Sex harassment complaint sacks alderman

Friday, January 9, 2009

Petersburg's Board of Mayor and Alderman have voted to remove an alderman accused by the town recorder of sex harassment, but the alderman's ouster and his successor's appointment appear questionable.

The alderman, Anthony Nichols, is accused of showing Town Recorder Dawn Forlines a topless photo purportedly superimposed with the face of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in late November at the Town Hall.

"Supposedly, he had a cell phone with a camera with pictures on it," Marshall County Sheriff Les Helton said of Nichols, the alderman who's also one of Helton's deputies, "and a lady in Petersburg, an employee, told him she didn't appreciate anything like that."

Forlines declined comment. According to a witness, she must have seen the cell phone screen to file a complaint.

"I'm not going to describe what was on there," Nichols said. "There are allegations made back and forth. Some of it's true and some of it's not."

Alderman Kenneth Richardson witnessed the incident.

"It was a picture of a ... woman running for public office," said Richardson, who was asked if the face was that of the Alaska governor.

"Pretty good guesser," Richardson replied. "I think it was her and ... the upper part of another woman."

Richardson indicated that a digitally altered photo of the former Republican candidate for vice president was part of Forlines' allegation of harassment and a hostile work environment.

"That's more or less what's happening now," Richardson said. "He just turned around (unsolicited) and showed it to her."

"I was told that she grabbed his arm (to see it), but that didn't happen," Richardson said of the incident he witnessed at Town Hall in late November.

The sex harassment complaint over a photo and statements surrounding it clearly indicate nudity. While several officials declined to be specific about that without pointed questions, other issues have developed.

Succession premature?

Mayor John Cowden and a majority of the aldermen voted to oust Nichols when he was absent from a special-called meeting held for a specific purpose that didn't include ouster on the agenda. That is interpreted as meaning that Nichols wasn't removed from office, according to opinions explained by Don Darden, a municipal management consultant with the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service. It couldn't happen anyway, Darden said. There's no ouster provision in the town charter.

Furthermore, Rickie Wright -- the man appointed by the town board on Dec. 15 to succeed Nichols -- doesn't live in Petersburg and therefore can't be an alderman, Darden said.

"I told the recorder that when you have a special meeting, you can consider only what's in the call," Darden said Tuesday after visiting Petersburg Town Hall.

Petersburg Police Chief Larry Hardin called Darden early last month "about a sex harassment case filed against one of the aldermen," the UT-MTAS official said. Hardin "wanted to know what to do," so he was referred to the Tennessee Municipal League's Risk Management Pool of lawyers.

Without an ouster procedure in the charter, Darden said, the town's alternative is to use the state law that removed former Smyrna Mayor Sam Ridley as a result of a Rutherford County Chancery Court case in the 1980s. The same law was unsuccessfully used more recently in another Middle Tennessee county.

Petersburg doesn't have a town attorney, said the UT-MTAS official who has consulted with two long-time state lawyers about residency requirements for aldermen and reached a conclusion different from that of Petersburg's mayor.

Cowden said he relied on information from the Lincoln County Election Commission office.

"The two legal consultants, attorneys with MTAS, said that what matters is where you lay your head at night," Darden said of common law that, in MTAS officials' opinions, means Wright isn't eligible to be an alderman.

Petersburg straddles the Marshall-Lincoln county line. Town Hall is in Lincoln County.

Petersburg's mayor said Lincoln County election officials registered Wright to vote in Petersburg.

"If you own property in town, you can vote, but if you don't live on the property, you wouldn't be on the board," Cowden said. Enough of the (Wright) property is in the city for him to be on the board."

Darden disagrees

Wright's property includes land in the town and beyond the town line, Darden said. Wright's house, where he sleeps at night, is on the part of the property that's not in Petersburg. MTAS officials have dealt with cases in which a town line went through a kitchen and the bedroom was not in the jurisdiction that was to be represented by the resident.

Cowden substantiated Darden's point about Wright's house.

"The house is not" on the part of the property that's in Petersburg, said Cowden, who again referred to information he received from a Lincoln County election official. Cowden said he didn't know the official's name.

The mayor declined to speak about Forlines' allegation against Nichols, saying, "It's being investigated" by vice mayor James Owen.

"James Owen is a criminal investigator for Lincoln County," Cowden said of his vice mayor.

Three calls to the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department failed to get an interview with Owen. However, the vice mayor did say on Tuesday that he would call on Wednesday because of a reporter's message forwarded by Lincoln County Sheriff Murray Blackwelder. By press time Thursday, no call had been received from Owen.

'A Catch-22'

"It's a 'Catch-22' situation," Blackwelder said.

"You're dealing with two different entities," Blackwelder said of two sheriff's departments with different jurisdictions in Petersburg, a border town with a Town Hall in Lincoln County, "and one city government." (As far as any investigation that Petersburg has going on, the Lincoln County sheriff said, "I don't know enough to comment.")

Owen "has jurisdiction to investigate," Blackwelder said, then noting it might be an internal investigation and not one conducted by his department, headquartered in Fayetteville.

"It could very well be a civil offense," he said when asked if the complaint might be judged in Chancery Court, or "an ethics violation."

Federal protection

Enforcement of labor laws against sex harassment is rooted in the Constitutional protection against discrimination on the basis of sex. Cases in Murfreesboro during the 1990s and in Franklin earlier this decade showed that women are a protected class of people just as there are protections against discrimination on the basis of race, creed and national origin.

It's unclear whether Forlines filed her sex harassment complaint in a timely manner. On Wednesday, she was asked for a copy of her complaint.

"I do not have a copy of that," Forlines said. "James Owen does. Contact him."

Tennessee's public records law requires public records be available for inspection during regular business hours. When Forlines, who's the custodian of town records, was asked if she could fax a copy of her complaint, her response indicated that a public record was not available for public inspection at Town Hall.

"I have been refused to get bank records from Town Hall," Alderman Brad Dillenback said Tuesday of attempts to get records of a town cell phone used by Forlines. "I have to pay for them. I'm an alderman. I haven't even gotten my paperwork from when I took office. I can go down there and look at them."

Open records?

That's a factor under the open records law, but Dillenback said Nichols "can't get his paperwork"


Remarkably, Dillenback has digital video discs made of town meetings, but he said he wanted to consult a lawyer before making them available to the Marshall County Tribune.

Darden said as a service by UT-MTAS, he "conducted an orientation session for ... Petersburg on city records, open meetings and it was videotaped."

At a town meeting since the Dec. 15 vote to oust Nichols and appoint Wright, both of those men attended.

"I've been told that they both sat at the table," Darden said. "I don't know if both of them voted."

Darden was a Jefferson City manager for a decade before starting working for the state.

"I don't think the people in the City of Petersburg are out to do wrong," the MTAS official of 10 years said, "but they need legal advice."

Petersburg didn't have a town attorney earlier this week.

"When you go to remove an alderman," Darden said. "you need to know what you're doing. ..."

One of the aldermen who voted to oust Nichols is Phillip McMillin. He was asked if the reason for ouster was a racy image on a cell-phone camera screen.

"You know about as much as I know," he replied.

Asked how he could vote to remove an elected official without a total understanding of the situation, he said, "You'll see when it all comes out.

"He's not accepted removal," McMillin continued.

"A committee checked it over to see if charges could be brought," he said. "They told us what they found and the board voted."

Neutral ground

Richardson, the witness, didn't vote. McMillin said it was to remain "neutral."

Richardson said it would be improper for him to vote since, as a witness, he was involved in the incident.

The mayor said Nichols' alleged offense was, in part, because he had "material on his cell phone that he shouldn't have..."

Asked if it's a criminal matter, Cowden said, "It depends on how far the investigation goes on whether it is a crime or not. That's all I need to say because we haven't determined what we're going to do from here."

Cowden spoke Tuesday night, returning a phone call after working late at his job in Shelbyville.

Petersburg's police chief declined to comment, recommending a call to the vice mayor.

Darden and others said state lawmakers have been consulted.

State Rep. Curt Cobb (D-Shelbyville) said he's available if town officials want help getting an opinion from the state attorney general's office.

State Sen. Eric Stewart of Franklin County called Cobb because Cobb represents Lincoln County, he said. Cobb noted Stewart is originally from Lincoln County, but lives in and represents the Senate district to the east.

"Somebody called ... Stewart ... saying they voted somebody off the board and that I'd be getting a call," said Cobb, who then explained several municipalities' charters were updated by the General Assembly in recent years.

He remembers that Petersburg's is "different from most" in that the aldermen elect the mayor. However, Brentwood commissioners have elected one of their members to be mayor.

Cowden ran as an alderman and was elected mayor.

On various other matters, though, Petersburg has not followed its charter, Nichols said. "As an alderman, I do my best to follow the charter."

'We get compliments'

As a Marshall County sheriff's deputy, "We get compliments on him," Helton said of Nichols. "Really, there's nothing he's done that we know that he's done. He's still an officer..."

Marshall County's sheriff added that "We don't condone anything like that," or what is alleged by Forlines. "We have nothing at this time to have an investigation or to start one" with regard to Nichols.

Capt. Sam Bragg is one of Nichols' superiors.

"We don't have an ax to grind with anybody," Bragg said. "The fact that he's an alderman has no effect on his job as a deputy... As long as he performs his job, he has a job."

Nichols resigned as Petersburg's police chief to become a deputy in early 2008.

"He does an adequate job, answers calls, writes reports and does his job," Bragg said. "I haven't had any complaints on him."

Nichols' circumstances in Petersburg are separate, said Bragg, who added that his understanding is that for sex harassment allegations to be successful, there must be proof of a pattern of such behavior, and that a single incident would not support a finding of sex harassment.

However, Bragg does recall a history of small-town eccentricities at Petersburg, including a cattle rustling case 20 years ago when he was the Bedford County law officer who prosecuted the case and received requests that the case be dropped because it would embarrass the defendant's family. No deals were made and there was a conviction, Bragg recalls.

Another senior law enforcement officer speaking on condition of anonymity recalls a case with charges reduced, but stemming from a dispute that arose in Town Hall and erupted into loud arguments and/or near violence in the town square.

"Power struggles are not unusual in small towns," Bragg said. "There has been drama down there ever since I can remember."

Petersburg officials published a legal notice in the Jan. 7 edition of the Marshall County Tribune saying that Wright was appointed to the board Dec. 15 to fill the vacant seat of Nichols, who was voted off the board.