County office holders serving in multiple positions
LENOIR CITY — With his election last month to an extended second term, Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens could be considered the most powerful man in Loudon County.
In addition to his duties as mayor of the county's largest city at a salary of $5,400 per year, Aikens serves as chairman of the Lenoir City Utilities Board, a post that pays $5,400 per year plus benefits. LCUB services about 67,000 customers in Loudon, Knox and Roane counties.
He also works full time for the Loudon County Sheriff's Office. As chief deputy, he is second in command at a salary of $57,472 per year.
Aikens, who began his career in government as Lenoir City's chief of police before moving on to Lenoir City City Council in 2003 and then becoming mayor in 2010, is modest about his ambitions.
"I don't see myself as powerful," he said. "I'm a multitasker. I like to stay busy."
Aikens is quick to point out that Lenoir City voters seem to approve of the job he's been doing. His record is proof that he's been effective, he said.
"I think the people are very happy," he said. "We haven't had to raise taxes."
Holding elected office while also working a local government job isn't unusual in East Tennessee. In Knox County, for example, Knoxville Police Department Lt. Brad Anders also serves as a county commissioner.
But in Loudon County, critics argue, it's almost a way of life.
Besides Aikens, several school board members work city or county jobs. A city councilman serves on the city school board. The chair of the city's school board serves on Loudon County Commission.
A county commissioner and a school board member work for LCUB, making Aikens as head of the LCUB board arguably one of their bosses.
Such closely held ties to government strike some as wrong.
"If they have a job working for the county or the city, they should not be able to hold elected office," said Wayne Schnell, a Lenoir City resident and a leader in the Loudon County Tea Party.
Schnell said he respects the right of the citizens to choose their leaders at the ballot box, but he's concerned about putting too much power in the hands of one individual.
"I think it's hard to make decisions in the best interests of your constituency when your loyalties are divided between multiple jobs," said Schnell, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and information technology manager for the state of California.
From Aikens' perspective, the success he has enjoyed in his multiple roles and the regular endorsement of the voters is all the assurance he needs that the process works.
"The taxpayers are behind us," he said.
After running unopposed this year for mayor, Aikens said he is glad he won't have run again soon. An initiative on the August ballot extended his term from two to four years, reducing the amount of time he has to invest in campaigning.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
When it comes to serving in office and working a taxpayer-funded job, there are only a few explicit limits under state law.
The County Technical Assistance Service, part of The University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service, was created by statute in 1973 to offer governing guidance to the state's 95 counties.
According to CTAS Ethics guidelines, "countywide officeholders, such as the county mayor, sheriff, trustee, register, county clerk, or assessor of property, are statutorily prohibited from being nominated for or elected to membership in the county legislative body."
The Tennessee attorney general has opined it is a direct conflict of interest for a county commissioner who is a county employee to vote on the budget that contains his salary.
Roane County Executive Ron Woody, a former consultant with CTAS, said he knows of no one in Tennessee who holds office under circumstances that violate Tennessee laws.
However, Woody said, there could be instances where holding an office could create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Real conflicts would be based on the specific circumstances, he said.
Exceptions exist for some positions, for example, where an employee held a county job before becoming elected to the county legislative body.
Sometimes local officeholders end up running — and winning — seats in the General Assembly, which is legal.
Democrat Gary Odom served for several years both as a state lawmaker and as a Metro Nashville city councilman.
Metro Nashville council members Darren Jernigan and Bo Mitchell were elected last month to the Legislature. Right now they're planning on holding both of their elected offices until 2014, according to The Tennessean newspaper, when they likely would leave council.
Nashville Tea Party Leader Ben Cunningham said he believes it's only a matter of time before leaders consolidating power in multiple offices begin to push the limits of their authority.
"Power corrupts. More than sex or drugs or anything else that you can think of," he said.
Cunningham said he doesn't believe the state's laws are specific enough regarding potential conflicts of interest. The standard conflict of interest disclosure read by many elected officials before voting is not adequate, he said.
"They are saying, 'It's a conflict of interest. I know it's wrong, but I'm going to do it anyways,'" he said.
The only cure for the situation, Cunningham said, is to get more citizens involved in the process, not just by voting but also by running for office themselves.
Linda Noe is an attorney and political activist in Hamblen County. Noe said she has been working to bring conflicts of interest to light.
"If we had term limits and a state law that only allows one job per person, that would help clean things up a lot," she said.
Many hats in Lenoir City
For some working in local government, there are no CTAS guidelines.
Last month, Loudon County Road Supervisor Eddie Simpson was re-elected to a seat on the Lenoir City City Council.
As a member of City Council, Simpson also is on the board of LCUB. He also serves as chairman of the Loudon County Economic Development Agency, a position usually held by the county mayor.
"One is a day job and one is a night job," Simpson said about his dual role.
He said he's managed to integrate the two jobs pretty well. During the day he works for the county. Most City Council meetings are at night, he said.
Simpson said he likes to stay in the communication loop to keep up with a range of county and city issues.
Earlier this year, when a flood washed out a county bridge located in Lenoir City, he was able to quickly secure funds for repairs through combined city and county actions, he said.
Some school board members in Loudon County hold additional office.
Bobby Johnson Sr. was re-elected in November to Lenoir City's council. He is also a member of the Lenoir City school board. His re-election to the council includes a seat on the LCUB board.
Son Bobby Johnson Jr. is a member of the Loudon County school board, and Johnson Jr. works for the Lenoir City Parks and Recreation. He formerly was the city's elected recorder/city treasurer.
William Jenkins, also a member of the Loudon County school board, works for Lenoir City Parks and Recreation under parks chief Steve Harrelson, who also is a Loudon County commissioner.
Rosemary Quillen, chairwoman of the Lenoir City school board and daughter of Lenoir City Councilman Buddy Hines, was elected county commissioner last month after running unopposed. She sought legal advice confirming her right to hold both positions and doesn't see any conflict.
Quillen said she feels her understanding of education will be an asset to the commission as it tackles problems that include funding of the second phase of a school building program.
"I can help the commission better understand issues related to the schools," she said.County Commissioner Earlena Maples works for LCUB. She and about 180 LCUB employees work under the administration of LCUB chairman Aikens. Mitch Ledbetter, who serves on the Lenoir City school board, also works for LCUB.
Elected officials usually don't receive a pension for their elected positions, however, county commissioners and LCUB board members have full paid health care for their elected positions in addition to the health care provided by their regular full-time employers.
Within Loudon County, Lenoir City is not unique. There are other county commissioners and school board members who work for local municipalities.
Commissioner Harold Duff works for the Loudon County Juvenile Department. Commissioner Brian Jenkins is employed by the city of Loudon as a police officer. Kenny Ridings, who is on the county school board, works for the Loudon Police Department. Loudon City Councilman Jimmy Parks is a part-time officer with the Loudon Police Department.
Loudon County activist Pat Hunter wonders if taxpayers are getting their money's worth from officials with multiple roles. She sees the dual roles and relationships in her county as being too cozy.
"All of these relationships and positions touch," she said. "They're interlinked. The county often has projects with the cities. That's when the conflicts of interest show up."
Hunter said that she does not feel elected officials should be able to ignore what are often described as "the appearance of conflicts." Members of County Commission with relatives employed by the school department, for example, should not vote on budgets for the school department, she said.
Although some on County Commission read conflict of interest disclosures before voting, merely disclosing the conflict doesn't justify it, she said.
The Tea Party's Schnell said he is concerned that one of the motivations behind the consolidation of political power is the ability to influence hiring of city and county employees. Local municipalities, including utilities such as LCUB, seem to have no policies regarding nepotism, he said.
"When I worked for state government in California there were strict policies regarding hiring," he said.