After daylong deliberations Thursday between parties representing Loudon County General Sessions and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles and Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, Chancellor Frank V. Williams III has opted to make a decision later this week.
Parties were initially scheduled to appear in court Thursday and Friday, but a one-day hearing was sufficient.
“I think it’s went well,” Bradshaw said after the court hearing. “I think us being able to wrap it up in a single day, I think that’s advantageous for everyone involved. Just now it’s kind of a waiting game to see what Chancellor Williams decides on, and we’ll abide by that.”
Now that the hearing is over, Joe Ford, legal counsel for Bradshaw, and Zachary Tenry, representing Niles, agreed to submit oral arguments via fax to Williams on Friday morning for his review.
“Both attorneys are going to submit written closing arguments by tomorrow morning, and so I think hopefully by maybe Wednesday or so, hopefully we will know something,” Bradshaw said.
Niles originally filed the lawsuit in September 2014 to request six new deputy clerks at a base salary of $31,000 for the fiscal year 2014-15, and pay increases for all full- and part-time employees under her supervision. In May, Loudon County Commission failed to reach a settlement agreement with Niles that, if approved, would have added four new positions and a budget increase of $88,000 in the current fiscal year. The agreement included an employee base salary of about $24,000.
During Thursday’s hearing, Niles modified her request from $31,000 to $25,500. She also asked for $57,000 to adjust the difference for the remaining employees currently working in her department.
“I have always been willing to negotiate, and I offered that figure to them — the new budget committee — back in October 2014 in an effort to compromise and avoid unnecessary litigation expense,” Niles said after the court hearing. “The county decided to force it to trial. I was entitled to seek higher salaries, and the proof supported that yesterday, but the right thing to do at that point was to stand by the compromise that I had asked for back in 2014.”
County Commissioner Van Shaver said Thursday was the first time he had heard of the $25,500 request.
“Myself and, of course, Commissioner (Steve) Harrelson were sitting there,” Shaver said. “... We’re all looking at each other like, ‘No, we’ve never heard that.’ It’s been $31,000 from (the) get-go. She wouldn’t budge from it. Six people and $31,000 is all we had heard from her. I don’t know when it changed, and it sounded like Joe Ford was a little curious about it. I think his statement was, ‘Your lawsuit and what you’re saying here today are two different things.’ So the budget committee had never heard the $25,000 number.”
Harrelson attended the court hearing.
“Countywide we’ve got a starting salary right now of $20,800, so to increase the starting pay just for her department even at $25,000 or $31,000 is still out of sync with what we do with all the other departments,” Harrelson said. “So how can we as a county commission justify a starting salary for one department being increased over all the others? That’s just not fair to all the other employees that work for the county or the county taxpayers to start increasing wages like that in one department.”
Harrelson said he felt requesting six additional employees was not “justified,” noting Niles’ caseload had supposedly decreased over the years.
“I think he (Ford) did a good job of showing that the request for six additional employees was not justified,” Harrelson said. “There’s no documentation to back that request up. There was evidence put on file with the court that showed documents that she had presented to the budget committee showing that her caseloads have decreased over the years instead of increased. How a person can say that they need additional employees when their workload’s decreasing just doesn’t make sense.”
Ford presented a document showing case filings from 2006-2014. In 2012, the number of Loudon Civil Circuit filings was 359, followed by 415 in 2013 and 299 in 2014. Similarly, Loudon Criminal Circuit filings showed 701 filings in 2012, 895 in 2013 and 858 in 2014.
“So the theory is if she needs a lot more employees, that means our theory is there are a lot more cases being filed, right?” Ford said. “So, she’s got two courts — circuit and sessions — and within both of those courts she’s got two different courts. ... To say they (case filings) go down is inaccurate. They go up and down, but they’re relatively flat is the argument.”
Ford said Williams will decide if the county must pay the attorney fees for both parties, but he anticipated that will be the ruling.
According to finance office records, Loudon County has spent $36,600 so far in attorney and court fees related to the lawsuit.
“I don’t know of any case where it ever happened that the county didn’t have to pay them, but there’s always a first time,” Shaver said.
Tenry could not immediately be reached for comment by News-Herald deadline.