Lenoir City Council effectively said “no” Thursday to a candidate running for the city’s governing body while she works for Lenoir City Utilities Board.
Council reconvened Thursday after going into recess during an executive session of its regularly scheduled Aug. 13 meeting.
The matter in question concerned Earlena Maples, who works for LCUB and turned in a petition to run for city council. Maples has served as county commissioner for the second district for 32 years, but lost in the August election to newcomer Julia Hurley.
Council referred to 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 city’s charter says nothing, which city attorney Gregory Harrison said would disqualify Maples.
“State law says that she can’t run, and the legislators created that law simply because ... what kind of place would we have if we had employees, city employees, telling department heads or general managers or whoever the case may be if they were allowed to run for office? We would never get anything done,” Tony Aikens, city mayor, said after the meeting. “There would be conflict of interests from the get-go, and so you can’t — she’s welcome to run — I have the utmost respect for Earlena, and I think she served the citizens of Loudon County well as a county commissioner, and she’s welcome to run for city council if she wants to retire.”
Councilmen Jim Shields and Eddie Simpson motioned and seconded, respectively, to give Harrison the authority to take the necessary steps to contest Maples’ candidacy. The vote passed 5-0, with Councilman Bobby Johnson Sr. abstaining.
Three seats are up for election that are currently being held by Shields, Douglas “Buddy” Hines and Mike Henline. All three are running for re-election.
Jennifer Wampler will also seek to retain her seat for a two-year unexpired term. Wampler took over for her late husband, Harry Wampler, who passed away in October 2016. Council also serves on the LCUB board.
“Of those three if you were to vote on a matter such as this, i.e. a person running against you on the ballot, or being on the ballot, that’s not necessarily a direct conflict but it would be considered an indirect conflict,” Harrison said during the meeting. “The difference being direct versus indirect — direct conflict you could not vote on this issue. An indirect conflict allows you to vote, but you need to keep in mind any kind of ramifications that may occur, if any, if you were to vote, and I believe what you’ve been passed to, TCA 6-54-107, if you elect to vote with this indirect conflict you need to announce or pronounce what has been highlighted for you in that particular state statute.”
TCA 6-54-107 notes 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.
“I like Earlena, I’ve supported her all along,” Wampler said after the meeting. “My conflict would be you cannot sit on the governing board of LCUB and also be an employee. So I would love to have her run for city council but not be as an employee of LCUB.”
Following the meeting, Harrison expressed the city’s intentions to Loudon County Election Commission. A hearing has been set for 7 p.m. Monday at the county office building.
“Obviously, we’ll file something with the election commission,” Aikens said. “The election commission will in turn notify her that the city’s filed action to prevent her from being on the ballot and then the ball is in her court. It’ll be up to her to rescind it or it’ll be up to her to ask for a hearing, which they’ll have to give it to her. Depending on the outcome of that hearing, obviously if they vote in favor to keep her on the ballot then it’s up to the city to take it to chancery court. Likewise, if the vote is to take her off the ballot then it’s up to her to take it to chancery court.”
In a follow-up interview, Maples said she had no intention of retiring from LCUB, where she has served for 37 years.
“I don’t plan to retire, that’s not in my plans right now,” Maples said. “Again, if I’m an employee so is the city council. They draw two checks, one from the city and one from the utility board, and they’re covered under LCUB’s insurance. We’ll just have to see what happens here, but I look forward to running if it’s possible and it works out. ... I hope I’ll be able to run and I look forward to it. The second district has always been so good to me anyway and I appreciate it greatly.”
Maples’ isn’t the first dispute by council regarding a potential candidate. Four years ago city council questioned a man’s one-year residency in Lenoir City.