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Constables' fate lingers in uncertainty

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

Roane Newspapers

Roane County Commissioner Jerry Goddard describes himself as a big fan of constables.

“They’re proud of their office, and I’m proud of them,” Goddard said. “I’m going to support them.”

Goddard will need the support of seven other commissioners to vote down a resolution that could eventually allow the county to purge itself of constables. The resolution is on the agenda for Monday night’s county commission meeting at the courthouse.

“I’m going to vote against that because this is just the first step in trying to eliminate them,” Goddard said.

Roane County is currently exempt from a state law that would give it the power to eliminate constables.

The resolution, if passed, would allow the county to request its legislative delegation to seek a measure through the General Assembly to re-move the exemption.

Even if that move is successful, it will still take a two-thirds majority vote at two consecutive commission meetings to remove any law enforce-ment powers exercised by the constables in the county.

“If we get it back we still may not do anything about it,” Commissioner Benny East said.

Constables are elected by voters in the districts they serve and have law enforcement powers.

The controversy over the position started last summer.

Former constable Mark Patton was at the center of the firestorm after allegations arose that he was using the position to harass off- duty police officers and intimidate residents. He was also pictured in the Roane County News holding his “big stick” and boasted that it was all the backup he needed.

Some of the fallout from the Patton controversy was many commissioners began to wonder out loud if constables were worth having.

“It’s a position that was needed in the past, but is no longer relevant to law enforcement in Roane County,” Commissioner David Olsen said.

Patton eventually quit, then asked for his job back. The county told him no, so he filed a $100,000 lawsuit against the county.

Goddard isn’t the only one who has expressed his support for constables. Several Roane County News readers have sent letters to the editor doing the same.

Helen Thompson, who lives South of the River, said she feels safer with Constable Butch Barding patrolling her area.

Thompson said Barding recently helped recover a cattle trailer that was stolen from a family member of hers.

“We need all the help in this day and time that we can get,” Thompson said.

Barding said he thinks of himself as more of a public servant for his community than a law-enforcement officer. In addition to asking speeders to slow down, he said he also helps stranded motorists and searches for lost hunters.

Unlike Goddard, some commissioners have not said publicly how they will vote Monday night.

“I want to hear all the debate on it,” Commissioner Mike Hooks said. “I have not made up my mind yet on how I’m going to vote on it.”

Some commissioners have pointed to a lack of a chain of command with constables as reason why they need to be reined in. Unlike the sher-iff’s office, where the deputies answer to Sheriff Jack Stockton, constables have no one to answer to.

“The sheriff is responsible for enforcing the laws of Roane County and the people that enforce the laws of Roane County report to the sheriff,” Olsen said. “It’s just a basic management question.”

Barding said constables do report to an organization called the Tennessee Constable Council, but the council doesn’t have the authority to strip a constable of his police powers, he added.

Commission Chairman Troy Beets also questioned the legitimacy of the constable council, pointing out in a meeting with Barding that Calvin Trew is still listed as the organization’s senior vice president.

Trew was once indicted on charges of incest and statutory rape.

“The point of me bringing that out is not to judge Mr. Trew,” Beets said. “But it shows the weakness, Butch, of your organization that you’re asking us to depend on.”

Beets was also critical of the constable council for the way it handled the Patton situation. Beets said it took the involvement of District Attor-ney General Russell Johnson to prod the constables to take action. Barding said the constable council responded by relieving Patton of his posi-tion with the organization. Despite that, Patton could run for constable again in the future and get his police powers back should he win.

“In some areas constables run completely unopposed,” Beets said.

Goddard pointed out that no group is immune from shady characters.

For example, former Roane County General Sessions Court Judge Thomas Austin is currently serving time in federal prison for extortion. “Cor-rupt to the core” is the way Austin was described by one federal prosecutor, but there was never a movement to get rid of general sessions judges in the county.

“One bad apple shouldn’t spoil something for everybody,” Goddard said.