Rockwood OKs settlement; King out

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By Cheryl Duncan, Assistant Editor

The controversial twists surrounding three of Rockwood’s public utilities took an Election Day turn that had nothing to do with what was happening at the polls.

But even this turn — the settlement of a lawsuit that included releasing Rockwood Water, Sewer and Natural Gas General Manager Rod King from his contract of employment — wasn’t without its bumps.

“I appreciate those who are trying to help me, but I’m not necessarily interested in paying off a claim and putting this burden on the city,” said council member Bill Thompson during deliberations that led to a vote to settle with King for $75,000, with the money coming from the utilities’ coffers.

“And neither am I,” chimed in Vice Mayor Peggy Evans. “If we settle this suit, in my opinion, we’re saying we’re guilty of something that we did not do. I’m not guilty, and I am not for paying it off. No way.”

Evans, Thompson and council member Ray Collett were individually named in the lawsuit that was filed by King in early May. He accused the three council members of violating Tennessee’s Open Meetings Law by meeting in secret to discuss actions that would lead to his ouster.

King also sued the council as an entity and asked that its members be ordered to cease any such action that would lead toward violation of the law, commonly referred to as the “sunshine law.”

Evans and Thompson cast the only votes against the settlement, which calls for King’s immediate resignation and demands that he return any city property in his possession. King’s attorney, Herbert Moncier of Knoxville, volunteered to forego attorney’s fees that were sought in the litigation, with the city paying court costs.

“I think we need to get rid of the source of the problem, and this’ll do it,” Collett said before the vote. “I’m not admitting any kind of guilt. I don’t think I’m guilty, or any of the others are. That’s all.”

Council member Dudley Evans said he believes his fellow council members are innocent, but that accepting the settlement could be a new beginning for both the city and the utilities.

“I’m not settling because I think that they’re wrong in what they’ve done,” Dudley Evans said. “I do not believe he could, even as good as Moncier is, prove that you guys violated the Open Meetings Law — no more than he could prove that a 747 could fly to the moon.”

For the past year, the three utilities have been under a shroud of controversy that included accusations filed against King by ratepayers and an employee and the recent scrutiny of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office for $1.3 million in interdepartmental loans that a state official said violated state law.

“When Rod came on as an employee, he was a good employee — he had the right manner, mentality about him,” Dudley Evans said. “Things have just gotten out of hand. We’ve had several complaints in the past. They will not cease.”

To continue with the lawsuit would mean keeping the employees stirred up and upset with city officials and each other, he said.

“I think to absolve this situation is to get rid of the source,” Dudley Evans added. “I think that he’s willing to do this, and we need to vote on it.”

The council met in executive session with Daniel Rader, a Cookeville-based attorney hired by the Tennessee Municipal League on behalf of the city, for a little more than an hour before the special-called session.

According to Dudley Evans, it was learned in that session that continuing with the suit would involve more than the parties named. He was concerned that board members and employees — possibly even members of the general public — would be drawn into a laborious ordeal that could take years to resolve.

One area of contention Peggy Evans had involved a release of claims that prevents all involved parties from bringing legal action against each other.

“This does not rescind what could come down through the district attorney’s office,” noted Dudley Evans, who called the settlement he moved to accept “a win-win situation.”

Council member Harold Ishman agreed.

“Mr. Thompson and I both come on the council at the same time, and he and I both agreed we had things we’d like this city to do,” said the first-term council member. “But we have got bogged down with this, and I personally have not been able to do anything in the past year and a half.”

He added, “It’s been very frustrating to me. I just want to get this over with.”