Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sumner County Regional (M33), Gallatin, Tennessee: New board takes control of airport, court cases continue

Airport Administrator Steve Sudbury speaks at the Sumner County Airport Authority meeting Monday, June 24.
 Dessislava Yankova/Hendersonville Star News

Dan Downs, right, member of the Sumner County Regional Airport Authority, speaks during the board's meeting on Monday, June 24. Sitting next to him are Charles Moore, Frank Kessler and meeting attendee Sue Nickens. 
 Dessislava Yankova/Hendersonville Star News

The latest twist in the years-long running feud between the Sumner County Commission and the Sumner County Regional Airport Authority appears, with no degree of certainty, to give control of the airport board to members appointed by the commission in February. However, the situation is still clouded by five attorneys fighting it out in two courtrooms in three counties.

Six of the eight new members took their seats Monday for a three-hour meeting, joined by two of three members whose terms were unexpired from the so-called “old” board.

The eight members of the board re-did most of the actions taken at a meeting in March before a Murfreesboro judge rendered those actions null and void in ruling on a lawsuit between the county and the airport board. The judge, Robert Corlew, is overseeing the case after Sumner County Chancellor Tom Gray recused himself.

On Monday, the board unanimously elected Jim Egan as chairman, Don Drayton as vice chairman, and Steve Nelson as secretary. They next unanimously voted to again terminate airport board attorney Art McClellan, who represented previous board members who met in executive session in March as a competing board. The vote to fire McClellan gave him 10 working days to turn over corporate records and submit bills for past services.

The new board voted to hire Gallatin attorney Mark Smith on a temporary basis for $250 an hour. The board is expected to look into a permanent hire later.

After extensive questioning of Airport Administrator Steve Sudbury and discussion about his single-signature authority over checks, the board voted unanimously to require two signatures for any check over $10,000. Previously, Sudbury was allowed to sign a check for any amount, including many for hundreds of thousands of dollars to contractors. Sudbury told board members that he kept detailed records, that the auditor looked at every check, and that he never signed any check of any amount to himself.

New board member Bill Taylor said he was astounded by the lack of financial control over such large amounts of money. However, board member Dan Downs repeatedly came to Sudbury’s defense and pointed out the fact that certain grant payments, by law, had to be made within a set period of time.

Smith advised the board it could try the $10,000 level for three months or so and change it if necessary.

Sudbury’s employment contract with the airport has a high bar of termination without cause that requires monthly payment of the full five-year contract period that began Feb. 25.Resignation may be allowed in lieu of termination. During a period of severance pay, “the employee shall be available to the board as a consultant.”

Two seats

Board member Charlie Moore, whose appointment ends June 30, appeared willing to remain on the board. The county’s Committee on Committees also met Monday and in its report to the full commission gave notice that there was an upcoming airport board vacancy for next month.

The third member, Wayne Hooper, whose term is unexpired and who is the airport board’s treasurer, did not attend the meeting. Egan said Hooper indicated he was not interested in continuing on the board. However, he had not submitted an official resignation and is recognized by the current board as a member and as treasurer.

Both Egan and County Executive Anthony Holt, who nominates board members and accepts resignations, said Monday they had no resignation and that there was no vacancy at that time. A formal written resignation could put a second appointee up for consideration next month. The new board “is still sorting things out” on what it can and cannot do, Egan said.

A motion by Egan to move the next meeting to the County Administration Building failed 4-4. He did not make a motion to require office hours for Sudbury after discussion on the topic.

Ongoing lawsuit

McClellan, the former Airport Authority attorney, filed a motion Monday in Chancery Court for a stay to keep the County Commission from sitting any new airport board members prior to the outcome of an appeal. The motion claims that Monday’s meeting fell within an automatic 30-day stay of the Murfreesboro judge’s order and that the board was preparing to conduct business in violation of law. The stay was not signed before the board met or concluded its action Monday.

McClellan also filed a notice of appeal with the Tennessee Court of Appeals. A decision from that court could take up to a year.

“If it were to go all the way to the state Supreme Court, it could take two years,” Smith said.

Corlew ruled in favor of McClellan in June on a technicality that board members appointed by the County Commission under newly adopted rules were not qualified because they had not taken the oath of office and presented certificates of appointments to the airport board. Corlew ruled the county had the right to change the rules but they could not conflict with state law.

Holt swore in eight newly appointed members June 15. They retook the oath of office June 17-19 from Sumner County Clerk Bill Kemp. Their certificates were delivered to McClellan June 19, the day McClellan filed the notice of appeal.


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