Kingsport Times-News: Hawkins Election Commission's lawsuit seeking legal fees from Rogersville dismissed

Hawkins Election Commission's lawsuit seeking legal fees from Rogersville dismissed

Jeff Bobo • Feb 12, 2019 at 1:22 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Chancellor Doug Jenkins ruled last week that Rogersville will not be required to pay the Hawkins County Election Commission’s $23,094 in legal fees for defending a lawsuit filed last year by the city and then filing a countersuit.

The original lawsuit was aimed at restoring all previous Election Day voting to the Hawkins County Courthouse, and the county’s cost of defending the original lawsuit was reported at approximately $15,000.

Adding the cost of the countersuit filed by the Election Commission seeking reimbursement of that $15,000, elections Administrator Donna Sharp told the Times News on Monday the overall legal cost is now $23,094.

Jenkins dismissed the Election Commission’s countersuit Wednesday.

A tale of two lawsuits

As a cost-cutting measure, in 2017 the Election Commission combined the two city precincts (Rogersville North Inside and Rogersville South Inside) with Rogersville South Outside, which was not in the city but a part of the county’s 5th District, which also covers all of Rogersville.

The new combined precinct, which has more than 4,000 registered voters, is called the Rogersville 5th Precinct, which now votes at Hawkins Elementary.

As a result of the change, the only voting that would take place at the courthouse would be early voting, although the Election Commission stated prior to the lawsuit that the city could request to use the courthouse for its stand-alone BMA elections every four years.

In January 2018, the Rogersville BMA filed suit seeking to have the courthouse restored as an Election Day voting precinct.

The BMA was concerned that the diversion of voters from the courthouse to a polling place outside the downtown area would be detrimental to the continued viability and development of historic downtown Rogersville.

Outcome of the lawsuit is disputed

The Election Commission viewed the outcome of the original lawsuit as a victory because the city's attempt to return all Election Day voting to the courthouse was denied. As a result, the Election Commission alleged that, according to state law, it should collect its legal fees from the city.

City Attorney Bill Phillips characterized the outcome of the original lawsuit as a compromise, as it was described as such in the court order.

"The chancellor properly applied the law to the facts of the case and determined that the case should be dismissed," Phillips told the Times News last week. "He determined that the law would not allow them to recover attorney's fees."

Election administrator responds to ruling

Sharp told the Times News on Monday that the $23,094 will be paid from an account in the county general fund that covers legal fees.

"It doesn't come out of the election office budget," Sharp said. "We were just trying to get the funds reimbursed for the county taxpayers. I feel like it never should have been a lawsuit to begin with. We told them all along they could (have city election voting at the courthouse). That was never a point of contention."

Sharp said there was no compromise. She said the election office won the original lawsuit.

"The chancellor interpreted the laws a little different than our attorney did," Sharp said.

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