Saturday, June 08, 2013

Sumner County Regional (M33), Gallatin, Tennessee: Judge rules in airport board's favor, orders county to pay court costs -- Corlew says incoming authority members must qualify, file certificates

June 7, 2013  

Written by  Jesse Hughes

Rutherford County Chancellor Robert E. Corlew III issued his opinion Friday in the Sumner County Airport Authority lawsuit against Sumner County, starting a five-day clock before his order takes effect. Until then, his May 24 temporary order granted at the request of the airport board continues to prevent either of two competing bodies from acting without the court’s permission.

Corlew ruled that eight newly appointed board members have not yet qualified to serve and must first be sworn into office and present certificates of appointment to the Airport Authority. He also decided the county erred in adopting a rule that board members “shall vacate their office immediately upon appointment of a successor.” That conflicts with state law which states that they serve “until a successor has been appointed and has qualified.”

“It is undisputed that the County Commission has the ultimate right to control appointments to the Airport Authority,” the judge’s opinion said. “The evidence shows that to this point, the newly proposed (board members) of the Airport Authority have not been duly qualified and their certificates of appointment have not been filed.”

Jim Egan, one of eight new appointees, said Friday it looked like the county lost the battle but won the war. County Attorney Leah Dennen requested that newly appointed members appear in County Executive Anthony Holt’s office June 17 to qualify for office, he said.

The commission and the airport board have been in court since March 2011 in a power struggle over which entity has control of appointments to the board. In January, the commission changed its rules on how it appoints airport board members after Sumner County Chancellor Tom Gray ruled the commission had not followed its own procedures in a previous attempt to replace two board members.

In February, the commission voted to appoint eight new members to the airport board to replace holdover members whose terms had expired. Two boards – the new one and the old one – ended up meeting in March. The eight new members elected officers, with Egan as chairman, and fired Art McClellan as the board’s attorney.

The matter went back to court. Gray recused himself from the case in April and the state Supreme Court assigned Corlew to decide the matter. Corlew held a short hearing May 13 and then attorneys for both sides presented oral arguments May 24.

Corlew’s decision makes the new board’s actions null and void. Egan said the new board plans to meet June 24 at its regularly scheduled meeting with or without the three members from the old board whose terms are unexpired. The new board would need to redo its actions.

Corlew signaled May 24 that he was giving serious weight to an argument McClellan made regarding appointees being qualified. Attorney Scott Derrick, representing the county, had dismissed that argument saying it was a non-issue whether members were sworn in or not.

Specifically, Corlew said there was a situation six to eight years ago in the district that includes Murfreesboro in which there were three candidates for circuit judge, including the incumbent. Larry Trail, a retired state senator, gained the majority. Trail died before taking the oath and beginning to serve.

The legal issue after he died centered on whether a vacancy was created by his death. The outcome of that case was the incumbent who finished third was deemed to hold office, because no vacancy existed.

The chancellor ignored McClellan’s argument that the County Commission violated Gray’s January order and went “behind his back” by changing its rules on appointments. Derrick countered that the commission had the authority to change its own rules and Gray had merely ruled they were required to follow them.

Corlew ordered the county to pay court costs.

McClellan declined Friday to comment on the judge’s ruling.

“I have no reaction,” he said.

Dennen said Friday she was “pleased with the decision and its determination to allow the new members of the board to take their positions and proceed with their duties.”

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