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By DAMON LAWRENCE
Mark Patton is and has always been a 6th District constable since he was elected in August 2006.
That was the ruling of Special Chancellor Billy Joe White Friday morning.
“My opinion is the constable is still the constable,” White said.
Patton called the case a victory for the working man and wasted no time sharing his courtroom triumph with the public.
In what could be described as a scene out of a new remake of “Walking Tall,” Patton stood on the steps of the Roane County Courthouse toting his “big stick” and vowing to take on anyone who runs afoul of the law.
“I'm going to start cleaning up this county, and I'm going to start here at the courthouse,” Patton said. “It won't take me until six months before re-election to start. I've already started.”
There was a tense moment when Patton got into a shouting match with Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton in the parking lot. In addition to his “big stick,” Patton, who is a much larger man than Stockton, also had a pistol holstered on his side.
The tense exchange of words caused Stockton to take his gun out of his holster, but he never aimed it in Patton's direction.
Patton resigned his position as constable in August 2007, only to change his mind a short time later and claim the job was still his because the county never accepted his resignation properly. He sued the county last November after it appointed Kingston police officer Caleb Strayer to his position.
The county disagreed with Patton's contention that the resignation wasn't properly accepted, saying it followed long-established precedent in the way it accepted Patton's resignation. Patton addressed his letter of resignation to Roane County Executive Mike Farmer. The Aug. 9, 2007, notarized letter, which was signed by Patton, said the resignation was effective immediately.
Farmer then reported that there was an opening for constable at that month's commission meeting. There was never any motion made or vote taken by the commission to accept the resignation. That wasn't necessary, Roane County Attorney Tom McFarland said, because that's the way the county has always handled resignations.
However, White said county legislative bodies in Tennessee speak through their minutes, and the county's official minutes from its August 2007 meeting reflected no official action taken on Patton's resignation. The minutes needed to reflect that the resignation was reported to and accepted by the county commission, White said.
“They just sat there on their hands, and that's not the way you accept something,” said Chris Cawood, Patton’s attorney. “You have to do something officially on the minutes to accept a resignation. I thought if we could convey that to the judge he would get it correct, and I believe he did get it correct.”
In addition to being reinstated, Patton also asked in his lawsuit for the county to cover his legal fees. That matter wasn't taken up on Friday.
“That will be another issue that will come up,” Cawood said. “The law is not too clear on that, on whether the losing party will pay the attorney fees or not. We'll probably be filing something to see.”
Patton originally asked for $100,000 in damages, but that part of his lawsuit was dropped months ago.
Friday's ruling may cause the county commission to revisit the way it accepts resignations.
“I really thought that we had done everything the way that we should be doing it,” County Commission Chairman Troy Beets said. “When you find out that you've not been doing things the way you should have been doing them, you're disappointed.”
Patton also alleged in his lawsuit that county commissioners violated the state's Open Meetings Law by discussing the constable controversy outside a public meeting. White ruled that the county commission did not violate the Open Meetings Law.
Cawood received a list of phone records that showed commissioners had made calls to each other during a three-month period last year. Commissioners are allowed to speak to each other on the phone, provided they don't deliberate.
Cawood questioned Beets about some of the phone conversations on the witness stand. Beets said he couldn't remember the subject of the conversations.
“I'm sorry, sir,” Beets told Cawood. “That's just way beyond my memory.”