Government Corruption? Mid Tn Town in Turmoil after city manager, attorney, police chief abruptly fired

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*This Story was originally published in the Tennessean. 

By Kirsten Fiscus/Jan 31, 2024

The firing of a well-liked city manager in Millersville, a town north of Nashville, has riled residents and spurred accusations of ethics and Open Meetings Act violations.

Some commissioners in charge of overseeing the drama said they had been “blindsided.”

In the days after winter weather led to the cancellation of a Millersville commission meeting and before the meeting was rescheduled last week, city officials added a new item to the agenda: “whether to retain or terminate the employment of the current City Manager Scott Avery.

The topic and the ensuing uproar has cost three people their jobs.

Do not proceed’

 

An amended agenda was posted four days before the commission met on Jan. 23, though no supplemental documentation for the added item was provided.

Related: Millersville’s volunteer firefighters resign after chief is fired

When it was time to discuss the topic, Commissioners Cristina Templet and David Gregory received no explanation before Vice Mayor Milton Dorris motioned to terminate Avery.

Commissioner Alisa Huling, who had been sworn in to her seat just 20 minutes prior, seconded the motion.

Related: Millersville police chief fired

Templet, questioning how a new commissioner could know enough to vote on a termination, suspected there had been some back-door, private meetings — a violation of Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act — between the other voting members.

“I think there’s an obvious appearance of open meeting violation, and I’d like this item tabled until we can properly consider,” Templet said during the meeting. “And I don’t know how you, Alisa, can vote on this when you’ve been sworn in for less than 10 minutes. I don’t understand how you can even make that decision when you’ve only been here tonight.”

Templet received support from Gregory.

“Tommy, why was this motion even considered? Why was it brought up?” Gregory asked Mayor Tommy Long. “We don’t know nothing. You’ve blindsided us.”

When asked for a reason for the termination, Long said he did not have to give one under the city’s charter since Avery had been employed for more than 12 months.

“I don’t have to answer to you,” Long said to Gregory and Templet.

“Yes you do,” they countered.

The city’s attorney, Jack Freedle, stepped in to offer his advice.

“It is my strong, strong recommendation that you do not proceed with this tonight,” he said. “I’m telling you from a legal stand point, there is no reason to try to run this through tonight.”

The conversation that followed was loud and combative and featured a few smacks of Long’s gavel. In an effort to delay Avery’s termination, Gregory moved to amend the motion and send the discussion to a work session. Templet seconded.

When sent to a vote, the amendment failed 2-3, with Long, Dorris and Huling voting against.

The motion to terminate succeeded, 3-2, with Long, Dorris and Huling voting for it.

Avery, sitting at the dais with the mayor and commissioners, got up, gathered his things and walked out.

Resume ready, interim manager candidate swoops in for appointment

The commission took a 10-minute recess. When they came back, commissioners were presented with a resume for Tina Tobin.

Long explained that Tobin “saw that we were going to possibly need an interim city manager, so they reached out to me.”

“They gave me a resume and I read it,” the mayor said. “I’m impressed with it.”

Templet provided The Tennessean with a copy of Tobin’s resume. It says she holds a position with the Tennessee Liberty Network. She previously worked as a field office coordinator for Americans for Prosperity in Florida and freelanced as a technical analyst, writer and website designer. She also worked as a tax preparer, an account manager for a Delaware company and production, planning and purchasing manager in Pennsylvania.

“She’s very qualified,” Long said. “She went to Temple University. “So at this time, I’d like to have a motion to appoint her as interim city manager.”

Templet objected, saying “we haven’t had time to talk to her or nothing.”

“Lord have mercy, this is just ridiculous,” Templet said.

Huling motioned. Dorris seconded. Motion passed.

Did Millersville Commission violate the Tennessee Open Meetings Act?

During the meeting, Templet said she would be filing a formal complaint about the suspected Open Meetings Act violation.

“If the sitting Mayor met with a city commissioner, or if two commissioners met, and they decided in advance this is what they were going to do, and deliberated on that actions, that very well could be a violation,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition on Open Government.

Templet and Gregory would need evidence, though, and to convince a judge of the violations, Fisher said.

“It can’t just be speculative,” she said.

Fisher said it’s natural for Templet and Gregory to feel like they missed a conversation.

“That is the type of thing that makes people suspect there were meetings they didn’t get to go to,” Fisher said. “It’s a valid question by those commissioners.”

Freedle’s words were prophetic.

‘Don’t test me’

Less than 24 hours after the meeting, Tobin fired Freedle.

In an email exchange to Tobin before noon on Jan. 24, Freedle distilled the most important tasks before him, chief among them a complaint for judicial ouster of Mayor Tommy Long. The attorney alleged he is in possession of or has knowledge of multiple ethics violations.

“I will be filing this Complaint in Sumner County Chancery Court as soon as possible, and, if successful, I will have Mr. Long removed from public office,” he wrote. “There is no doubt that Tommy Long has misused his official position to proactively harm the people he doesn’t like and to benefit certain others — much of the proof is on video. This pattern was continued last night with the unlawful manner in which Scott Avery was removed and you were installed.”

Freedle told Tobin “it is clear that you are connected with Tommy Long.

“Tommy Long seeks to use you as his puppet in his quest to become dictator of Millersville,” Freedle wrote. “He will certainly have ordered you to remove me from my position.”

Firing him, the attorney warned, would subject the city to “substantial liability” and Tobin to “an official misconduct charge and judicial ouster.”

“Be advised,” Freedle wrote. “I will contact you soon to discuss other matters affecting the City; however, I will not put up with shenanigans. Don’t test me.”

Three hours later, Tobin fired Freedle, according to copies of emails provided to The Tennessean.

The firings didn’t end there. On Friday, police Chief Robert Richman, whom the commission had voted unanimously to hire, was abruptly fired.

He had come from Austin, Texas, and had been with the Millersville Police Department for just five weeks.

“I sold my home, uprooted my family and came here to the city of Millersville after each of them voted to bring me here,” he said. “I feel worse for the citizens of Millersville because they deserve better. These citizens deserve more. I am one, too, and I deserve more.”

Kirsten Fiscus covers breaking news for the Tennessean. She previously covered breaking news for the Montgomery Advertiser and the Anniston Star.