Carter Co. Commission votes to try to reduce supervisory authority of county mayor

John Thompson • Jan 23, 2013 at 10:35 AM

The long-running conflict between Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey and the Carter County Commission took a different twist during Tuesday’s commission meeting when the commission voted 16-5 to send a proposed private act to Nashville that would take away Humphrey’s supervision of the director of the Carter County Landfill.

Under state law, county mayors across the state have supervisory authority over directors of the departments created by their county governments, such as the landfill. The private act would take that authority from the Carter County mayor and give it to the Landfill Committee of the Carter County Commission. Only five commissioners voted against sending the private act to Nashville for approval. The five were: Ronnie Trivett, Charles Von Cannon, John Lewis, Bill Armstrong and Robert Gobble.

The proposed private act was initiated by Sonya Culler, a member of the Landfill Committee. The measure did not go through the Landfill Committee.

Culler said she took the action after speaking with landfill director Benny Lyons. She said that ever since she has been on the Landfill Committee, she has heard about the “great job” Lyons was doing. She said he has gotten the landfill expenses under control and found many great deals when it came time to purchase replacement equipment.

Despite his accomplishments, Lyons was “very uncomfortable,” Culler said, “because the mayor is scrutinizing him and undermining his authority with the (landfill) employees.

“Never in my life have I worked in such an environment,” Humphrey said. “Not a word of complaint was filed. ... This is confusing the issue.”

Von Cannon said the matter should have been taken to the Grievance Committee rather than taking it all the way to the state legislature.

The landfill has been the scene of considerable interest in the past few years from the mayor and the committee. Both have been especially committed to improving the county’s recycling program. The mayor has shown so much interest that he led the committee to Washington County to study its recycling efforts. On the committee, chairman Joel Street and Von Cannon have been especially committed to improving the county’s recycling program, especially with efforts to expand recycling in the school system.

During Tuesday’s discussion, Street said “Mr. Lyons told me he was torn between the Landfill Committee and the mayor. He said he did not feel comfortable responding to multiple entities.”

Humphrey took the opportunity during the debate to discuss his continuing call for decreasing the number of county commissioners from its current size of 24 commissioners. “We have to do what is in the best interest of the county,” Humphrey said.

Humphrey said placing the landfill director under the Landfill Committee is similar to what is taking place with the Highway Committee. He said Jack Perkins has been elected many times to serve the county as highway superintendent “and yet we have a Highway Committee.”

He said the county has invested $300,000 in the landfill recently and “there will be major expenses going forward ... you can’t manage by committee.”

A few days earlier, Humphrey had called the insertion of the private act proposal on the agenda as a “power grab” by the commission.

The sides were reversed from another proposed private act made a few years ago in which the mayor sought to change the act establishing the Carter County Planning Commission in such a way that Planning Director Chris Schuettler would have come under the supervision of the mayor rather than the Planning Commission.

The County Commission rejected the earlier private act proposal.

The private act to bring Lyons under the direction of the Landfill Committee will now be sent to Nashville for action by the General Assembly and signing into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.

In other matters, Bobbie Gouge-Dietz, a retired teacher at Happy Valley High School, was elected by the Commission to finish out Dickie Renfro’s unexpired term in the 5th District. Renfro resigned in late November and has moved to Florida.

The Siam Utility District came in for strong criticism from the commission and Humphrey for being unresponsive to its water customers. Humphrey said the utility district raised its rates by $7 as part of the funding plan to cover an $8.2 million bond issue for the recently completed Watauga River Regional Water Authority plant at Wilbur Lake. Several customers complained to Humphrey and their commissioners that they had not received any notice or explanation for the increase.

Commissioner John Lewis suggested a private act should be made to have the directors of the Siam Utility District elected by its customers, which is the way it is done in the First Utility District. Lewis’ motion did not receive the required 13 votes.

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