Wallace, economic developer, fired

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lewisburg's economic and community development director, Terry Wallace, the former Marshall County mayor, was terminated Friday by City Manager Eddie Fuller.

"My understanding was that it's the general consensus of the council that it's time for a change," Councilman Ronald McRady said in a telephone interview on Monday. "He was asked to resign, or we had no other alternative to let him go.

"It's my understanding that he (Wallace) said he would not resign," McRady said.

"I hate to use the word fire, but then he (Fuller) had no alternative but to let him go," he said. "By charter, the city manager does the hiring and firing, not the council."

Wallace spoke plainly about it on Monday evening.

"I got my pink slip," he said. "I'm going to move on."

Wallace's annual salary was $66,000.

"I've made a lot of connections," Wallace said, reflecting on his years of public service when asked if he has "Anything lined up?"

Three years and four months ago, he was hired as the economic and community development director, the title he provided Monday night when asked for the name of his job. Wallace preceded County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett who is now seeking his second four-year term. Since then, Bob Phillips decided against seeking re-election. The city council is substantially different with McRady and Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr.

"I was hired by the council, a different council, of course," Wallace said.

Prior to his terms as county executive and then county mayor, Wallace led the county ambulance service for 19 years with the ambulance service, he said.

Asked what's next with regard to the position Whitehead called industrial recruiter, the councilman replied, "I'm sure the city will get one, eventually. We need an industrial recruiter. I'm sure we can get one for less. Who knows what the future will present?"

Whitehead referred other interview questions "to the city manager... All I know is that Lewisburg is an 'at-will employer.'"

The phrase "at-will employer" refers to labor law. In Tennessee, people work at the will of the employer, meaning they can be fired for no specified reason. However, the issue is the flip side of unionization. In some states, union contracts influence employment decisions by businesses. A business with a unionized work force has what's called a "closed shop," meaning an employee must be a member of the union and openings are subject to the availability of union members' availability. Since Tennessee law calls for "open shop" rules, businesses are "at-will employers."

For that reason, Fuller was careful as he described the situation with regards to Wallace's departure. The situation affects terminated employee's eligibility for unemployment insurance, although the prospect of that was not indicated as a prospect in Wallace's case during several telephone interviews.

"There's a separation notice you do to the Department of Labor with a place to note the reason," the city manager said. "You don't have to give a reason."

"Terminated without cause" is, technically, the statement that many attorneys advise as the appropriate response to use in this kind of situation. An "at-will employer" can do that.

Mayor Barbara Woods was reached by cell phone on a golf course on Saturday when she confirmed that Fuller was to have spoken with Wallace; suggesting that he resign, and that Wallace's decision against resigning led to separation.

Fuller met with Wallace on Monday, June 28. City Recorder Connie Edde attended as a witness.

"He was given an opportunity to resign," Fuller said. "He wanted to think about it... and we agreed to sit on it for a couple of days and get back on it."

The last time Fuller met with Wallace was Friday when Wallace "declined to resign and he was terminated and without cause," the city manager said.

Wallace's departure follows that of the city attorney, but in Lewisburg, city attorneys work at the pleasure of the council. That's in accordance with the Charter. Only two other officials are employed that way, the city manager and the treasurer/recorder.

The city attorney, however, was released for several reasons. Part of the discussion included salary. It was reduced from approximately $48,000 annually to $24,000. It is, however, a part-time position.

Without Wallace, the $66,000 allocation for an economic developer "would probably have an impact on the budget," McRady said, "but the council, in general, felt that we needed a change in that position.

"I have the same feeling as the other councilmen," McRady said.

The amount budgeted for an economic developer remained at $66,000 annually, the councilman said, recalling discussion during a non-voting workshop of the council.

"Councilman (Quinn Brandon) Stewart brought it up and the council, in general, said it was concerned (about Marshall County's unemployment rate) bumping first and second," McRady said. "We've not seen any progress."

Asked if City Hall officials have a successor in mind, the councilman replied, "Not that I know of. I feel like the position will be advertised like any other position, just like the attorney's."

Applications for the position of city attorney are being accepted through the end of the business day on Friday, July 23. Then they are to be made available to councilmen so they'll be prepared for discussion on Tuesday, June 27.

"Fuller will hire the economic developer," McRady said. "So, he can call for an advertisement for the position."

Fuller has announced his retirement as city manager in October.

"My position is that, since I'm not going to be there much longer, it would be my preference that maybe the council and the Industrial Development Board receive the applications and make a selection," the city manager said.

"There's nobody waiting to slide right in," Fuller said.

There have been suggestions that the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service handle the personnel office task. MTAS might be able to write a job description, advertise the opening and cull applicants to make a recommendation.

A similar process was used a few years ago when the Marshall County Board of Education contracted with the Tennessee School Boards Association to find a successor to John David Pierce after the board terminated him on a recommendation by the county commission.

Both methods are subject to the state's open records law.

Wallace said he went to the Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Thursday morning in the city's Recreation Center to see Bob Hopkins, executive director of the county's Emergency Management Agency, named Citizen of the Year.

"I kept noticing people," Wallace said of some who seemed to be acting unusual, seemingly "pointing and saying, 'There he is.'"

Apparently, some people had learned about Wallace's discussion at City Hall on Monday, although the conclusion wasn't until Friday.

Calls were made late Monday afternoon to the homes of Councilmen Stewart, Hershel Davis and Robin Minor. Davis' phone was busy. Messages were left for Minor and Stewart.

Wallace had suggestions on how other aspects of the situation might be revealed and then he said, "Well, I'm going to stop talking about it."