An ethics complaint filed by a citizen in April alleging three Sumner County Commissioners broke school board policy, and possibly state law, by posing in photos with school principals on school property in order to boost their re-election campaigns will be heard by a newly named ethics committee in July.
Hendersonville resident Mike Conner emailed the complaint to commissioners, Sumner County Clerk Bill Kemp and Sumner County District Attorney General Ray Whitley on April 5 alleging photos posted on social media and in campaign materials by District 7 Commissioners Gene Rhodes and Brian Stewart and District 10 Commissioner Paul Goode violated School Board policy 1.806 as well as a state statute known as the “Little Hatch Act.”
School Board policy 1.806 states that, “No part of the school system, including the facilities, the name, the staff, and the students, shall be used for advertising or promoting the interests of any commercial, political or other non-school agency or organization.”
The policy goes on to state that, “Political signs for people who are running for public office shall not be allowed on school property except on election day.”
In order to make sure candidates running for office are aware of the policy, it further instructs the Director of Schools to “provide a copy of this policy to the Registrar of Voters and request that a copy be presented to each election candidate in Sumner County at the time of qualification for election.” The policy also appears with other information for candidates on the Sumner County Election Commission’s website.
“I do not think I need to analyze how the Commissioners’ actions are in violation of the School Policy as I will let you decide, but I would point out that the policy says that the signs are not even allowed on school property and not only are the signs on school property, the Commissioners are taking pictures and displaying them on the internet for the public to see, which is no different than if the signs were left on school property for the public to see,” wrote Conner in his complaint.
Conner said that it also appears that commissioners may be in violation of the “Little Hatch Act,” a state statute, by “coercing teachers to take pictures with them on school property.”
Conner cites TCA 2-19-206 and TCA 2-19-207 which state, in part, that it is unlawful for any teacher to display campaign literature or other campaign items on school property and that teachers are prohibited from engaging in political campaigns during school hours.
“While these statutes apply to teachers and not the Commissioners directly, ethically, the Commissioners have an obligation to follow the law and they should not use their position to compel a teacher to violate the law,” Conner says in his complaint.
“There are plenty of other times and places to take pictures with candidates which would not raise a question as to whether there is a violation of the law or school policy,” he adds.
It will be the first time in several years that a county ethics committee has met to consider a complaint, according to Sumner County Law Director Leah May Dennen.
Members of the committee, appointed by Sumner County Mayor Anthony Holt and confirmed by the commission in May, are Commissioners Caroline Krueger, Scott Langford and Larry Hinton; Sumner County Circuit Court Clerk Kathryn Strong and James Ramsey, a Sumner County citizen.
The committee met for the first time on Monday, June 6 and elected Strong as its chair and Hinton, who was not present at the meeting, as its vice-chair.
Members voted to require Conner to submit three separate statements charging each commissioner individually to the committee by July 7. The committee will hold a hearing to consider the complaints at 5:30 p.m. on July 20.
According to the county’s ethics policy passed by commissioners in 2007, the committee may refer the matter to the county attorney for a legal opinion and/or recommendations for action or refer the matter to the county commission for possible public censure if a policy violation is found to have occurred. The committee may also refer the matter to the district attorney for possible ouster or criminal prosecution if a violation of state law is found to have occurred.
Due to redistricting in 2021, all three commissioners listed in the complaint ran for re-election in the May 3 Republican primary in different districts than they currently represent. Stewart, who was appointed to the seat in 2020, ran in District 24; Rhodes was running for his second term on the commission in District 23. Goode, a commissioner since 2006, ran in District 18. All three candidates were defeated on May 3.
The Hendersonville Standard reached out to all three commissioners for comment, but hadn’t heard back by the newspaper’s print deadline.