The county was no closer to coming to a resolution Monday over a lawsuit filed by General Sessions and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles against Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw requesting six additional deputy clerks and pay increases for all employees in her department, as Loudon County Commission rejected a settlement arrangement during a special called meeting that would have allocated four new positions and a budget increase of $88,000 in the current fiscal year.
Last month, Loudon County Budget Committee made a recommendation to keep the current level of funding in the court clerk offices for 2014-15.
According to Joe Ford, Bradshaw’s attorney in the suit, two of the new employees that were part of the settlement arrangement were previously approved by the Budget Committee before the current commission took office last year.
He said he thought the plan was an equitable arrangement for both sides, as Niles’ lawsuit requested $210,000 in additional funding for her offices. He recommended the county take the settlement deal.
“I think it is a compromise settlement that hits on our side of the middle between what the budget was last year and what the lawsuit number is,” Ford said. “I think it’s a fair settlement considering what the court will do in this case.”
Ford said that by agreeing to the settlement, the county could save more than $100,000 in attorney fees and court costs. “So, it’s pretty significant,” Ford said. “That’s both side. County Commission will be responsible for both sides.”
Ford, along with Niles’ legal defense and Bradshaw were in attendance for a settlement meeting earlier this month. “I thought the mediation was in good faith,” Ford said. “I didn’t get the vibe that there was a negative attitude coming from the other side. I thought that Lisa negotiated in good faith.”
Commissioner Van Shaver said that he would only vote for adding new employees and raises in the court system if a judge forced his hand. “If a judge decrees that I have to approve something in this favor, and then we have to raise a property tax to pay for all of Ms. Niles’ lawsuit, then I’ll have no choice, but I can’t voluntarily do this, and the potential tax increase that it may take to pay for it without the judge saying we have to do it.”
Shaver said he thought Niles’ approach in trying to secure additional employees for her department “flies all over what I think’s appropriate for an elected official to be doing for taxpayers.”
Also as part of the arrangement, Niles’ court employees would start out at a base salary of about $24,000. “So, if this agreement is set then all of her starting people will be starting out at a higher rate than many current employees make now,” Shaver said. “That opens up a lot of questions. ... How on earth would we turn around and reward her starting salary people, and all the other fee office holders that didn’t sue us, they don’t get any extra? So, essentially she is rewarded for a lawsuit, and the other fee officers holders’ employees are punished for not taking a lawsuit.”
Commissioner Bill Satterfield anticipated a similar problem with current county employees. “I don’t see an easy way out of it for us on either side,” Satterfield said. “Because if we approve it, I can see the other departments in the county lining up with their lawyer and asking for the same thing that Ms. Niles got.”
Ford said that if the county does not agree to the terms of the deal with Niles, the two sides will proceed with the trial process, which is set for December. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for August.
When asked if Niles will consider additional terms if the county does not approve the current settlement, Ford said, “There are always possibilities.”
“We would definitely head toward trial at that point, and at any point one side can make an offer to the other,” he said.
This past fall, the Budget Committee and Niles attempted to come to an agreement, but the budget panel rejected a compromise deal to provide two new staff members at $27,000 apiece and raises totaling $98,500. Talks broke down when the Budget Committee considered adding the new two new employees at a lower base salary.
“In all fairness to the Budget Committee, they were trying to settle this thing early to get this thing done,” Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson said. “And that sounded good (at) $41,600, but when you throw that on the table, and she turns around and walks out the door on you, that just changes the whole game I think.”
A decision on approving or rejecting the lawsuit settlement arrangement did not come with a recommendation from the Budget Committee. Near the end of full Loudon County Commission meeting, Harrelson asked multiple times if anyone on commission wanted to make a motion to approve terms of the agreement.
The issue was declared dead for lack of support.