PRESSING ISSUE: Russell's tussle not good for public

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 While several gains have been made in the past months to help clean up LaFollette of blighted buildings and unsavory acts of open prostitution, that campaign now appears in jeopardy. 

And the culprit is the city itself. 

To be more clear, it’s the bureaucrats who operate the town. 

City Administrator Billie Russell — who has spearheaded much of the downtown clean up — is now on medical leave and her future with the city is uncertain after the city recorder, police chief and entire police department filed grievances against her within the past two weeks. Each claim Russell’s management style is hostile and abusive. 

The stress was apparently too much for Russell to take, according to the lawyer she’s retained. And now everything at City Hall appears as foggy as a summer morning on the Clinch River. 

Here’s a snapshot to explain what’s going on:

On Sept. 30, LaFollette Police Chief Jimmy Jeffries complained that Russell compromised an undercover prostitution sting headed by his department. Jeffries maintains the sting — in which he failed to brief Russell that 11 men were arrested in a few-days span for allegedly soliciting undercover prostitutes — was intended to be highlighted in a WATE 6 television exclusive. 

But the LaFollette Press spoiled that publicity stunt by analyzing jail logs, connecting the dots and reporting on the sting during its peak. (NOTE: It is the job of The Press to report on news in this community.)

Jeffries further claims Russell questioned the approval of the undercover operation and inappropriately confronted him about contacting the television news media. 

“I was so taken aback by Ms. Russell’s behavior that I can’t remember the entire conversation,” Jeffries wrote in his grievance. “Ms. Russell continued to scream at me then threw me out of the office.” 

We asked Jeffries to explain the incident futher, but he isn’t talking. 

Joy Ellison, city clerk and human resources advisor for the city, also filed a similar grievance against Russell on the same day. 

Ellison claims Russell allegedly berated her for a personal relationship she is having with someone in the office over a compensation claim. Ellison said she was “physically unable to maintain professional composure” after speaking with Russell about the matter. Ellison claims she couldn’t even work and had to leave the office after her conversation with Russell. She also renounced her liability in handling confidential personnel files of LaFollette Police officers, which she says Russell requested but never returned.   

Since that time, 14 city police officers have filed what amounts to a class-action complaint against Russell. 

You can read the claims for yourself. Just remember, grievances represent only one side of the claims. 

At the LaFollette Press, we’re neither the judge, nor jury — but Russell’s underlying concerns don’t sound unfounded or irrational.   

Alleged tactics aside, we contend Russell should be briefed on what’s going on in her city. After all, she’s the city administrator. It’s one of her essential job functions to know what’s going on in the city departments. 

In the past month alone, Russell has been lauded by private citizens, downtown merchants and the editorial board of the LaFollette Press for her deeds in cleaning up the town. 

She’s done more in her three-month tenure as city administrator than past administrations have done in decades. 

Russell’s shown that her determination for change and community improvement is a force to be reckoned with. 

It’s a shame those actions might now be undermined by a City Hall that just can’t get along. 

We’ve all seen what happens when governments — big and small — can’t cooperate. 

In Washington, D.C., we now have a partial federal shutdown because elected leaders are putting politics over progress. 

In Jellico, elected officials were subject to a state takeover earlier this year because they failed to pass a budget in a timely manner and constantly bickered. 

When bureaucrats fight, the losers are the public. 

To be clear, we don’t condone abusive management tactics. No one should be forced to work in a hostile work environment. 

If the claims of the city clerk, police chief and police officers hold any validity, we hope they’re resolved appropriately.  

In the meantime, we expect every bureaucrat at City Hall to do their job and work for the people they serve.

And readers can be sure that The Press will be doing its job to report on these issues.