Petersburg, alderman settle federal case

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Petersburg alderman has won his federal lawsuit against the town for ousting him from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Alderman Tony Nichols is the "prevailing party," so the defendants were ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Harry Mattice to pay court costs and legal fees in the case.

The town's insurance policy with the Tennessee Municipal League covers those expenses.

"I'm just glad the truth prevailed and that it's over with," Nichols said Thursday, three days after he was reinstalled on the Town Board.

Nichols was ousted in 2008 because on Oct. 31 that year he displayed a digital photo on his cell phone at Town Hall. It showed Sarah Palin's face on the nude bust of a well-endowed woman. Sen. John McCain's face was also shown in the photo expressing acknowledgement of the female images.

Town Recorder Dawn Forlines saw the image and the subsequent controversy implied Nichols showed it to her. Forlines has complained of harassment in the workplace.

Because Palin was a political figure, the image is protected free speech, according to Nichols' attorney, Michael Wall.

Nichols has indicated the incident regarding the digital image was a thinly veiled ruse to remove him from the board for another reason. He's said Forlines grabbed his arm to pull the phone closer so she could see the picture.

Mattice directed the defendants to not interfere with Nichols in relation to the incident with Forlines, or because of his statements concerning irregularities regarding wages and leave time taken by Forlines or Police Chief Larry Hardin's alleged improper activities while on duty. The chief allegedly had been driving a woman to work at a restaurant in Lewisburg and using his patrol car to do so, according to public records at the town hall.

Defendants in the complaint filed on April 20, 2009, were the city, then-Mayor John Cowden, James Owen an alderman who is now mayor and Aldermen Kenneth Boles, Phillip McMillian, and Kenneth Richardson. Rickie Wright was a defendant in the case ended in mid-March.

Wright was appointed to succeed Nichols, but his home was beyond the town line at the time, so that building and its land were annexed. While he had property in the city where his mailbox is located, and he had been paying city property taxes on that land, he is now subject to town property taxes for the house and its land.

Nichols was reluctant to say much about the case, explaining, "There was some talk about a non-disclosure clause."

Still, there had been plenty of public statements obtained about the situation early last year. That included advice from a long-time official with the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

"They never should have done it from the beginning," Nichols said of the ouster, an act not provided for in the town charter. "They were told by MTAS that they shouldn't. I'm looking forward to getting back to work for the people who elected me."

Town Recorder Dawn Forlines said even less.

"When she was asked what happened, Forlines said, "You'll have to talk to somebody else. Have a good day."

McMillian said, "We just didn't go about it the right way so we had to take him back. I don't feel one way or another about it... Our charter wasn't reading the way we thought it was. I thought there was a harassment clause in there."

What did McMillian think about the situation? "All I was thinking about was that he showed Dawn a lewd picture."

Petersburg is holding another town election in August. McMillian is not running, but Richardson is.

"They said we didn't go through the right channels to take him off," Richardson said.

Ouster can be accomplished through a complaint to Chancery Court.

"It doesn't bother me about it one way or another," Richardson said. "I know what he did back then. I can get along with him if he will get along with me and I think he will."

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