Today is Tuesday, August 22, 2017

County attorney's contract comes under fire

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County Commissioner Jerry McFarland, center, reads a proclamation honoring the Wilson County Beekeepers Association, WEMA and local law enforcement for responding to a 20-million-bee spill by a semi-truck outside Mt. Juliet Mar. 7. Pictured from left are Steve Clawson of the Beekeepers of Middle Tennessee (partially obscured) and WCBA members Jessica Dodds, Mike Belcher, Gary Hale, Kenny Birdwell, WCBA President Carey Mitchell, WEMA Director Joey Cooper, McFarland, WCBA members Philip Chapman and Ryan Yearwood, Sheriff Robert Bryan, and the WCBA's Julie Harper and Adam White. JOHN BUTWELL / The Wilson Post
Wilson County school bus driver Joe Thompson grins as County Commissioner Annette Stafford recognizes his part in winning a 2016 Grammy with the gospel group Fairfield Four. JOHN BUTWELL / The Wilson Post
County Commissioner Sara Patton, right, presents Ruth Correll, local UT Extension director, with a proclamation honoring UT Extension for its 105 years of service to Wilson County. JOHN BUTWELL / The Wilson Post

It's renewed, 23-2, despite conflict-of-interest claim

The Wilson County Commission renewed the contract of longtime County Attorney Mike Jennings Monday night despite two commissioners questioning the appropriateness of Jennings serving in the position, since he also is the longtime, unpaid mayor of Watertown.

It all started when the commission was asked to approve paying $77,540 per year as salary for the county attorney, which led to Commissioners Frank Bush (District 8) and Bobby Franklin (District 3) - both of Mt. Juliet - questioning whether Jennings should continue serving in that job.

Acknowledging that the salary of less than $78,000 is extraordinarily low, Bush said he had emailed Jennings to ask how many hours he works for the county, or at least what percentage of his working time is spent working for the county.

However, Bush said Jennings has declined to respond. He then asked Jennings to respond at the meeting.

Jennings replies

Jennings - who as the county's school board attorney is handling the Wilson County Schools' lawsuit to recover unpaid liquor-by-the-drink tax revenues from the City of Mt. Juliet - promptly replied.

He told Bush that since he isn't paid by the hour, he doesn't keep track of his hours. "I work however long it takes," he said. "If you want to pay me by the hour, I'll keep track."

Next District 24 Commissioner Joy Bishop said she was confused about Jennings' status, inquiring whether he's considered a full-time or part-time county employee.

County Finance Officer Aaron Maynard explained that all salaried employees are, by definition, full-time. "Since Mr. Jennings is on salary, he can't count as part-time," Maynard said.

Conflict claim: 'Why now?'

Franklin said he would be voting against rehiring Jennings because he sees being mayor of Watertown and county attorney at the same time as a conflict of interest.

Jennings said he didn't know why the idea of a conflict is being brought up now - and he assured the county officials that there is none, since he doesn't vote on any county issues.

"I've been mayor of Watertown for 34 years and county attorney for 26½ years," he said. "There is no conflict. Believe me - when I see a conflict, I recognize it and I step back."

'Other counties pay more'

District 14 Commissioner Jeff Joines also said he didn't understand the point of the conflict-of-interest concern.

"He's been with us for 26½ years and everything has been okay with the comptroller," Joines said. "But I'm glad this came up. I agree with Mr. Bush - the salary is way too low. I'll promise you this right now, Mike - when the budget comes up, I'll do all I can to correct that."

District 20 Commissioner Annette Stafford agreed with Joines, saying she, too, feels $77,540 is too low for a county attorney's salary.

By comparison, nearby Robertson County pays $292,041 per year, Rutherford pays $628,283, and Williamson pays $756,209 for legal services.

The commission voted to approve the salary, 23-2, with Commissioners Bishop and John Gentry (District 11) abstaining. Then the motion to rehire Jennings passed by a 23-2 margin as well, with Franklin opposed and Bush abstaining.

Fire chief retiring

The commission also received word from WEMA Director Joey Cooper that Fire Chief Keith Taylor will be retiring April 1 after 38 years of service. He started as a volunteer in 1978 and was hired full-time in 1980, according to Cooper. In 1982, he became a commander and took the post as chief in 1999.

"No matter who we replace him with, 38 years of knowledge and skills go with him when he leaves," Cooper concluded.

James E. Ward Agriculture Center Director Larry Tomlinson also had news for the commission. As has been reported, Wilson County will be hosting the Junior High School Rodeo June 19-25. Tomlinson told the board that preparations for the event are well underway.

He said an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people will be attending and the county can expect about $10 million in revenues from the event.

'First rodeo east of Mississippi'

"This is the first time this rodeo has been held east of the Mississippi River," Tomlinson said. "It's because of the Wilson County Ag Center. It's hard to find a venue this good because of the acreage we have and the easy accessibility."

He also said the Ag Center is going to need a number of volunteers to help with registration and to direct attendees to camping sites and stalls for animals.

District 5 Commissioner Jerry McFarland also read a proclamation - which the commission endorsed unanimously - honoring the Wilson County Beekeepers Association (WCBA), the Sheriff's Department, WEMA and the Tennessee Highway Patrol for their service in responding to a Mar. 7 accident which released up to 20 million honeybees on Mt. Juliet's southeast side.

Beekeepers to the rescue

A semi-truck carrying 420 beehives holding about 60,000 bees per hive from California to North Carolina lost control and overturned in a sharp curve of Posey Hill Road. The driver, who was uninjured, said his GPS told him to get off I-40 at Beckwith Road (Exit 229) due to a detour that didn't actually exist, according to the beekeepers who came to his rescue.

The truck was transporting the bees trans-continentally to help pollinate crops when they need it, explained beekeeper Mike Belcher. "They were going from almonds to blueberries," he said.

Because they couldn't reach their protective suits, the driver and his helper were trapped inside the truck for over two hours until the angry, disturbed bees could be recaptured, Belcher and WCBA President Carey Mitchell added.

The beekeepers worked for several hours until nearly 5 a.m. on Mar. 8 to take care of the bees. EMA Rehab crews were also there to offer drinks, food and respite care for the emergency workers, McFarland told the commission.

In the courthouse hallway after the award presentation, WCBA Secretary-Treasurer Petra Mitchell shrugged off the group's heroism. "It was a good experience," she said.

"One you never hope to have again," added beekeeper Julie Harper.

Kudos: Grammy winner, UT agency

Commissioner Stafford also presented a proclamation - which also won the commission's unanimous endorsement - honoring Wilson County school bus driver Joe Thompson for his part in winning a 2016 Grammy with the gospel group Fairfield Four for Best Gospel Album of the Year.

Plus, District 9 Commissioner Sara Patton presented County Agriculture Agent Ruth Correll, director of the local UT Extension office, with a proclamation - again unanimously endorsed - honoring UT Extension for 105 years of service to Wilson County.

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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beekeepers, bees, county government, Grammy Awards, honors, Joe Thompson, Mike Jennings, resolutions, UT Ag Extension, Wilson County Commission
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