Local News

Story published: 12-05-2012 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Sneyd’s last request for appeal denied

By Karen Sells
Assistant Editor

A final ruling in Clerk and Master Brenda Sneyd’s lawsuit against Washington County for a 10 percent raise has set a precedent for the county and the state. It has also denied her the increase.

In an order filed Nov. 20, the Supreme Court of Tennessee at Knoxville denied Sneyd’s request for review of the Court of Appeals opinion.

The Court of Appeals, in a June 28 ruling, affirmed the Trial Court’s opinion that Washington County did not abuse its discretion in denying Sneyd the same 10 percent pay increase awarded to Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn in 2006.

The order from the state Supreme Court signifies the end of the appeal process, according to Washington County counsel Erick Herrin.

The Court of Appeals opinion will stand as law in the case against Washington County and in a formal clarification that a county commission’s decision to award a 10 percent increase to one clerk does not necessarily require it to give the same increase to all other clerks in the same classification.

“The common sense interpretation is now law,” Herrin said.

Sneyd’s challenge of the statute could have wider impact, too.

“I think we will see a bill to modify the statute of the court’s appointing public officials as special commissioners,” Herrin said.

Sneyd insists the reason she was denied the raise is because she won’t remit the fees she earns as a special commissioner to the county.

Washington County denies this accusation and points instead to the marked differences between the two positions, including the number of courts served, annual cases filed, employees supervised, and the size of the budgets that must be managed.

According to Herrin, a “double dip” occurs when a public official already on the county payroll receives additional income as a special commissioner.

“It is impossible, I submit, to be doing that job outside of (regular office hours),” he said.

A bill introduced last year to address the issue didn’t get far, but there is indication that the topic is still on the radar.

On Sept. 11, State Comptroller Justin Wilson released a report, prepared at the request of the General Assembly, of special commissioner fees paid to county officials during fiscal years 2007-2011.

A breakdown per county of the $3.3 million awarded to clerk and masters indicates Sneyd — second only to the special commissioner in Sullivan County — earned a total of $178,993 in special commissioner fees in addition to her salary during that five-year period.

“This survey could serve as a springboard to change the statute regarding special commissioner fees,” Herrin said. But he doesn’t expect change without an increase in public awareness.

Results of the comptroller’s report indicate the officials received the compensation in addition to their salaries, and often performed their duties as special commissioners during normal county work hours with office deputies and assistants completing much of the work.

Special commissioners are typically appointed by chancellors of the chancery courts to oversee the sale of land due to the closing of an estate.

Special commissioners typically handle the funds and paperwork associated with these transactions, as well as the distribution of all funds.

The compensation or fee for serving as a special commissioner is determined strictly by the chancellor and is typically either a percentage of the estate sale or a fixed amount.

Sneyd’s lawsuit, which began in September 2010, has cost Washington County taxpayers almost $40,000.

Mayor Dan Eldridge said the county commission made the right decision in defending the lawsuit, and the expense is in the long-term interest of the taxpayers.

“The county commission can’t make a good, informed decision and then roll over when it’s challenged,” he said. “I hope it shows this county commission is going to stand up for what is right for the taxpayers.”

Calls to Sneyd were referred to her attorney, Art Fowler.

“We’re saddened by it, and we feel it was the wrong decision, just as we feel the Trial Court made the wrong decision in not applying the law,” Fowler said. “But the court has ruled, and we will go forward.”