Oster and Jennings refuse to recuse
By Mike Steely
“I will not recuse myself” was heard often at the Knox County Merit System Council meeting last week.
The Knox County Law Department had requested the meeting which ended up being several minutes of denials and protests from Merit Chair Gina Oster and Vice Chair Jim Jennings. They were being requested by the law director to recuse themselves from the merit council voting on the case of Cole vs. Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
Wednesday morning saw Deputy Law Director Houston Havasty ask the council to postpone the hearing because one of the attorneys was not present. Oster replied that the hearing was announced with a public notice.
The 87-page paper filed by the law department in Chancery Court referring to the Cole vs. KSCO case cites “a conflict of interest; an appearance of impropriety, an appearance of partiality; Mr. Jennings has shown political partiality against Sheriff Spangler; and Ms. Oster is a sitting member in volition of the Rules of the Merit System Council.”
Nathan Cole had originally filed a grievance with the merit council when he was transferred in the sheriff’s department without his permission but the Law Director’s office said the sheriff has that power as long as there is no reduction in pay. The law department sought to have Jennings and Oster barred from voting on the Cole complaint.
The merit council has several cases before it that have not been heard. Two cases, involving the firings of Scott Moore and Ivan Harmon, are apparently complaints the council could hear and have been repeatedly postponed by the merit council. The others, including complaints by Cole and Martha Dooley, are not valid for hearings according to Knox County Law Director David Buuck.
Jennings said the hearing offended him and asked “Who is this guy?” apparently referring to Nathan Cole. He then defended himself against charges within the Chancery Court petition, saying he has known former candidate for sheriff Lee Trammel since Youth Football, denying a charge he chaired a merit council meeting wearing a Trammel hat, and said, “I don’t even know Sheriff Spangler.”
The petition says that Jennings has openly campaigned for and supported candidates for sheriff over the years while actively being a member of the Merit System Council.
“You are assuming you know how I’ll vote,” Jennings said, adding, “I’m deeply offended and will not recuse myself. The claims in the weekly paper—none of it is true.”
When Havasty said the hearing only involves the Cole petition and called on both Jennings and Oster to testify to the charge of bias they both refused and referred to a pending Chancery Court case involving the merit council.
Jennings and Oster both said they would not recuse themselves from voting in certain grievance hearings currently pending before the council. Oster said the petition was “null and void as far as I’m concerned.” She said that charges she could not seek elected office were wrong and that she is not a county or sheriff’s employee.
Oster then moved that the three-member Merit System Council vote that she and Jennings would not recuse and the vote passed with all three members, including Jim Wright Jr., agreeing.
“I take personal offense, this is a waste of taxpayer money,” Oster said, adding, “I’m tired of being attacked.”
The brief meeting ended after Wright told the council of a state senate bill giving relief to emergency rescue workers during the pandemic and law department attorney Myers Morton was asked to check on the legislation.
In a related matter the Knox County Commission agenda for next week’s work session includes a resolution from Commissioner Courtney Durrett, a Democrat, to permit the merit council to hire their own legal counsel.
“The Knox County Law Director’s Office is conflicted in representing both the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Knox County Merit System Council, and has, in fact, taken a position oppositional to the Knox County Merit System Council’s policies and procedures, and in favor of the position of the Knox County Sheriff in all such matters,” Durrett’s resolution says.
“The Chairperson of the Knox County Merit System Council in consultation with the Chairman of the Knox County Commission should determine and recommend the hiring of an attorney to represent Knox County Merit System Council,” her resolution continued.
Law Director David Buuck told The Focus on Friday that he has hired an outside attorney, Melanie Davis of Blount County, to represent the merit council in their upcoming hearing in Chancery Court.