Who’s Going Where?
Get ready for the same lineup of suspects. It appears Rutherford County’s elected officials are going to play musical chairs.
Fourth-term state Sen. Bill Ketron is running for county mayor, and County Mayor Ernest Burgess and state Rep. Dawn White are going after Ketron’s 13th District Senate seat, setting up a showdown in the August 2018 Republican primary.
Ketron, the chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, will be shifting from NASCAR politics to buggy racing. But he won’t have to drive to Nashville every morning for more than half the year, a task that’s enough to make anyone howl.
After coming off a bout with cancer two years ago, Ketron probably needs a break, though dealing with county headaches such as the sheriff’s office and myriad lawsuits is not for the faint of heart.
Meanwhile, the race between White and Burgess promises to be lively. The mayor is a social conservative but pragmatic businessman who prides himself in being an analytical problem-solver. White, on the other hand, is more closely aligned with the tea party-types in the Legislature fighting illegal immigration, balking at the governor’s IMPROVE Act (gas tax increase) and saying yes to every gun bill that comes along.
Of course, they will have some competition. Ketron is likely to be opposed in the primary by former Rutherford County Commissioner Tina Jones, an assistant to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais. And either White or Burgess likely will face a Democrat in November 2018 after the August 2018 primary.
White’s decision, though, creates an opening for the 37th District House seat, setting up a domino effect of sorts for those dreaming to find a spot on Capitol Hill.
But amid all this activity, we’ll probably have only one new set of eyes in the General Assembly, because until the Democrats can put a strong candidate out there, Republicans will be battling for the win.
Having the right politics is always good policy
Former Rutherford County Attorney Jim Cope’s escape from disbarment is the perfect example.
Rather than stop Cope from practicing law again, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility suspended him for two years, retroactive to Oct. 2016 after finding his insider trading conviction was a one-time goof-up and determining it didn’t really have much to do with his law practice.
He also benefited from testimony before the board by Senior Judge Don Ash, Circuit Court Judge Mark Rogers and retired Senior Judge Steve Daniel, who all appeared under subpoena, in addition to attorneys Bill Harbison and John T. Bobo, Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess and MTSU President Sidney McPhee.
According to the board’s finding, the witnesses testified they were “surprised” or “blown away” by Cope’s insider trading conviction but were “unwavering” in the belief he could be trusted to “exercise ethical and honest acts as an attorney.”
Cope admitted he made a grave error in violating insider trading laws by purchasing Avenue banking stock in January 2016 as a director of Pinnacle Financial Partners while it was in the middle of acquiring the other bank. He also acknowledged he couldn’t wrap his head around how he could have flushed his career down the drain in one day.
Contrition was key to the board’s slap on the wrist.
But he got an even bigger boost when three well-respected judges, two attorneys with high standing, the county mayor and president of one of the biggest universities in Tennessee testified in his favor. In drawing McPhee into the fray, it probably didn’t hurt that Cope’s father, Quill E. Cope, served as MTSU’s president from 1958–68. His name is on the university’s administration building.
It also helps when your attorney is Aubrey Harwell, one of the state’s top defense attorneys, who knew he needed some firepower to take the stand for Cope.
To his credit, during this entire ordeal, Cope has played it smart, more or less throwing himself at the mercy of the court, admitting his errors and hoping for the best. He’d already paid a $200,000 fine levied by a U.S. District Court judge, showing he wants to put this mistake behind him, when the Board of Professional Responsibility made its decision.
That’s not exactly chump change, though it pales in comparison to Cope’s net worth of $12 million. It’s also a lot more than the $56,000 in ill-gotten gains he made from two purchases of Avenue stock.
The board took that seemingly minuscule amount into account, along with Cope’s clean record and the testimony of those heavy hitters when it made the decision in May.
As a result, Cope could be back at his law office by around November 2018. His nine-month house arrest, a condition of the guilty plea, could be coming to an end soon.
Of course, his reputation took the biggest blow, something he certainly realizes. Once the attorney for Rutherford County, Consolidated Utility District, Middle Tennessee Electric and Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority, he had the world in his hands. He’s probably not going to get those jobs back.
Yet his law firm continues to hold the county’s legal services contract with Josh McCreary serving as county attorney. Wisely, Cope put a paragraph into the contract making McCreary the chief lawyer in case something happened to him.
Thus, despite complaints by the Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance about its billing practices, the firm is still on tap with the county.
Even though Mayor Burgess, just a few years ago, sought the creation of a county legal department, he changed his tune this year with the county trying to wrap up a settlement over the running of probation services by a private company, in addition to a lawsuit over the jailing of children. Burgess says there’s no way he could replace McCreary or the firm’s expertise in the midst of these cases.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the county will allow Cope to handle any of its work if he does return to the firm. From an entertainment standpoint, imagine how loudly the RNA and others would howl if Cope is allowed to touch county business again.
One thing is certain, though, once he sets foot in that Public Square office, he will benefit from the firm’s business, and unless the county hires someone else, the taxpayers will be paying Cope again.
It’s called politics, my friends.
Glen Godwin had been Murfreesboro’s Human Resources director for only seven years when he was dismissed June 15. In this city, that’s not nearly enough time to build an alliance.
Considering the city government is in the midst of a pay and benefits study Godwin had been dealing with for several months, the firing is a little odd. While Godwin’s attorney contends he’s done nothing to merit termination other than to run afoul of complaints by HR personnel and City Councilwoman Madelyn Scales, city officials say they have plenty of reason to get rid of him, primarily citing management problems.
The fact that city officials brought in an outside law firm to interview HR employees about Godwin is certainly a red flag. Godwin’s attorney, Jay Jackson, calls such a move unprecedented.
The bigger issue, though, could be dissatisfaction by the City Council with the way Godwin has served during the two most recent pay and benefits studies, including the current one and another adopted in 2015. Until the bitter end, he had the support of City Manager Rob Lyons, a point that could put the city manager in a tenuous position.
Lyons didn’t get the highest of marks in his 2016 evaluation, and he has another one coming up later this summer. It wouldn’t be surprising if some City Council members, who hold Lyons’ job in their hands, told him to get rid of Godwin—or else.
With that in mind, we’ll check out the evaluation this summer and see if Godwin’s exit is mentioned. Apparently, having the city manager in your corner isn’t nearly as important as having the City Council on your side.