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Ouster proceedings based on state law
Apr 30, 2004 12:00 am
Mt. Juliet's city attorney says ouster proceedings against a city commissioner will be based on a section of state law adopted by the town in its original charter.
Though some officials initially expressed skepticism about the legality of plans to commence with ouster proceedings against District City 1 Commissioner Ray Justice, Mt. Juliet City Attorney Lawrence Wilson cited a section of Tennessee law which he said was adopted by the city in its original charter.
He quoted a section of state code which says a commissioner "may be removed from office" not only for a "crime or misdemeanor" but also for "grave misconduct showing unfitness for public duty."
Since the district attorney's office has determined no "prosecutable" crime was committed by Justice, the city will attempt to show the city commissioner demonstrated "grave misconduct" in tape recorded comments made in a call to Police Chief Kenneth Martin critical of the city's DUI enforcement policy.
Justice's criticism of the MJPD's arrest of a former public official's adult daughter included references to the city's policies as well as an admission by Justice – who works as a sheriff's department officer – that he let an apparently drunken motorist avoid arrest after learning she was the fiance of a Metro police officer. Justice referred to such incidents as "professional courtesy" and inferred the MJPD should do the same in similar situations.
His comments created a furor in some circles, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving harshly condemning Justice, forcing Sheriff Terry Ashe to defend his own department's DUI policies.
Wilson and other Mt. Juliet officials approached District Attorney General Tommy Thompson about the issue but the DA declined to pursue an ouster, saying there was little chance of proving a crime had been committed. In a carefully worded letter to city officials, Thompson urged that the controversy be resolved administratively and remarked on the irony of its timing, coming just before a woman charged with killing officers from both departments is set to stand trial.
Thompson, when contacted about the city's apparent plans to attempt an ouster Monday night, said he was unaware of a provision for the commission to conduct an ouster proceeding on its own.
Wilson County Election Coordinator Lynn Harris likewise on Tuesday she she had been previously unaware the commission could conduct its own ouster inquiry.
She noted that any such proceeding could "easily drag on" past the city's general election in November, when Justice along with another commissioner and Mayor Kevin Mack are all up for re-election.
However, should a vacancy occur it will be handled just as any other commission opening would, with members of the panel selecting a replacement who would serve until the November election.
During a speech in Lebanon yesterday Thompson touched on the controversy briefly, basically repeating to a Rotary Club audience what he told Mt. Juliet officials both verbally and in his letter – that he did not feel there was proof Justice had committed a crime.
"It is not something we are going to prosecute," he said.
He also touched on the political rivalries entangled in the controversy, remarking at one point, "Something like this, just because you're political enemies isn't something that's worthy of an ouster suit."
Thompson also repeated for the audience the "irony" of the controversy's timing and indicated he was displeased that the city will now apparently pursue an ouster on its own.
"This squabble – of all the times to have this going on in the City of Mt. Juliet, within two months of this very serious case where two officers were killed on the interstate, and now the city council is squabbling over this long-time political fight… Now, the mayor says that if (Justice) doesn't apologize and say he did wrong, they are going to vote him off the council. I didn't go to sleep too early last night because I was still mad," the DA said during yesterday's speech.
Wilson said that under the section of state law upon which the city is relying, the entire procedure must begin with a public scheduling of the meeting in which the ouster question will be posed.
The commission would meet in special session and entertain a resolution to consider the ouster, the attorney said. At that point, the allegations against Justice would be "formally presented," the attorney said.
Then evidence would follow much like in a court of law, with the city presenting proof and evidence and Justice allowed to do likewise in his defense, Wilson said.
He said it's "possible" Martin could be called on to testify or present proof about his conversation with the city commissioner, which was secretly tape recorded. The city attorney indicated other Mt. Juliet officials could be called on as well.
He said Justice would be given ample opportunity to present a defense.
"Certainly he will have every opportunity to explain away, or attempt to explain away, whatever is contained in the formal allegation," Wilson said.
Then, he added, the controversy would be settled by a "simple majority vote" of commissioners.
"I suppose you could say it would come down to a matter of which side they believe and the individual commissioners would just vote accordingly," Wilson said.
During Monday night's meeting Mack indicated the procedure could be instituted at the commission's next meeting. The law apparently does not specify an appropriate time frame for such a proceeding, stating only that a commissioner should be given "notice in writing" of the planned meeting.