There's more to the resignation, former Lenoir City clerk says

Cook claims Lenoir City official didn't leave just for personal reasons

Natalie Neysa Alund
LENOIR CITY - Debbie Cook is calling Lenoir City government leaders' bluff on claims there was no controversy surrounding Treasurer/Recorder/Clerk Bobby Johnson Jr.'s resignation last week.
"For them to try to pretend he said, 'I'm outta here for personal reasons,' it's more than that," said Cook, the former city clerk who in 2007 retired early after 30 years on the job. She said she was asked to resign after reporting incidents including misconduct by assistants in her office. "He's not gonna go from $58,000 to $32,000 a year for nothing. It's all about political control. That's what it came down to with me."

Johnson resigned Dec. 30, citing personal reasons, and asked to return to his former maintenance position with Parks and Recreation.

That same day Mayor Tony Aikens wrote in a letter that Johnson was not leaving on bad terms. He plans to recommend Johnson's request be granted by the City Council on Monday during its regular meeting.

Although the council has not yet voted on the matter, Parks and Recreation Director Steve Harrelson confirmed Johnson started work Wednesday. Harrelson, who said his department could use the help, also confirmed his four full-time maintenance positions were already filled, so a fifth position was created to accommodate Johnson - a move that will cost the city about $32,000 per year.

Also during Monday's meeting, Aikens said he plans to request ratification of his appointment of Jimmy Wilburn to replace Johnson until the next election. Wilburn, a longtime Lenoir City businessman who graduated from East Tennessee State University, was sworn into office Friday.

Aikens stands behind his initial statement that no foul play was involved regarding Johnson's departure.

"I have no reason to believe that anything was wrong other than Bobby Johnson resigned for personal reasons," Aikens said Friday. "Bobby's been a good employee."

Johnson on Friday said only that the job stressed him out. He would not elaborate. He noted that he had recently completed his Certified Municipal Finance Officer training for the treasurer/recorder/clerk post.

The position of treasurer/recorder/clerk requires watching over city funds and has been a hot bed of controversy in Lenoir for years. It's an elected position mired in the debate over election versus appointment.

In December 2007, the city council discussed an initiative to change the city charter to make it appointed. Voters decided against it in 2008.

Still, some leaders continue to back the city's council's push to make it an appointed position.

"We run a little over $8 million through the city recorder's office," Aikens said. "I just feel like currently anybody can run for that office (whether qualified or not)," Aikens said. He said he'd rather appoint someone to the position with accounting or business skills.

The position's duties are performed with the help of several assistants.

During Cook's tenure she said she caught two of her assistants falsifying time cards. She provided records to the News Sentinel to substantiate her claim.

When she approached then-Mayor Matt Brookshire and City Administrator Dale Hurst about the matter, nothing happened.

Although Hurst pointed her to then city attorney Shannon Littleton, still nothing happened.

"I never got help," she said.

During Cook's employment, Littleton said that some disciplinary action against her employees took place, but he couldn't recall that specific situation.

Neither Hurst nor Brookshire could not be reached for comment.

Also during her tenure, Cook said she discovered revenue for speeding tickets had dropped and found that city Judge Terry Vann was dismissing tickets for those who would donate to a private law-enforcement organization. Probes by the TBI and state comptroller resulted in no charges, but the organization was disbanded shortly after.

During a Feb. 2007 council meeting, Vann publicly suggested she resign.

Initially she refused. But later that year, at age 56, she gave in.

"They just made it so hard on me I couldn't stand it," she said "I would have stayed on till (age) 62."

Her replacement, Maggie Hunt, served until Johnson was elected in November 2008.

For now, Cook said, she just feels bad for Johnson.

"The man went into a hornets' nest, and I knew him not having any basic knowledge of accounting would be tough," Cook said.

For both of them, it wasn't about getting the job done, she said. It was about how they got into the office in the first place.