Mediation continues in 911/Unicoi County lawsuit

Brad Hicks • Jun 26, 2012 at 7:30 AM

Mediation is continuing in the lawsuit filed against Unicoi County and the county’s Emergency Communications District, and the matter was the subject of a brief discussion at Monday’s regular meeting of the Unicoi County Commission.

Both the county and the Emergency Communications District were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Greeneville in January by 911 dispatchers seeking overtime pay they feel they are owed. The dispatchers are seeking unpaid compensation, an equal amount of liquidated damages costs and attorneys’ fees.

The matter was first discussed at a Dec. 5 meeting of the Unicoi County 911 Service Board, at which commission chairwoman Sue Jean Wilson said that when the county’s emergency dispatchers were switched from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts in July 2010, more than $33,000 in overtime was accumulated.

At that time, the 911 Service Board voted to pay half of the overtime owed to the dispatchers, with the expectation that the county would pay the other half. However, at its Dec. 19 meeting, the Unicoi County Commission rejected this measure, with several commissioners stating that more information on the matter was needed.

In April, the commission lent its approval to allowing County Attorney Doug Shults to enter into negotiations in hopes of settling the lawsuit, as did the 911 Service Board. These measures authorized Shults to offer up to $60,000 for negotiation purposes, with both the county and 911 Service Board paying half of the settlement amount up to $30,000.

A Monday meeting of the Unicoi County 911 Service Board and a work session of the County Commission held prior to its regular meeting both ending with closed client/attorney meetings to discuss the pending lawsuit.

At Monday’s commission meeting, Shults said both sides were still in mediation and that a special called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission may be held in the future. Following the meeting, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said whether special called meetings of the County Commission and 911 Service Board are held may be worked out in a settlement.

The board also approved the reappointment of Jimmy Erwin to the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board, but not without prior discussion. Commissioner Kenneth Garland voiced his displeasure that the post was not advertised. Previously, the commission discussed the advertising of openings on county boards and committees when the appointment of a new member to the county’s Civil Service Board came up for discussion.

“I think if it’s done for one, it ought to be done for everybody,” Garland said. “I mean, we can’t pick who we want just because they’re our friends.”

Lynch said the commission was considering Erwin’s reappointment to the board, while the matter concerning the Civil Service Board was for the appointment of a new member. However, Garland said technically Erwin’s position on the board should be considered a new opening since Erwin’s term on the board had expired.

“I’m not against him, I’d probably vote for him,” Garland said of Erwin, adding that he felt Commissioner Loren Thomas, who was in favor of advertising openings on public boards, had changed his stance. Thomas made the first motion to approve Erwin’s appointment.

Commissioner Bill Hensley, who was temporarily filling in as the commission’s chairman, said he did not believe the commission had previously voted on the matter of advertising such openings.

Commissioner Dwight Bennett said the issue could be addressed by the county’s policy committee in the future. Thomas said he would be in favor of advertising new openings, but said reappointments are different.

The vote to approve Erwin’s reappointment was approved unanimously by commissioners present. Garland left the meeting following the vote but, before doing so, said he believed the commission had changed its stance with regard to advertising board and committee openings.

“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard out of the County Commission,” Garland said.

In other business, the commission:

• Approved a resolution concerning the county’s litigation tax.

• Approved authorization of the annual renewal of a street maintenance contract with the town of Unicoi.

• Approved a resolution of support for funding of the Erwin National Fish Hatchery.

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