Alderman absent from Erwin town meetings

Brad Hicks • Mar 1, 2014 at 5:29 PM

ERWIN — It has been more than seven months since one member of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen last attended a meeting of the town’s legislative body, and his perpetual absence has prompted other town officials to look into how such absenteeism can be prevented in the future.

Robie Sullins Jr., who was elected to serve as an Erwin alderman in November 2010, last attended a BMA meeting on July 22, according to meeting minutes maintained at Erwin Town Hall.

Mayor Doris Hensley said the town of Erwin was originally established through a private act, meaning that, according to state law, elected officials cannot be recalled.

Although there are no provisions under state law to have a recall or ouster proceedings, the town does address chronic absenteeism in its own ordinances. According to town code, the board can “prescribe reasonable penalties” to address the repeated absences of town officials from town meetings.

“We’ve asked our attorney to look into that phrase there and just see what penalties we are able to enact,” Hensley said.

Hensley said town officials have not yet heard back from town attorney Thomas Seeley III on the matter, but penalties could include non-payment to aldermen who do not show up for meetings.

Aldermen serving on the board receive compensation in the amount of $300 per month. Hensley said the town could possibly look at considering an ordinance to alter this and instead compensate aldermen based on their attendance at meetings.

“That is something that we’ve been kicking around now for several months, is that we tie the compensation to their attendance at the meeting,” Hensley said.

Payments for February have not yet been made to the aldermen, but Sullins has been paid $1,800 as a member of the panel since his last meeting in July. However, Hensley said the town is not seeking reimbursement from Sullins.

“It’s not even on the radar at this time,” she said. “It’s never been discussed.”

But Hensley said the topic of Sullins’ resignation from the board has been broached. The mayor said Sullins first contacted her last fall after he secured a job in the Nashville area. Hensley said Sullins advised her that he had checked with the attorney’s general’s office, who advised him he would not have to resign as alderman and he would attend town meetings as he was able.

Around the first of the year, Hensley contacted Sullins to express concerns over the possibility of not having a regular quorum at town meetings due to the ongoing illness of another alderman and asked Sullins if he thought he could begin attending meetings.

“He said ‘I’ve got spring break coming up in either March or April, and I’ll try to get to those meetings then,’ ” Hensley said.

Hensley said she relayed this information to other board members, and in January, the board voted to have Hensley send Sullins a letter requesting his resignation. Hensley said this letter was sent Feb. 10, but Sullins has not yet responded.

While Hensley said Seeley is looking into ways to prevent repeated absenteeism on the part of elected officials in the future, she said this is “nothing personal” against Sullins and is in the best interest of the town.

“We’re in the process now where there’s likely to be a lot of decisions made, and I feel that we need a full board to make those decisions,” she said.

Sullins has been enrolled in law school classes in the Nashville area since August 2012, and he also works in that area as a legal researcher for a state agency. He was also absent from the board’s meetings in August and September of 2012. Sullins said Friday that law school has become even more demanding in his second year, and that regular commutes to Nashville have left him less time.

“I don’t want folks to just take it as I’m laying out,” he said. “I’m missing meetings because I’m in law school. I want folks to know that. I feel the majority know that. A lot of constituents I see when I’m in the grocery store, stuff like that, they know I’m in law school.”

Sullins, whose term is up in November, said he does not plan on seeking re-election to the board. He also said he had been “mulling” submitting his resignation from the board since receiving Hensley’s letter, adding that his resignation is imminent and could occur within the next few weeks. But before he resigns, Sullins said he wants to give the current board time to consider a replacement and not burden its members by having to quickly fill a vacancy. Along with this, Sullins said he has unfinished business as a town official.

“The resignation is coming,” Sullins said. “I just want to give the board time to consider a replacement, and there’s a few things that I had on my list that I would like to keep my eye on or get accomplished before my term is up. I would like to take the next couple of weeks and wrap up some business with the board, some things I’d like to get done.”

Hensley said she valued Sullins’ input and lauded his service on the board, adding that he consistently presented good ideas and suggestions.

“Robie was an outstanding alderman,” she said. “When he was here, he was really good.”

The matter of aldermen absenteeism will likely be addressed at a future board meeting, Hensley said.

“It probably won’t be personal, directed strictly at Alderman Sullins, but it will probably be a form of an ordinance on how we’ll do the payments to the officials,” she said.

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