Harassment, annex, money force Petersburg to set special meeting

Friday, June 12, 2009

PETERSBURG - Sexual harassment, annexation of an appointed alderman's home and the annual budget are to be considered during special called meetings of the town board on the next two Mondays.

All three topics were up for consideration when the Board met for its regularly scheduled meeting this week, but with comments on some and required sessions on revenue and expenditures, the aldermen agreed to delay decisions for a week.

The Board is to meet again at 7 p.m. on Monday and June 22 in Town Hall where this week's delay sprung from discussion as follows.

* City Recorder Dawn Forlines presented a proposed employee handbook, saying it needs three votes of approval to take effect. Alderman Brad Dillenback asked if a handbook must be law and Forlines replied; "It should be, according to MTAS," the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

MTAS' Don Darden, the man who's advised the town that Alderman Ricky Wright can't serve because his home is beyond the town line, "wrote" the proposed handbook, Forlines said.

Mayor James Owen explained the proposed manual is a combination of several employee handbooks.

"I've got some issues with it," Dillenback said. "You're opening yourself up for a lawsuit."

Furthermore, the town's current manual mentions sexual harassment in two paragraphs, but the proposed book has five pages on the subject, the alderman said.

Sexual harassment was an apparent issue last fall when, according to a federal complaint by Wright's predecessor, Tony Nichols, Forlines was offended by the image of a topless woman on Nichols' cell-phone view screen. That preceded Nichols' removal from the Board. Nichols sued the town to regain his position.

Noting Dillenback's remarks, the mayor pointed out that the Board had reviewed the proposed handbook, and commented, "If you had been at the meeting, maybe you could have straightened it out."

Given that and another alderman reporting he didn't bring his copy of the proposed book, Owen suggested a special meeting. The panel agreed and set the special meeting.

* June 22, 29 and July 6 were set for hearings on the annexation request filed by Wright and endorsed by the Town Planning Commission. The 7 p.m. hearings are to be in Town Hall.

Wright's mailbox at his property's road frontage is in Petersburg, but the town line goes through the lot. His house is beyond the town line. Darden, the MTAS official, has said residency is determined where one lays their head at night, so if Wright has continued to sleep in his house there, he's not eligible to be in office. As a result, he's requested annexation.

Wright was appointed to succeed Nichols when he was removed from office in December. Town officials have indicated it's because Nichols showed an image of Sarah Palin's head on the topless torso of another woman in a picture that included John McCain looking on. Nichols' complaint in federal court at Winchester says Forlines grabbed his arm to see the picture and that it's protected political speech. Disenfranchisement of an elected official based on that reason is unconstitutional, the complaint states.

* The town's fiscal year is set to begin on July 1, so its annual budget is being prepared.

"The state would like for us to have it done by the end of the month," Forlines told the Board this Monday.

Since other special meetings had been set, she advised that special meetings may have only three topics.

June 15 at 7 p.m. was set for the budget discussion.

Monday night next week is also when the board is going to resume deliberations on what to do about a driveway culvert.

Drainage issues have been raised by the resident's culvert and town funding of a solution was debated. Alderman Kenneth Richardson recalled town practices to install culverts bought by residents, or to provide a culvert if the resident installed it.

The resident was to be at the meeting this week, Forlines said, but the resident was absent.

Wright moved to table the matter until next Monday so the resident might attend.

Decisions made - other than to delay action - included election of Richardson at vice mayor, approval of routine reports and the police chief accepting assignments to deal with a couple of issues.

"There's sewage running down the street in front of the Presbyterian Church," Dillenback reported, emphasizing the flow wasn't from the church.

"I'll get on it in the morning," Police Chief Larry Hardin said.

Hardin also volunteered to deal with complaints about dogs running at large.