published Friday, June 13th, 2014

Patronage firings cost Monroe County: 17 workers axed after their man lost election

NASHVILLE — A $500,000 settlement in a Monroe County case involving the firing of 17 workers who backed the losing road superintendent candidate in 2010 should send a "powerful message" to rural Tennessee governments about political patronage, attorneys say.

The settlement was reached Thursday after three days of testimony in the federal civil suit, filed by the former workers against Monroe County government and Road Superintendent Steve Teague.

Workers alleged that Teague fired them on Sept. 1, 2010, the day he took office after defeating two-term incumbent Phillip Axley in the August election.

Soon afterward, the workers filed a federal lawsuit charging that the dismissals violated their constitutional rights of free speech and association.

"We hope that this case will ensure that government officials in Tennessee don't let their politics trump their oath to abide by our Constitution when it comes to employing those who serve the public," said David Garrison, an attorney with Nashville-based Barrett Johnston, which along with the Prestonburg, Ky., law firm Pillersdorf, DeRossett & Lane represented the workers.

Attorney Scott Tift, also with Barret Johnston, said political patronage still thrives in parts of rural Tennessee along with its philosophy of "to the victor go the spoils."

"They [former workers] are hoping this sends a message both to Monroe County and other officials in rural Tennessee that this politics where you win and you get to put in all your people -- which violates the Constitution -- just stops," Tift said. "Because it's happened all too often over the years."

Tift said the 17 fired workers represented nearly half of the road department's 37 workers. None had civil service protection, Tift said, calling that common in smaller, more rural counties and towns. The settlement, he said, is "probably one of the more significant employment settlements from a government in East Tennessee in years, if not ever."

Teague was reportedly out of the office on Thursday and did not return a reporter's phone call.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Teague had argued he laid off the workers due to budget shortfalls.

But Axley testified during the U.S. District Court trial that the Road Department's budget had nearly $4 million and plenty of work to be done when he left office. Teague said he told workers everyone would have to reapply for their old jobs, but the ex-workers testified they were told not to bother.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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