UCDD employees fired in retaliation?
Liz Engel Clark
Tuesday, Jul 10, 2012
COOKEVILLE – Were a pair of Upper Cumberland Development District (UCDD) employees fired in retaliation for reporting the agency's recently discovered illegal activities?
Not so says the agency’s interim executive director, Randy Williams, who spoke out about the terminations for the first time publicly today, after being faced with a plethora of questions from several UCDD board members who led a failed attempt to rehire those two long-time workers during a special called meeting this morning.
Within the meeting’s opening minutes, Putnam County Executive Kim Blaylock made a motion recommending that Ashley Pealer, former director of economic development, and her mother, Kathy Pealer, be reinstated as UCDD employees – with back pay. But no vote was ever taken because Mike Gannon, Cannon County executive, recently appointed chair of the board, deemed it out of order. Gannon said the agenda, which he drafted based on Blaylock’s written request for the meeting, only allowed members to “discuss” matters relating to the executive director’s powers. Besides, he said, the board “has no authority to tell the executive director who to hire or who to fire.”
Blaylock – and several others – strongly disagreed, saying Gannon had purposely narrowed the day’s topic. Livingston Mayor Curtis Hayes read glowing performance evaluations the Pealers had received over the last few years. Rep. Charles Curtiss (D-Sparta) suggested the board consider changing its bylaws in the future in order to prevent this same thing from reoccurring.
UCDD has long been at the center of a media firestorm, following an investigation into Living the Dream, a retirement home originally built for needy seniors but wrongly funded in part with agency funds. That led to the resignation of executive director Wendy Askins in March, and deputy director Larry Webb soon after. Initially, Earl Carwile was named interim executive director and Ashley Pealer interim deputy director. Williams was named to Carwile’s post June 6 following Carwile’s abrupt resignation.
Williams, who previously served as the agency’s cultural resources manager, told board members Tuesday that the terminations were not based on retaliation – for leaking information to Channel 5 about Living the Dream – but instead consolidation. Several different reorganization plans had been considered, he said. Williams did consult with UCDD’s attorneys and a few board members prior, but “nobody,” he said, “nobody told me (who to fire).”
At counsel’s recommendation, more detailed questions about who those board members were and what opinions they might have expressed on the matter were deferred. The Pealers have hired their own attorney, Nashville’s Gary Blackburn, who was in attendance and has indicated that his clients intend to file suit.
While most of the discussion centered on the Pealers, Gannon did bring up raises approved by Carwile during his stint as interim director, which totaled more than $35,000 and were not recommended by the board – some employees, he said, had already received pay increases that fiscal year. Gannon also went as far as to verify the existence of a so-called “hit list” – a list of targeted employees – that’s long been rumored at UCDD.
From his binder, he pulled out a piece of paper that he says was made in Ashley Pealer’s handwriting. He alleged it included the names of 10 different UCDD employees that she had planned to fire during her stint as interim deputy director – Williams was among them. But Gannon said she “never got the chance” to carry it out. Pealer was demoted from interim deputy director during the same meeting Williams was named interim executive director last month.
There was no word on whether or not Blaylock – and others – would attempt to call another special meeting, this time for a formal vote. The agency is in the midst of hiring a new, permanent executive director. Williams and another UCDD employee – Michelle Price – are among those being interviewed.
Regardless, Smith County Mayor Michael Nesbitt expressed his disgust at the seemingly revolving door of issues within the agency. He even hinted that his county might consider contracting with its own grant writer, versus utilizing the services of UCDD.
“I don’t know who to trust anymore,” Nesbitt said. “What we’ve become is not what we used to be.”