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Wilson County, judicial commissioner director subject of lawsuit

A former Wilson County judicial commissioner has filed a lawsuit against the county and her director alleging misconduct and retaliatory behavior that created an inhospitable work environment, which ultimately resulted in her departure from the department.

That departure, according to the plaintiff, Patricia Hamblin, was prompted by a simple message taken out of context by Wilson County Director of Judicial Commissioners Lisa Coltogirone.

The lawsuit against Wilson County and Coltogirone was filed last week in U.S. District Court Middle District of Tennessee Nashville Division by Hamblin.

According to the lawsuit obtained by the Democrat, Hamblin was employed as a judicial commissioner after being appointed by the Wilson County Commission to a four-year term ending in March 2022.

A judicial commissioner’s role includes issuance of search warrants, appointment of attorneys, setting and approving bonds.

Hamblin has served as a judicial commissioner since her first appointment in March of 2010. She was subsequently appointed to hold the position in 2014 and again in 2018.

The lawsuit states that through her tenure until the time of her 2021 termination, Hamblin was “never disciplined or otherwise reprimanded for her performance.”

Due to county judicial commissioners being appointed for a set term by the county commission, the Attorney General of Tennessee issued a formal opinion on Aug. 7, 2000, that judicial commissioners could only be removed from office by ouster on grounds such as misconduct in office, neglect of duty, public intoxication, illegal gambling or any act constituting a violation of a penal statute.

The lawsuit states, “(Hamblin) has never committed or even been accused of any acts which would justify an ouster proceeding.”

Coltogirone was appointed in February as the director of judicial commissioners by the county commission.

According to the lawsuit, on the same day as her appointment, Coltogirone “went up to (Hamblin’s) office to speak to her … Coltogirone went up to her desk and put her right foot up on the desk exposing her crotch and leaned over her elbow on her knee and spoke to the plaintiff.”

The lawsuit states that this made Hamblin feel uncomfortable.

Per the lawsuit, the very next day, Coltogirone began issuing memos that included directives out of line with state law about mandating a minimum bond. Tennessee doesn’t allow for a minimum bail, as all bails are set on a case-by-case basis.

Then, on March 19, Coltogirone held a meeting with judicial commissioners where she stated a new office policy prohibiting judicial commissioners from communicating with the district attorney.

A second directive forbade the communication from any judicial commissioners to the DA’s office, any county commissioner, or anyone on the judicial committee about anything related to the commissioners office. It stated that disobeying this directive would result in a write-up.

According to the lawsuit, that happened to two of Hamblin’s colleagues after contacting the DA’s office about work-related matters, and it had a chilling effect on Hamblin’s willingness to come forward about the incidents involving Coltogirone that made her uncomfortable.

A dispute over coverage of travel expenses boiled over between Hamblin and Coltogirone regarding a training conference in Murfreesboro in which Coltogirone ordered the commissioners to travel back and forth daily despite an offer from the Judicial Commissioners Association of Tennessee to pay for lodging throughout the conference.

Even with the offer from the Judicial Commissioners Association of Tennessee to cover overnight expenses, Coltogirone refused to budge, a move that Hamblin tried to explain would cost the county money.

During an exchange with Coltogirone, a remark by Hamblin was misconstrued as a resignation. When Hamblin attempted to explain that when she said “I quit,” she was referring to her stance about the conference travel expenses and the fallout with Coltogirone, rather than tendering and official resignation. Coltogirone took it as a legitimate resignation notice, and even when Hamblin attempted to clarify and recall any misunderstanding, Coltogirone said that it’s not up for recall.

When Hamblin contacted Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto, he said, “I don’t care whether you drive or whether you stay. That’s none of my business. I don’t govern your office from here. Simply because it’s supposed to be set autonomous to where the judges, or me, or the sheriff don’t control you all. That’s why you don’t have any oversight, really, there from any of us. So I don’t really have anything to do with your office or tell you you can or can’t or all that stuff. I’m really kind of detached from your office by way of the law, Mike Jennings says.”

The counts alleged of Coltogirone include a first amendment retaliation. It states, “The conduct of Coltogirone in retaliating against judicial commissioners who exercised their rights under the first amendment to speak about issues of public concern constitute a practice and pattern and de facto policy of Wilson County.”

The lawsuit also alleges a count of First Amendment prior restraint when Coltogirone ordered Hamblin and the other judicial commissioners not to speak to anyone else, including elected officials about job-related matters.

While those counts are alleged against both the county and Coltogirone, a separate count of slander was also levied against the latter. The lawsuit states that Coltogirone committed slander by suggesting that Hamblin, a wife of 40 years, only wanted to stay overnight at the conference to stay with her boyfriend. The lawsuit alleges that Coltogirone knew the state was false, yet made it with reckless disregard for the truth.

Coltogirone was contacted by the Lebanon Democrat, but declined to comment on the matter, referring all questions to the Wilson County Attorney Mike Jennings.

Jennings was contacted for comment but had not responded by the Democrat‘s press deadline. In addition, the Wilson County Human Resources Office had not returned requests for personnel files by the press deadline.

Wilson County Schools makes masks optional

Jeff Luttrell

Mike Jennings

In anticipation of a new bill’s passing that establishes permissible mask mandate thresholds, the Wilson County Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to remove the mask requirements during its meeting on Wednesday.

The matter comes as the school board sought to stay out in front of the legislation from Nashville, which passed to the Governor’s office but remained unsigned by Gov. Bill Lee. It may not actually matter if Lee signs it though as no action for 10 days yields the same result, with the bill becoming a law.

That bill prohibits the establishment of mask requirements in any Tennessee school district unless two criteria are met. First, there must be a rolling, average 14-day COVID-19 infection rate of at least 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents while the state is under a state of emergency.

In such an event, mask mandates would not be guaranteed as the decision to implement masks has to go through a school’s principal first. That principal would then request a mandate to the school board, where if it was approved would only apply to the specific school for no greater than two weeks.

The decision to transition the rule to fit the forthcoming bill is just the school board’s way of staying out in front of the state law.

“You’re doing some stop-gap action here,” said Wilson County Attorney Mike Jennings. “I don’t think there is any doubt the law is going to come into play, but it’s not in play right now, and the board won’t meet again until after it comes into play.”

Wilson County Director of Schools Jeff Luttrell added, “What we’re doing now, if this new bill becomes law, puts us in line with state law.”

The discussion transitioned toward specific language in the rules that had been regulating face coverings thus far into the school year.

Luttrell, explained that he was basing his decision to include the language “optional” on what the COVID numbers are today.

“When we started school, masks were optional ... that was my language, “ said Luttrell. “However, where our numbers are at, we are back where we were when school started. That’s why I’m recommending making masks optional.”

Even after the school went to a mandate, there was an opt-out clause. With this new ruling, there will be no need for an opt-out clause. However, students will still be allowed to wear masks in the classroom should they so choose.

Lebanon approves airport lease

Thanks to a new lease agreement approved by the Lebanon City Council on Tuesday, the city’s municipal airport should soon be getting a facelift.

In a unanimous show of approval, a lease agreement for the corporate aircraft hangar west side lot C found favor with the city and will soon pass to the care of SAG Properties, LLC.

The city expressed intent that this portion of the airport should be devoted to business aircraft of companies that will encourage the economic development and prosperity of Lebanon and Wilson County.

The agreement extends a 40-year lease to SAG Properties that officially commences on Sept. 15. After the 40 years expire on Sept. 14, 2061, SAG Properties will have an option to extend the agreement an additional 10 years.

Once the term expires, whether 40 or 50 years from now, the hangar and all improvements become the property of the city. However, SAG Properties will have the first right of refusal at the end of the agreement to rent the hangar and improvement from the city at a “fair market value,” which will be determined by an independent aviation appraiser.

Per the lease agreement, SAG Properties shall begin the construction process promptly once approved by the city council. The base rent reflects the square footage of the leased premises containing 10,000 square feet. The base lease sum is $0.37 per square foot for a total of $3,700 per year.

The company will be required to maintain a policy of insurance in the amount of the insurable value of the improvement on the premises and a liability policy in the amount of $1 million. They will also pay all utility installation and service charges incurred in providing and furnishing necessary electric, gas, water, sewerage and telephone infrastructure.

During the council meeting, an ordinance to increase the rates for T-hangars in rows A and B of the airport passed its second reading, making it official. The ordinance implements a 20% increase to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

It establishes staggered increases over the next two years, with an addendum that leases be signed to four-year contracts. The first increase of 20% starts next year, with the second 20% increase starting in 2024.

As that increase is compounded, it ultimately represents an overall 44% increase of current rates.

Those current rates are $200 per month for hangars in row A. When the increase goes into effect, the new monthly rate will be $240 per month. In 2024, those rates will increase again to $288 per month.

In row B, the hangar rates at present are $245 per month. In January, those rates will increase to $294 per month. In 2024, those rates will increase to $352.80 per month.

The debate over how much to raise the rates was recently settled by the airport commission, which submitted this recommendation of two 20% increases spread between January 2022 and 2024.

Milele discusses redistricting, growth with residents

MT. JULIET — Mt. Juliet District 4 Commissioner Jennifer Milele discussed redistricting and Mt. Juliet’s growth with residents during Thursday evening’s town hall meeting, which was held at Grace Baptist Church.

Milele presented the three options of the city’s redrawing of its voting districts to 26 residents at the church’s cafe. In all of those options, the entire western portion from South Mt. Juliet Road will be redrawn into District 3.

Milele said that would cause her to lose Providence Marketplace and all commercial buildings north of Providence Parkway and along Belinda Parkway.

“I don’t see any other way to change it because of the numbers,” said Milele.

Milele and the rest of the Mt. Juliet Board of Commissioners will plan on hosting its second work session over the redrawing of the four city districts on Nov. 22. The commissioners will vote on their final redrawing of the city in this session.

City officials look at Mt. Juliet’s redistricting plans as an effort to balance out its population.

Milele addressed her district’s current growth by going over the current progress of Providence Central, a multi-use development on 250 acres near Adams Lane, Central Pike and Providence Parkway. The development includes the Enclave of Providence Apartments, which is expected to have eight buildings and 296 apartment units.

Last July, Cumberland Advisors — a Nashville-based real-estate developer — broke ground on this development. They added that a 12,000 square-foot commercial building will be built along with the apartment units, though no users have been identified for the commercial building.

Leasing for the first apartment units is estimated to start next summer, with completion expected by 2023.

Milele noted that the developers are blasting on the property there.

The Providence Parkway extension is expected to be finished by the end of this year. The extension measures approximately 2,300 feet, and road upgrades will estimate between $7 million and $8 million during the approval process.

Milele said that Adams Lane, which is part of this extension, is going to circle in and come into Providence Parkway. She also said that will help create some nice roads there.

Providence Parkway will have approximately five lanes by the fifth phase of this road extension.

Milele also went over Providence Commons Townhomes, a planned multi-family development on seven acres, located on South Mt. Juliet Road.

Last month, the Mt. Juliet Planning Commission deferred on a land-use amendment for the development until its next meeting as a request from Kimley Horn. Horn is a Nashville-based engineering consultant, who made the request on behalf of Pulte Homes, a home-0construction company and the townhomes’ developer.

Milele said that Pulte Homes was able to get Publix, which is near Providence Commons, to agree to be part of the planned-unit development, due to the city’s 20-acre minimum rule. She added that Pulte Homes is asking for RM-16 zoning for those townhomes.

This rezoning would allow 16 units to be built per acre.

Milele approved of the developers’ plan for the townhomes but was not in favor of their choice to build the property on seven acres.