Election panel tells Maples 'no'

Earlena Maples, left, watches as Lenoir City Attorney Gregory Harrison speaks to Loudon County Election Commission on Monday during a hearing contesting her qualification to run for Lenoir City Council. Pictured in the center is Lenoir City Utilities Board attorney C. Coulter 'Bud' Gilbert. 

A little more than a week after Lenoir City Council moved to contest candidate Earlena Maples’ qualification for the November ballot, Loudon County Election Commission on Monday affirmed that decision.

Present for the meeting were Lenoir City Attorney Gregory Harrison and Lenoir City Utilities Board Attorney C. Coulter “Bud” Gilbert.

LCUB General Manager Shannon Littleton and Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens were witnesses for the hearing.

Maples represented herself, who for 37 years has worked at LCUB.

Ultimately, the election commission voted 4-1 that Maples is unqualified to run given her position with LCUB. Commissioners Betty Brown and David Choate motioned and seconded, respectively, with the only opposition coming from Sue Jane Hartsook.

“I consider all of us employees, myself and them, so I don’t think it should be applied any differently for me,” Maples said of herself and the other council members running.

During the meeting, she presented paperwork contesting council members Mike Henline, Douglas “Buddy” Hines, Jennifer Wampler and Jim Shields from being on the ballot. Election commission will meet to discuss the matter at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the county office building. Maples plans to be present.

Seats held by Henline, Hines and Shields are up for election. Wampler is seeking a two-year unexpired term. She took over for her late husband, Harry Wampler, who passed away in October 2016. Council also serves on the LCUB board.

Maples can still opt to take the matter to chancery court.

“I have that possibility still and I’ll just see what happens and I’ll just take it step by step and decide what I want to do,” Maples said.

Ultimately, the decision was disappointing, she said.

“This is a mockery, an absolute mockery, that a former county commissioner, who she is definitely qualified to run, and I’m all for her running as long as she wants to retire,” Aikens said after the meeting. “But she is spending the taxpayers’ money. ... Let her run for office, I’m for it as long as she wants to retire, but she’s costing the taxpayers that she claims that she cares about, she’s costing them thousands of dollars going through a legal process when the state law is clear, I mean absolutely clear, and you seen it tonight it was clear.

“Now she’s filed some ridiculous motion with election commission to have these other three or four candidates kicked off when their terms ends before they’re even elected,” he added. “It’s ridiculous, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Both sides state their case

Election commission listened to both parties. In addition, residents Pat Hunter and Mike Sledzinski supported Maples during public comment.

Harrison, who represented the city, referenced Tennessee Code Annotated 7-51-1501, which notes local governmental employees cannot be a candidate for state or local political office unless otherwise authorized by law or local ordinance.

“The only way Ms. Maples or any other city employee of Lenoir City could run for city council is if — state law says — is if this charter provides that they can. This charter is silent,” Harrison said. “This charter does not authorize a city employee to run for the governmental unit, which is city council, and it was correctly stated by our public speakers tonight. The Lenoir City Council makes up the Lenoir City Utility Board. The Lenoir City Utility Board governs the Lenoir City Utility Board employees. Now they have a manager, a general manager that’s going to answer directly to them, but they govern the employees.

“So just common sense tells you what the purpose of this statute is,” he added. “We can’t have employees telling their boss, the general manager, what we’re going to do, and then while at the same time the general manager’s telling her what to do. I mean it just creates chaos.”

To further emphasize the city’s stance, Harrison provided commissioners with two attorney general opinions of instances where people sought qualification for city council. One was from 2010 regarding a Clinton school system teacher, while another one from 1998 regarding a LaFollette utility board employee. In both instances Harrison said the attorney general referenced TCA 7-51-1501.

“When these things come up, oftentimes the local municipality will request that the state attorney general an opinion,” Harrison said. “‘Hey, what’s the law? What should we do?’ It’s not binding like in court decision, it’s merely persuasive, but the attorney general is a top attorney for the state of Tennessee who sits in Nashville that makes these decisions.”

Maples said city council candidates seeking re-election are also employees and should be held under the same rules she is.

“They also draw benefits. They are fully covered under insurance, which most places an employee if you’re not an employee you are certainly not covered fully under insurance, and the most important thing to me is they receive a W-2 for income tax purposes,” Maples said. “There’s federal income tax that comes out of it, there’s Medicare, there’s Social Security, and that form is turned in as wages — just like mine — earned from income to the (Internal Revenue Service).”

If elected, Maples would be willing to take the necessary steps to ensure there isn’t an issue, such as reading a conflict of interest statement as presented in TCA 6-54-107, she said.

That specific TCA states a member of a governing body of a municipality who is an employee of that same municipality can vote on matters in which they have a conflict of interest if they inform the board beforehand and plan to vote only with their conscience and obligation to constituents and residents the body represents.

“If I were to be able to run and if I were to win, as far as me voting on my salary, they vote on their salaries, what’s the difference?” Maples said. “I say, OK, I could read that famous conflict of interest statement if it bothered anybody or — if that was what I should do — or I could abstain, but I can’t see any difference again the city council and the LCUB board voting on their own salary in the budget and myself voting, because again I’m not getting anything special other than what other the majority of the employees get,” she said.

Having an employee on the board could even prove to be beneficial, Maples said.

“I listen to what they say when I go through that building, and I hear them when they’re concerned about safety, I hear that, and when I hear that from more than one person and the same type of safety situation, that bothers me,” Maples said. “... I’ve never gone to any department in 32 years down here at the county and jumped on anybody. I can’t see me if I were to be able to run and if I got elected, I can’t see me jumping on my manager, Mr. Littleton, or anybody else, but I do think that I could be a go between (for) the people that work down there and I think there are situations where they would feel much more comfortable talking to me than they would be going upstairs.”

Maples said she would remove herself from the ballot if Henline, Hines, Shields and Wampler also agreed to do the same.

“There’s other names on that ballot that can fill those seats, and we’ll do exactly what you have presented to take me off, we’ll take them off too,” Maples said. “... I’ll be glad to and this will settle the whole thing, and then in two or four years we can go at it again full force if we’re all here and alive and healthy.”