Election panel favors candidates

Attorney Matthew Knable places a board showing the difference between compensation for city council members on the LCUB board and Earlena Maples as an employee of LCUB.

A week after Loudon County Election Commission voted to remove Earlena Maples from November’s Lenoir City Council ballot, the panel settled a matter related to four other candidates.

Maples was declared ineligible after the five-member commission ruled her employment with Lenoir City Utilities Board would put her in a position to make decisions in direct conflict with her employment.

In response, Maples argued that the four council members running for re-election — Mike Henline, Douglas “Buddy” Hines, James “Jim” Shields and Jennifer Wampler — are also ineligible since their status on the LCUB board makes them employees.

The commission voted in favor of the candidates during a Sept. 4 hearing.

“As employees of LCUB, we are unable to run,” Maples said during the hearing. “When you made that decision last week to take my name of the ballot, or in this case run to be re-elected in the November election. I ask that I be treated fairly and that the laws that are applied to me, brought by them to take my name off the ballot, also apply to them.”

Maples entered several pieces of evidence she believed proved those serving on council qualified as employees of LCUB, including information about compensation for LCUB board members, a video of council members reading a conflict of interest statement that included the phrase “because I am an employee” and documents related to general employment.

Pat Hunter, a county resident, served as a witness for Maples. Hunter provided the information on compensation and the video of council members reading the conflict of interest statement.

Council members were represented by two attorneys, Amanda Smith and Matthew Knable, who were hired privately.

Smith argued that serving on the LCUB board did not qualify council members as employees in the same way it did Maples, entering into evidence an opinion from the state’s attorney general from Oct. 9, 2000, on whether a member of a county legislative body qualified as a county employee, which she argued was “directly analogous.”

According to the opinion, “membership on a county legislative body would not qualify as a position of ‘employment’ as the term is usually utilized in state statutes.” The key factors in the opinion are that an employee would be “in the service of an employer” or under a “contract of hire.”

Because council members are elected and do not serve under any supervisor other than the voting body, Smith argued the opinion applied to current council members.

“Earlena is an employee of the Lenoir City Utilities Board,” Smith said. “That is a different animal than being elected and part of her job duties being to serve on the Lenoir City Utilities Board. I think that’s very apparent.”

To further push the point, Smith questioned Shannon Littleton, LCUB general manager, about the differences between Maples’ employment, which falls under Littleton’s supervisory authority, and the council’s role on the board, which does not.

“All employees report to a supervisor and ultimately to me,” Littleton said. “... They (council) ultimately just report to the rate payers. They have no supervisory body over them other than being elected.”

Smith questioned Mike Henline regarding employment outside his position as councilman, arguing the compensation given to council did not equate to full-time employment with LCUB.

Knable presented a dry erase board with information about compensation for board members, as well as Maples, to highlight a disparity.

“I would like to say that they keep pulling these benefits around and our travel around, and that’s not anything uncommon,” Henline said. “I’m not ashamed of that. ... You act like that’s something to be ashamed of and it’s not, and I’m not ashamed of our salary. We put in a lot of time working on different things and I think it’s very deserving and I feel like I was elected by the citizens of Lenoir City to represent them on the city council and the power board. Nothing about a job there. It’s just to represent the city of Lenoir City.”

David Choate motioned for a vote on the candidates’ eligibility, followed by a second from Darlene Schrubb. The vote was 4-0 to keep the four candidates on the ballot. Sue Jane Hartsook, the only member to vote in favor of Maples the week prior, abstained.

“Going in I was confused as to how anyone thought that we were LCUB employees,” Wampler said. “Everyone except for me has been an elected official. I was appointed to finish Harry’s (Wampler) term, but being appointed my duty is to oversee LCUB and make those decisions to regulate, but I am not an employee. ... I was confused and concerned as to how it got to where that was even a charge being brought.”

Maples disagrees with the decision and stands by her argument that council members are employees because they draw wages and receive benefits.

The next step for Maples would be to take the matter to Loudon County Chancery Court.

“I’m just trying to take my time and consider everything,” she said. “I can’t say I was really surprised at the outcome, but I’m just going to kind of sit back and take my time and think about it and decide what I think is probably the right thing to do.”