgment in the County's best interest."

Street: "The County Attorney should be proactive. A stitch in time saves nine. Sullivan County has only those powers granted to it by the State of Tennessee and even those powers are further refined and limited by case law, federal law, the Constitutions, and Sullivan County itself. When Sullivan County exceeds its authority, does not follow the law, or injures others, that most often results in costs and law suits. Private entities and individuals lose their own money when they make mistakes; however, when Sullivan County officials and employees make mistakes or exceed their authority, it costs Sullivan County and therefore the taxpayer. The County Attorney needs to be watchful to look out for potential problems and to timely advice elected and appointed officials when they are not in compliance with the law, are exceeding their authority, or are putting the county at risk. New ideas and procedures can be implemented; but they must be implemented properly; things should be done correctly the first time. We are a nation of laws, not of men. Laws apply to Sullivan County the same as they do to you and me."

3) Why do you want the job?

Alexander: "I would like to actively participate in the growth of our County and minimize legal issues, for the benefit of all Sullivan County residents. In addition, I was asked by some members of local government to run against the incumbent, because they felt I could do a better job. As County Attorney, I would focus primarily on risk management and alternative dispute resolution. I feel I can help put an end to county officials being at odds with one another. I would provide guidance to the various departments so they can be confident that their decisions are legal. I would help the County devise a new program for grievances, so that most issues can be resolved without litigation. I would provide a more structured way for commissioners to present their legal questions, which would result in their meetings being more organized with better, and faster, results."

Gillenwater: "To improve ethics in government, and emphasize Alternative Dispute Resolution (arbitration and/or mediation) as an alternative to expensive and protracted litigation."

Street: "I am a lawyer; I enjoy being a lawyer — giving advice, helping people, representing people, helping Sullivan County and representing Sullivan County. I also have a desire, and feel I have a duty, to contribute to the betterment of my home and the lives of my fellow man. By being the attorney for Sullivan County, I can do both these things. I get to experience a wide range of legal services, from advising elected officials to representing Sullivan County and its elected officials when sued; all within numerous fields of law. While I can assist and enable the progression and betterment of Sullivan County and the lives of its citizens, I can also see that county government does not stray outside the law or exceed the powers given to it by the citizens. When we accomplish these things in compliance with our laws, our leaders deserve good legal advice and good legal representation. As County Attorney I can represent the citizens in their elected government and also help government do the things it is supposed to do. The office of County Attorney provides great opportunity to practice law."

4) What in your professional background makes you the best person for the job?

Alexander: "I regularly practice civil litigation in the chancery courts, which is where a majority of the County Attorney's work takes place. I have a good rapport with the judges, the clerks, and most attorneys in the area. I have practiced civil litigation and administrative law in a variety of fields. I have earned the Martindale-Hubbell Client Distinction Award, an award based on client ratings. In addition to being a litigator, I am also a certified mediator. In law school, I earned a special certification entitled "Lawyer as Problem Solver" which required additional coursework in mediation, arbitration, and other alternative dispute resolution techniques. I use those techniques in helping people resolve their legal issues while also repairing relationships of the parties. I have served as the editor of a law review publication, where I honed my research and writing skills. I have earned certification in electronic legal research techniques, which helps me to research legal issues quickly and with the most recent legal decisions at hand. I regularly read the new decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court and appellate courts on a daily basis. My modern approach to practicing law is a necessary direction for the County government."

Gillenwater: "I have practiced law since the late sixties and have practiced in virtually every major field of law including real estate, zoning and land use, trial work, contract and business law."

Street: "I have broad legal experience, both in and out of court. I provide solid legal advice; I don't sway or alter my advice based upon who is asking. I prepare; I put the necessary study and work into forming my legal opinions and into providing legal representation. Because I prepare, I create favorable opportunities to settle cases thereby saving Sullivan County money. I always look to save money. As an attorney I have always acted in a professional and ethical manner with integrity. I take all the above qualities very serious. I feel these qualities reflect positively upon Sullivan County and its citizens. I have been a trial attorney for 34 years. I have practiced in civil and criminal courts, in state and federal courts, at the trial level and at the appellate level. I have experience in numerous fields of law, from workers compensation to criminal, from car wrecks and personal injury to zoning, from county roads to employment law, from drafting leases to civil rights. The County Attorney for Sullivan County must have experience in numerous fields of law, both in and out of court."

5) Do the responsibilities and duties of the county attorney leave time — or ethically permit for — any outside work, such as operating a private practice?

Alexander: "The County Attorney position is full time and the office holder is forbidden from engaging in the private practice of law. It was not always like this. The incumbent took office in 1994, when the position was part time. By the 1998 election, the office had grown to be full time. As a conservative Republican, I believe that smaller government is better. As County Attorney, I would implement strategies to reduce the County's litigation and lessen the taxpayer's burdens."

Gillenwater: "I am of the opinion that the County Attorney position is a full time position thus precluding private practice. If elected, all my private practice matters will be transferred to attorneys selected by each client. The period of time between election and actually taking office will be more than sufficient to accomplish this matter."

Street: "Ethics would permit outside work, provided conflicts are avoided, but I believe the demands on the Sullivan County Attorney leave no time for outside work. Even excluding lawsuits, the daily work of the County Attorney is very demanding: there are contracts & leases to be written, resolutions to be reviewed, changes to be made to county rules & regulations; personnel questions, property questions; there are always Sullivan County officials, elected and appointed, employees, boards and commissions needing representation and inquiring about the law and how it should be interpreted and applied; constitutional questions, conflicts, zoning, Highway Dept., Sheriff's Dept., etc. There are always legal issues to be addressed and resolved in the day-to-day functions and long-term planning of county government. The County Attorney must stay knowledgeable in numerous fields of law. These tasks alone demand a large amount of time. Assuming the County Attorney will also handle lawsuits against and by the County, as I do to save money, the time required definitely leaves no time for outside work; lawsuits demand a huge amount of time; in fact, due to lack of time, outside counsel has to be occasionally hired to assist with the lawsuits."

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