Pension dispute could blow up on law director

Betty BeanFeature

Knox County’s sheriff and mayor joined this week in support of a compromise offered by the county’s pension board to end a lawsuit brought by Law Director Bud Armstrong, who says he’s trying to save over $1 million a year.

Mayor Glenn Jacobs says the county has “a moral obligation to uphold this promise” to deputies and their families. And besides, “since inception, the county has paid its actuarial required contributions (including the disputed 43 days of annual leave). So, we have the financial ability to fulfill this promise without costing the taxpayers a dime more. It is the right thing to do.” Read the mayor’s statement here: 2018-10-02 Mayor Sheriff Statement Release

Feuding among county officials is nothing new, probably because Knox County government has so many moving parts.

As one observer puts it, it’s like a jellyfish, a Portuguese Man o’ War. The history of modern Knox County government is littered with feuds between mayor and commission, mayor versus sheriff, commission versus school board, county mayor versus city mayor, sheriff versus everybody. It’s a fractious bunch.

“With the city, you’ve got two entities – city council and the mayor,” Close Observer said. “The county has a sheriff, a mayor, a commission, a school board, plus clerks and fee officers. And none of them like being represented by the law director. They’d all prefer to have a lawyer who, when they come up with some kind of scheme, would tell them what they want to hear.”

Knox is the only large county in the state to have an elected law director. Hamilton, Davidson and Shelby all have appointed county (or metro, in the case of Nashville) attorneys. City Law Director Charles Swanson serves at the pleasure of Mayor Rogero. Close Observer believes Knox County is better off for having an elected law director whose advice is untainted by the need to placate a boss, and he believes Law Director Bud Armstrong made a mistake by taking on Jacobs and Sheriff Tom Spangler (who is perceived to be the most popular officeholder in the county).

Close Observer takes a dim view of the tensions from Armstrong’s lawsuit against the county pension board because he believes it could give county organisms, err, officials, an excuse to try to curb the law director’s powers, or even eliminate the office altogether, depending on how ticked off they get. (These measures could be achieved through charter amendments.) He labels Armstrong’s decision to file suit against the pension board without the cover of a county commission vote or the direction of the mayor “unprecedented.”

A non-scientific sampling of county officials past and present (most of whom do not wish to be named) indicates that Close Observer is not alone in his misgivings. In fact, there appears to be a strong desire to end the lawsuit against the Knox County Pension Board and the retired deputies who argue that they are entitled to add unused vacation days to their last year’s salary, thereby “spiking” the income on which their pensions are based, giving them a modest boost in annual income and giving rise to the argument between “compensation” (which includes vacation pay) and “salary,” which does not include vacation pay.

Everyone with whom I spoke is glad that Jacobs and Spangler have called for an end to the legal dispute between the pension board and the county law director over how much to pay the retired deputies. Close Observer No. 2 called it “a gutsy move.”

Nobody (outside the law department) is offended by Jacobs’ contention that Armstrong’s lawsuit has landed the county “in the bizarre situation of suing itself” in the name of saving taxpayers’ money by trimming pension payouts.

They also don’t mind that Jacobs kicked up the rhetoric a notch by calling Armstrong’s action “lunacy” that has cost Knox County taxpayers some $600,000 (the fact that Armstrong has farmed out county representation to his campaign treasurer’s law firm is duly noted by most everybody). Whether taxpayers will be properly grateful to him for taking money away from widows, orphans and retired cops in the name of saving money is another question.

Observers also think that Knox County Commission will honor Jacobs’ request to approve the 43-day compensation compromise at its October meeting. Back in the spring, the commission deadlocked over a request to pay the retirees’ attorney fees, but two of the naysayers are gone now.

However, even if the commission approves the 43-day solution, it’s anybody’s guess what Chancellor John Weaver will do with their recommendation when he decides whether the county legislative body can overrule the law director. If he takes Armstrong’s side, the victory might well be Pyrrhic, since it’s a good bet that somebody’s going to start the ball rolling to rein in the law director. These internecine wars get ugly, as we old-timers well know, and we’re probably overdue for some such bloodletting.

And speaking of war, on Thursday Weaver approved allowing the fiery Herb Moncier into the lawsuit to represent Captain James Carson, who is representing his co-workers who are yet to retire. Hang on.

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