published Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Marion County leaders tussle over planning appointments

Louin Campbell, left, with Marion County Commissioner  Mack Reeves.
Louin Campbell, left, with Marion County Commissioner Mack Reeves.

JASPER, Tenn. — Recommendations for appointments to the Marion County Planning Commission caused an extended squabble last week among County Commission members.

County Mayor John Graham said Planning Commissioner Jerry Dempsey's term expired at the end of February, and at least initially, he did not recommend reappointment.

"It has nothing to do with [Dempsey's] ability," he said. "He's been a good commissioner. I just feel like as opportunities come before me I need to try to get a more diverse group of people on our planning commission."

Graham said he has 18 years' experience on that board, and "I think I have a pretty good feel of how those members need to be."

Another of the planning commission's members, Roy Brackett, resigned from the board recently "after discussing this situation," Graham said.

He recommended local businessmen Gary Hooper and Bill Hewgley for Dempsey's and Brackett's positions, respectively.

After Graham's recommendations were made known, several county commissioners moved to put Dempsey back on the planning commission immediately.

County Attorney Billy Gouger said that exceeded the board's powers.

"The appointment is made by the county mayor subject to confirmation by the County Commission," he said. "So they can accept or reject his nominations, but they can't nominate people on their own."

Even after Gouger's explanation, Commissioner Louin Campbell, who has served on the planning commission for 16 years, moved to reject both of Graham's nominations because "we all know what's going on here."

He did not elaborate on his comment.

Gouger said state law requires "a certain amount of diversity" on the planning commission.

"You can't have too many people who are affiliated with the county government," he said. "We've been borderline, obviously, on that question for several years now. What the mayor is trying to do is make sure that we're brought into compliance with that law."

Dempsey serves on the county's Election Commission, and Brackett is the county building inspector, officials said.

"Those were two of the positions that were called into question about the diversity that we're supposed to have on the board," Gouger said.

County commissioners voted 8-6 to appoint Hewgley so he could serve out the rest of Brackett's term.

Gouger said that brought the county in compliance with state regulations.

At that point, Graham rescinded his recommendation of Hooper, and suggested the board reappoint Dempsey.

The board voted unanimously to do so.

Commissioner Don Adkins said if Dempsey was willing to stay on the board and the county meets the state requirements, he wanted Dempsey there.

"This board isn't paid," he said. "They do critical work for the county, and they have for years. Over the years, we've had a really tough time finding those who will serve in that capacity."

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him atryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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