The Anderson County Commission decided Monday night to table any discussion on how the county handled the sexual harassment complaints against Circuit Court Clerk William Jones on the advice of their attorneys in the face of a federal lawsuit filed last week against Jones and the county.
As we have reported, as many as eight women have made allegations of inappropriate behavior and comments, sexual harassment and intimidation against Jones, who has decried the charges as being politically-motivated as he seeks re-election in the May 1st Republican primary.
County Mayor Terry Frank was going to request that independent counsel be hired to examine how the county responded to the allegations against Jones, but while amending and approving the agenda, Commissioners voted 15-1 to table the issue and not discuss any of the 15 questions she had submitted.
Earlier in the day, Art Knight, the insurance company attorney defending the county in the lawsuit filed last week by Gail Harness, sent a memo to commissioners recommending that they make no public comments regarding any of the issues related to the Jones case. Commission Chairman Tim Isbel read a portion of the letter to fellow commissioners: “As this case is filed and in litigation, I believe the best practice is for County officials to refrain from comment, and I respectfully request that you do so. Each and every allegation of the Complaint will be thoroughly investigated, evaluated and litigated under the federal rules of civil procedure, the federal rules of evidence, the Orders of the court, and any other rule or legality applicable to the defense of this case.”
The Commission vote to table the discussion was 15-1 with Commissioner Jerry White casting the lone dissenting vote. White said immediately after the vote that, “I voted no on that because I really believe that the public is wanting us to find out some answers on this tonight.”
Mayor Frank came before the Commission again later in the meeting and tried to get the Commission to open up the discussion again, accusing them of trying to “silence” her by amending the agenda, which Commission Parliamentarian Robert McKamey was done in accordance with Commission rules.
Mayor Frank responded by asking, “So, according to the rules of County Commission…do your rules address removal of items from the agenda under the rules?”
McKamey replied, “No, just approval and correction and this agenda was sent out with things that are put on it, but it’s up to this Commission to approve that agenda prior to it being acted on tonight.”
Mayor Frank told commissioners that Knight’s recommendation is not the same as a gag order and that they could discuss the HR Department’s policies and procedures if they wanted to, stating, “I take a strong stand against sexual harassment and I believe that if a woman comes in tomorrow and it’s against a fellow employee or elected official, that I would like assurance that it will not be until October that we hear about it in this body, and so the questions that I have asked here are for clarification of procedure.”
Commissioner Tracy Wandell was first to respond, saying, “the reasons we tabled them (discussion of questions) was that on the advice of the counselor that represents Anderson County from the insurance side…I understand your frustration. I understand you have items that are pertinent to the case, but I’ve sat up here a good while and one thing I know about you is that you know the laws. I think you’re smart enough to know that any of these items you discuss will have a impact on the outcome of the case. I find it odd that you would want to stand at that podium and talk about any of these issues knowing that the case is filed in federal court.”
Commissioner Steve Mead said, “We would be providing the information that we research to help the people that are suing us. It doesn’t make sense to help the people that are suing you.”
The Mayor added that her intention is to prevent similar situations from happening in the future including the release of information to the public.
In the end, the Commission agreed to ask CTAS and the state Comptroller’s office to review the county’s Human Resources Department’s reporting procedures to determine if the county is in compliance with state laws.
(Statement to County Commissioners from attorney Art Knight) “Gail Harness filed a lawsuit against Anderson County, Tennessee, and William Jones, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Apparently, both parties were served with process as Ms. Harness’ attorney filed proof of service forms on March 15, 2018.
I entered an appearance on behalf of Anderson County, Tennessee March 15, 2018, and will defend this matter vigorously.
The Complaint, as any Complaint filed, simply starts the process of a lawsuit. The Complaint makes certain allegations that the Plaintiff, through her lawyer, hope to prove with admissible facts. Allegations are not facts. Allegations are nothing but assertions or charges that the Plaintiff hopes to prove with admissible evidence in support of the claims that she has made in her lawsuit. Yet, as it stands now, all Ms. Harness has done is just make mere statements, through her counsel, and file them in federal court and they may or may not be ever proven with evidence as I intend to vigorously defend this matter on behalf of Anderson County, Tennessee.
As this case is filed and in litigation, I believe the best practice is for County officials to refrain from comment, and I respectfully request that you do so. Each and every allegation of the Complaint will be thoroughly investigated, evaluated and litigated under the federal rules of civil procedure, the federal rules of evidence, the Orders of the court, and any other rule or legality applicable to the defense of this case.”