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City administrator seeks medical care, retains lawyer after office complaints

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By Beth Braden

LaFOLLETTE—City Administrator Billie Russell is on medical leave and her future with the city is uncertain after the city recorder, police chief and the entire police department each filed grievances against her within the last two weeks.

Russell’s attorney, David Dunaway, called the complaints an attempt to “cause a circus.” 

“They were trying to create a circus like they did with David Young,” he said. 

In 2009, current Deputy County Mayor David G. Young was working as the city administrator in LaFollette. A grievance was filed against him, and he was later fired.

The state appellate court issued an opinion in 2011 that said while Young was a city employee, he was not subject to the regular grievance process as city administrator because of the way the employee handbook is worded.

The court’s opinion is applicable to anyone holding the city administrator position and current grievances filed against Russell are retaliatory, Dunaway said.

 “The problem they have is over the fact that she is questioning the mayor, she’s questioning the different folks with regards to violations to the charter and the policies,” Dunaway said via phone on Tuesday.

On Oct. 11, Dunaway sent an email to Mayor Mike Stanfield to inform him about the improper grievances.

“The city charter for the city of LaFollette requires it is to be the duty of the city administrator to supervise and coordinate all administrative activities of the affairs of the city,” Dunaway wrote in the email. “More importantly, it is required to be the duty of all subordinate officers, including the city recorder and the city attorney, to assist [Russell] in administrating the affairs of the city.”

Because of stress from the grievances, Russell was admitted to the hospital on Oct. 11, according to Dunaway.

She is suffering from high blood pressure, a heart condition and severe emotional distress, the email said. 

She will be on medical leave for at least two weeks, Dunaway said. 

A worker’s compensation claim has been filed. 

The grievances were supposed to be discussed in a special-called mid-Tuesday afternoon meeting, but the meeting was cancelled.

“I cannot and will not be present on Tuesday [to represent Russell],” Dunaway said in a separate email to city attorney Reid Troutman. “I have also instructed my client not to be present because the City of LaFollette cannot hold any type of grievance procedure as they have suggested.”

GRIEVANCES

The first grievances against Russell were filed on Sept. 30 by city recorder Joy Ellison and Police Chief Jimmy Jeffries.

Ellison claims she was the subject of public ridicule according to documents obtained by the LaFollette Press.

A representative from insurance carrier Tennessee Municipal League was at city hall to obtain air samples regarding a worker’s compensation claim, according to records. Ellison says Russell berated her in front of the representative because no one informed her the representative would be there that day. 

“I attempted to calmly explain that Mr. Cook was there concerning a worker’s compensation case, but Mrs. Russell repeatedly told me she should have been informed and that I had ‘no business’ handling this,” Ellison’s grievance said in part. “She spoke to me in such a way with such a tone that was both degrading and embarrassing in front of another professional who was simply there to perform a service.” 

Russell reportedly went on to say “she had lost trust in [Ellison]” because Ellison hadn’t informed her about the representative from TML, according to Ellison’s claim.

Eventually, Ellison said she left the building in tears because of comments Russell allegedly made about Ellison’s personal life.

“I am filing this grievance because I feel that Mrs. Russell’s actions have created a hostile working environment. Because of this, I do not feel comfortable performing my day-do-day job duties as appointed to me by council,” the grievance said.

Jeffries’ grievance, filed the same day, said he was in fear of retaliatory actions because he did not inform Russell about an undercover prostitution sting.

Since becoming administrator, Russell has championed the clean-up of downtown LaFollette. In August, she spearheaded a codes-enforcement blitz that condemned a building on Indiana Avenue known as a hangout for prostitutes.

 “Ms. Russell wanted to know why she didn’t know about the operation. I told her because it was an undercover operation and that no one had been told besides the people involved,” Jeffries’ grievance said.

Jeffries acknowledged he had also contacted WATE 6 in Knoxville about publicizing the operation.

 “Ms. Russell became irate and started screaming at me. She wanted to know who had authorized the operation and why the media had been contacted without her knowledge,” Jeffries wrote. 

Jeffries said the sting was an attempt to follow instructions Russell had given him several weeks prior to the incident.

“Approximately two to three weeks ago, I had a conversation with Ms. Russell where she told me that something was going to be done about the prostitution problem downtown…This is one the undercover operation began. I was only attempting to do what Ms. Russell told me she wanted done,” Jeffries said. 

One week after Jeffries and Ellison’s grievances were filed, the entire LaFollette Police Department signed a joint grievance.

The force’s privacy was breached when Russell began looking through the department’s personnel files, they claim.

“We are aware that our personnel files have been in her possession for approximately two weeks and realize at this point it cannot be determined who else could have possibly viewed them as well,” their grievance said.

Each member of the department, including Jeffries, signed the grievance.

Jeffries declined to comment on Tuesday.

“That’s not something I’m able to comment upon at all,” he said.

Mayor Mike Stanfield was on his way to remove the personnel files from Russell’s office just before 3 p.m. on Tuesday.  

“There’s HIPPA [privacy] laws and there’s lot of stuff in the personnel files,“ he said. “There’s no telling who’s been in the personnel files.” 

Stanfield wasn’t sure if Russell’s employment with the city would continue or not. Firing her would require a majority vote by the city council during a regularly scheduled meeting. 

Stanfield has been satisfied with Russell’s work up to this point.

“I’ve been satisfied with the work she’s done. I’ve not been satisfied with the way she’s got the job done. We work together as a team. Everybody’s a team player,” he said. “There were some issues with Billie shouting at some city employees and I don’t like that not one bit.”  

A workshop is set for 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the municipal building. That will be the next chance for the council to discuss the grievances and Russell’s employment. 

Related Documents
Ellison Grievance Page 1

Ellison Grievance Page 2

Ellison Grievance Page 3

Jeffries Grievance Page 1

Jeffries Grievance Page 2

LaFollette Police Department Grievance