published Thursday, August 8th, 2013

East Ridge spat gets down and dirty

  • photo
    East Ridge Vice Mayor Larry Sewell
    Staff File Photo

WHAT’S NEXT

The East Ridge City Council will interview three city manager candidates tonight at City Hall following its council meeting. The candidates are Hamilton County Judicial Commissioner Larry Ables; Hattiesburg, Miss., Director of Federal and State Programs Andrew Allard; and Fairview, Tenn., City Manager Andrew Hyatt. Interviews are expected to start around 7:30 p.m.

In the latest chapter of “dysfunctional” East Ridge politics, the city attorney recently told a councilman to “exhibit the ‘testicular fortitude’” to confront him in person.

On July 26, the morning after a council meeting, Councilman Larry Sewell emailed attorney Hal North, angry. The night before, the elected officials were prepared to vote on an ordinance to amend the city’s 2012-13 budget after the fiscal year ended.

But before they voted, North informed the council members that they couldn’t do that. At the request of Councilman Marc Gravitt, North had asked the state comptroller’s office about the issue and learned such a fiscal maneuver is against the law. He told Gravitt, but not the other councilmen. Gravitt didn’t tell his colleagues either.

Council members voted 3-0 against the amendment after they learned it was illegal. Sewell and Mayor Brent Lambert abstained. Lambert said he wasn’t prepared to vote because he needed to process what he just learned. Sewell didn’t say anything.

The next morning, Sewell fired off an email to North and the rest of the council. He said he was “very disappointed” about what had happened the night before.

“I thought you were a professional attorney,” Sewell wrote. “Your action last night did not show me that. … It is up to you to keep us informed on any issue that should arise.”

“I would have preferred that you exhibit the “testicular fortitude” to discuss this or any matter with me face-to-face,” North responded two hours later.

Poor communication has been an issue in recent months among Sewell, Lambert and North. The two councilmen have accused North of intentionally keeping them out of the loop. In turn, North and some councilmen have suggested that Sewell and Lambert are angling to remove North and bring back John Anderson, whom the council fired in December.

In June, Lambert temporarily suspended a charter study commission set up by the council in March. Lambert said an anonymous citizen showed him that only the mayor could appoint a charter study commission. Lambert would not say who tipped him off about the rule. Some council members were upset that he didn’t tell them before the meeting. Ultimately, the commission was reinstated two weeks later.

On July 26, North said he did not tell the other councilmen that the amendment was illegal because only Gravitt asked him to examine the issue. When he informed Gravitt about what he learned, North said, he “was told not to disseminate that information at that time.”

In an email after the meeting, Gravitt said Lambert and Sewell should not have needed much time to decide how to vote after learning the amendment was illegal — “How much time (do) you need to think about breaking the law?”

Still, Gravitt admitted he should have told the other councilmen about the problem before the meeting. But he also sarcastically pointed out that Lambert and Sewell should also be more open.

“After all,” Gravitt wrote, “you and Brent have been so forthcoming with the rest of the council haven’t you? Were we, or Hal, notified when Brent bypassed our City Attorney and went straight to (the Municipal Technical Advisory Service) for a legal opinion, not once, but twice?? No. Our City Attorney should have been consulted first. … Let’s call it like it is, you want someone else sitting (in) the City Attorney’s chair, and everyone knows it.”

In his email to Sewell, North addressed the issue of whether he plays favorites.

“I didn’t know the Council members from Adam’s housecat,” he wrote. “I didn’t know who I could trust or not trust to tell the truth. What I quickly found was a totally dysfunctional Council that can’t simply agree what day of the week it is, with the ‘ghosts’ of John Anderson and (former City Manager) Tim Gobble lurking in the shadows.”

In his email, Sewell said he would ask the other council members to vote for North’s firing if North does not communicate more with him and Lambert.

North responded: “I have no personal agenda, and certainly have no great affinity for this job. If you or the other Council members need any information from me whatsoever, simply pick up the phone. Otherwise, don’t complain about MY failure to communicate.

“If you believe that anything I have done (or haven’t done) as City Attorney warrants you to seek my removal, have at it.”

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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