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Lawsuit offer, ethics plaint vex board

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"Don't shoot the messenger," School Board Attorney Mike Jennings responds to board members who said that a settlement offer for the board's lawsuit against Mt. Juliet gives the city too much. JOHN BUTWELL / The Wilson Post

The terms of a proposed settlement offer for the Wilson County Schools' lawsuit against the City of Mt. Juliet failed to meet with the board's approval.

So it's back to the drafting board for the offer in the suit - which seeks to recover unpaid liquor-by-the-drink (LBD) revenues that the city was supposed to share with the schools.

That was one of three legal issues presented by Board Attorney Mike Jennings at the board's four-hour regular June meeting Monday night - including a 14-part ethics complaint forwarded by the county commission's Ethics Committee to the board and hand-delivered by Jennings to Board Chair and Zone 5 Member Larry Tomlinson.

Complaint sent to AG

The board voted unanimously to refer the complaint to the office of State Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

The complaints include concerns about the disposition of building materials during the recent demolition of the old Lebanon High School to renovate it into a new Central Office and Adult Education Center - a process that has stopped due to insufficient funds to award a construction bid.

But first Jennings informed the board that former Tuckers Crossroads math teacher Matthew Mock's appeal hearing in court is set for Mar. 17, 2017.

In January, the board voted to uphold a six-month suspension that a hearing officer gave Mock for his role in "pranks" played on a final workday of school when no students were attending.

Details of proposed deal

Next, Jennings explained the possible compromise offer to settle the lawsuit with the City of Mt. Juliet about overdue liquor-by-the-drink tax revenues.

The plan calls for the school system to forgive all of the back tax revenues - totaling around $449,000 - and give the city three acres of the proposed high school site in Greenhill on US 70 for a north-side Mt. Juliet fire station.

In exchange, the city would agree to waive all building fees for the school system up to a total of $450,000, and all school property adjacent to city limits would be annexed into the city - lowering the schools' water and sewer rates.

However, Jennings said Mt. Juliet City Attorney Gino Marchetti hadn't seen the offer yet, and the Mt. Juliet City Commission hadn't voted on it. Plus, he said, the city very recently filed a motion for a summary judgment in its favor in the case, "so we're kind of getting mixed messages. That's how lawyers work."

The offer is the same one that the board voted 3-1 in April, with Zone 1 Member Wayne McNeese voting no and Zone 3 Member Don Weathers absent - except the donation of three acres for a fire station wasn't in the April 3 motion by Zone 4 Member Linda Armistead that the board passed.

'A good framework'

Referring to the latest proposed offer, Jennings told the board Monday night, "I think it's a good framework." But the board didn't agree.

Weathers first asked the price per acre of the land. And when Deputy Director of Schools for Finance Mickey Hall said $65,000 per acre, Weathers said, "I can't see giving them over $600,000 we could use for other things" - apparently adding the $195,000 for the three acres and the $449,000 in back taxes to get $644,000.

Weathers added that this is especially true since the board had voted, 3-2, two years ago to turn down an offer from Mt. Juliet to settle the suit for $270,000 (actually $249,000). Weathers and McNeese voted to accept the offer.

Board Chair Tomlinson questioned Weathers, saying he didn't remember the 2014 offer - and Armistead said she didn't remember it, either.

Turned down 2014 offer

So at Weathers' request, Tomlinson called a five-minute recess while the minutes of the 2014 meeting were found and the section involving the offer was printed out for the board members.

Weathers read the section aloud, including the 3-2 vote against accepting the $249,000 offered settlement, which would have forgiven $200,000 of the original $449,000 the city owes.

He then pointed out that the current offered appears to him to be about $800,000 "off from where we started."

Jennings asked the board, "Don't shoot the messenger - I'm just telling what this says."

After some of the other board members echoed concerns about the new deal, Tomlinson suggested that it just be "put on hold." At which point Jennings said, "If you're putting it on hold, I'm not even sending this out."

Meanwhile, the City of Mt. Juliet is sharing its current LBD tax revenues - it's only the past-due tax revenues that are in dispute.

Mt. Juliet commissioner disappointed

A Mt. Juliet city official who has helped negotiate the presented settlement is disappointed the process stalled Monday night. District 1 Mt. Juliet City Commissioner Ray Justice said he has worked hand-in-hand with school officials to work out a fair and equitable settlement.

The proposed donation of 2.8 acres of land for a north side fire hall are in his district, and he said the area needs stepped-up fire service. These acres are associated with the new Mt. Juliet High School planned for his district as well.

"The purpose of the negotiation process was to come to a meeting of the minds for the citizens of Mt. Juliet and Wilson County," he said. "It was to try and settle and not go to court."

He said the whole negotiation process has "also served to repair and build the relationship between the Wilson County School Board and the City of Mt. Juliet for a better level of cooperation."

Justice said he was confused why the settlement was rejected by the school board.

"Hopefully the appearance there may be some more interested in the political game than the overall betterment of Wilson County and its residents is not the case," Justice said. "But we will soon find out what happens at the next meeting."

Justice noted he especially wanted to thank School Board Chair Larry Tomlinson and Board Member Linda Armistead for their work toward furthering the effort to settle the dispute.

Open Records request, too

Jennings then moved on to the third issue - the ethics complaint that the county Ethics Committee instructed him as county and school board attorney to give the board.

He also delivered an Open Records request from several county commissioners for all records involving bonding, bidding and construction of school buildings since 2010.

Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright told Jennings her office would send the requested records.

The ethics complaint involves 14 questions concerning the handling of the demolition work at the old Lebanon High School. The questions were part of a letter presented to the Ethics Committee and addressed to its chair, Terry Ashe (District 12).

They request inventories of the building prior to the recent demolition work and now, plus a review of the contract between the school system and Aegis Environmental - the company that did the work.

'Disposition of flagpole'

The questions also call for an accounting of any materials from the building which were sold, including those sold as scrap and the old flagpole - as well as a variety of other questions about the surplus materials that were removed from the school and whether the school board and director of schools had the authority to approve the work.

The letter - signed by Cris G. Corley - says his complaint includes "all employees in the Director of Wilson County Schools office that were involved in the mishandling of government properties, including Mr. Mickey Hall."

In response, Tomlinson entertained a motion to send the complaint to the Attorney General's Office asking them to do a thorough investigation.

No 'fox guarding henhouse'

"If we do the investigation ourselves, there would be a perception that we are covering things up," he said. "There would be a perception of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."

The board's vote was 5-0 to approve sending the matter to the AG for investigation.

There were also questions about the recent school renovation bids coming in considerably over the board's estimates when the school board asked for the funding.

The Ethics Committee is sending those questions to the State Comptroller's Office for a forensic audit. However, Zone 2 Board Member Bill Robinson pointed out that everything the system does financially is already audited every year, so he isn't concerned about an additional audit.

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

Writer Laurie Everett can be contacted at laurieeverett1@gmail.com.

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