Politics as usual for conflicted Merit Council

Politics as usual for conflicted Merit Council

By Steve Hunley

Gary Prince, attorney for Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler, has filed a motion before the Chancery Court calling for the Knox County Sheriff Office Merit System Council members Gina Oster and Jim Jennings to recuse themselves in hearing grievances from Martha Dooley, Scott “Scooby” More, and Ivan Harmon.  Mike Steely wrote about the particulars of the story in last week’s edition and Ken Lay has a follow up in today’s Focus.  Moore and Harmon are contesting their firings by Sheriff Tom Spangler.  The Dooley case is a bit more off the beaten path. Ms. Dooley is protesting the sheriff having taken away the car and gas card  provided her by the department when she was reassigned to a different job in a department that did not require a car. Martha Dooley wants her car back, as well as the gas card.  Such cars are maintained by the taxpayers; tires, normal maintenance, and gas are provided for by the taxpayers.  Dooley also insisted she be given a car newer than the 2014 Chevrolet Impala she had previously; Ms. Dooley also wants a car with less than 30,000 miles on the odometer.  Gary Prince, Spangler’s attorney, wondered aloud what color car Ms. Dooley would like.  That inquiry brought a remonstration from one of the members of the sheriff’s merit council who snapped the situation was not at all funny.  Still, it’s a wonder Dooley didn’t also demand a chauffeur.  Martha Dooley reportedly makes $106,000 annually in salary.

Yet the members of the sheriff’s merit council voted to hear Martha Dooley’s complaint in spite of the very specific opinion of the Knox County Law Director’s office stating it had NO authority to address her grievance under the law.

What it comes down to is a matter of politics; the merit council was originally intended to take politics out of the sheriff’s department, to protect employees from political firings and the like.  If we’ve ever had a sheriff who was not a politician it would be Tom Spangler. He is a true public servant. The politics are not coming from Sheriff Spangler; it’s coming from the members of the merit council, most specifically from Jim Jennings and Gina Oster. It’s a tough enough job for Spangler to fight crime, keep our county safe, and run the sheriff’s department. He shouldn’t have to contend with a merit council stacked with political cronies of the former sheriff and his handpicked successor who lost the last election to Spangler in a landslide. To make matters even more political, Jones, the former term-limited sheriff is running against Spangler for another term in 2022.

Jennings, a Democrat, has been a big political supporter of former Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones.  Jennings was also a big backer of Lee Trammel, the chief deputy to Jones who ran to succeed him and lost three years ago.  Oster’s husband is vice president of Jennings’ business.

Gina Oster is certainly less a public servant than a political being.  Oster has run for the school board as well as the Tennessee General Assembly.  Gina Oster has lost both races; she lost to state Representative Eddie Mannis in the Republican primary in 2020.  Oster claimed Mannis had been nominated by Democrats when Tennessee has no party registration. Oster failed to mention that she was supported by a lot of Democrats as well including fellow merit council member Jim Jennings.

Now Oster is off and running for the Knox County Commission to succeed Commissioner Randy Smith who is term-limited.  Attorney James Corcoran is also running for the GOP nomination for the Knox County Commission in the Third District and clearly, Oster’s record and actions as a member of the sheriff’s merit council will become issues in that campaign.  It will be mighty difficult for Oster to disassociate herself from the Tim Hutchison – “JJ” Jones – Lee Trammel trifecta.

Oster has left a trail of divisiveness in her wake wherever she has tread and likely that will be the case in her campaign for the Knox County Commission.

County Commissioners Kyle Ward and Larsen Jay tried hard to reform the sheriff’s merit council, but the majority of the commission refused.  Ward argued Oster should give up her seat on the merit council as she was a declared candidate for public office.  Certainly, there is a conflict of interest in that respect as those employees of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office who wish to run for public office must eventually take a leave of absence; it would be Gina Oster and the merit council who would hear such cases should there be disputes.  Yet Oster has stated her intent to run, named a treasurer and is already collecting contributions for her 2022 campaign.  A judge couldn’t hear such a case with a similar conflict of interest and the sheriff’s merit council is, or at least is supposed to be, a quasi-judicial body.

The partisanship and open politics in the midst of the sheriff’s merit council has festered to the point where Gary Prince is now asking a chancellor to force Gina Oster and Jim Jennings to recuse themselves from the hearings involving Martha Dooley, Scooby Moore and Ivan Harmon.  Prince stated in his motion, “Oster has also appeared before the County Commission and vehemently opposed any change to the Merit System Council Rules that would better define the Council’s authority and responsibilities – – – including a provision that would preclude an individual running for public office from serving on the Council.”  That is precisely what Larsen Jay and Kyle Ward were trying to accomplish.

If a judge rules Jennings and Oster have conflicts and must recuse themselves, it’s certainly not going to do anything to promote Oster’s campaign to occupy a seat on the Knox County Commission.  That would be especially true with an opponent like Jim Corcoran.  Young, likable, thoughtful and an attorney, Corcoran is a dedicated Republican who has been elected to serve on the Tennessee State Executive Committee.  Jim Corcoran is recognized for his fairness and commitment to serving people.  Nor would the Democrats have such an inviting target in the general election.  So far the new leadership of the Knox County GOP have helped the Democrats to fill a bulging war chest that will be spent in the next election cycle.  The Democrats clearly are eager to run a candidate against Gina Oster in the general election with fair prospects of success.  You can bet they don’t relish a campaign against a Republican like Jim Corcoran.  They had similar hopes for Virginia Couch and now she’s sitting at home on the couch while Eddie Mannis is sitting in the House of Representatives.

 

Of Note…

Chuck Severance held his campaign opener at Beaver Brook last Thursday and drew a big crowd.  Severance is running for the Knox County Commission seat occupied by term-limited Charles Busler.  Chuck is the son Charlie and Phyllis Severance.  Charlie is a former state Representative and there is hardly a Republican in East Tennessee who doesn’t know Phyllis Severance as she has held numerous posts working for former Governors Lamar Alexander and Don Sundquist and was the Director of Human Resources under then-County Executive Tommy Schumpert.  Chuck Severance, like his mother, has been highly active in the community and the Republican Party.  Severance is expected to run strongly in the 7th Commission District.

The Focus’s own resident historian Ray Hill will be speaking at the 8th District Republican Club on Tuesday, September 28 in the cafeteria at Carter High School at 7 p.m.  Mr. Hill will be speaking about his column in this newspaper and all are welcome.

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