No felons need apply: Resolution gets mixed reviews from Sullivan commissioners

J. H. Osborne • Aug 10, 2013 at 9:31 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Commissioner Eddie Williams is pushing hard to have the Sullivan County Commission go on record that “individuals convicted of a felony are not to be hired in any capacity as a Sullivan County employee.”

Williams is lead sponsor of a resolution up for consideration by county commissioners. So far, the proposal is getting a mixed reception.

Some commissioners have said they question the resolution’s legality, while others have said they wonder if it’s just too unforgiving.

Williams, however, said he is concerned about potential negative impacts to the county if it welcomes felons to the payroll — and pointed out the county’s employee handbook lists arrest and conviction on a felony charge as one of 21 things that could lead to immediate termination of employment.

Williams said if it is good policy on the back end, it should be policy from the get-go.

Commissioner Robert White said the resolution to prohibit employing felons reflects the intent of the handbook and “makes it crystal clear.”

Williams said hiring felons is difficult for businesses.

“I can’t get them on my insurance,” Williams said. “Most of us in business, we can’t do that.”

Instituting a policy to not hire felons “is fairly customary” and “is not out of the ordinary” for businesses throughout the region, Williams said.

Earlier in the week, Commissioner Bill Kilgore asked if the county has had “a problem” with hiring felons.

Commissioner Dwight King, co-sponsor, said the resolution isn’t in response to a particular, current situation — but King noted he understands it has happened at least twice in the past. King said one of those employees “left” and “maybe the other retired.”

“Are they not to be trusted?” Commissioner Michael Surgenor said. “If they’ve served their time and paid their debt ...?”

Commissioner Matthew Johnson said he’d like time to consider the issue — and questioned whether the county could be accused of discrimination by instituting such a policy.

Commissioner Darlene Calton suggested consideration of an amendment to the Wiliams/King proposal — to provide a specific timeframe, for example, prohibiting hiring anyone with a felony conviction within the past, say, 10 years.

Commissioner Cathy Armstrong pointed out to Johnson that Tennessee is a “right to work” state — which means employers don’t have to give a reason for dismissing a worker.

“It is,” Johnson said. “But you’ve also got the right to sue.”

The resolution to ban convicted felons from any sort of employment with the county could come for a vote by the full commission later this month, but is listed as “new business,” which means a vote by the full body could instead occur in September.

State law prohibits convicted felons from holding certain elected offices — such as county highway commissioner.

Last year, a state appeals court overturned some of the criminal convictions which prompted former Sullivan County Highway Commissioner Allan Pope’s departure from office in 2010 — but affirmed others, including a felony conviction which alone would bar his return to the county highway department’s top job.

Upon review of the record, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Pope that evidence was insufficient to sustain the convictions for official misconduct and private use of public property and reversed the judgments of conviction and dismissed those counts of the indictment. But the court affirmed the judgment of the trial court on theft of services of more than $10,000 but less than $60,000.

The theft over $10,000 conviction is a Class C felony.

Pope was suspended without pay after a trail concluded with a guilty verdict on Nov. 5, 2010.

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