Highland Lake Council devolves into factions

An anonymous caller requested The Blount Countian provide coverage of the latest Highland Lake Town Council meeting. The council was divided over actions of the mayor and police chief. In the Dec. 4, 6 p.m., work session, regularly held an hour prior to normal monthly meetings, councilors sparred verbally over Mayor Connie Vice’s previous decision to suspend police privileges of driving department vehicles home.

Several minutes into the work session, which provides an opportunity to review and approve the council’s proposed agenda, councilor Donna Hanby indicated her desire to have officer vehicle privileges restored. She referred to her understanding that Vice’s action had resulted from a stop police chief Scott Kon had made in Cleveland where he resides.

Vice responded that the town’s take home policy had not been followed. Hanby attempted to read a letter attributed to Blount County District Attorney Pamela Casey. Hanby held that Casey had endorsed Kon’s actions.

Vice warned Hanby that the council should not hold open discussions of matters related to an ongoing investigation. Hanby countered that Casey had authorized her reading of the letter. As Hanby proceeded, town attorney Alex Smith advised against continuing.

Hanby, who had questioned prior advice from Smith, read on. Smith then stated that Hanby, in rejecting the advice of the town attorney, assumed any possible liability for her actions.

Hanby said she would like to have a motion to return chief Kon’s vehicle. Vice asserted that to offer such would require amending the agenda.

Councilman Ramzi Malek, in the first of repeated similar expressions, asked could the council not move forward from the past action and find a solution acceptable to both Vice and Kon. Malek’s position appeared in line with later comments made by town residents, former mayor Gail Bailey and councilor Denise Adams, that the controversy does not benefit the town.

Vice indicated she had attempted to resolve issues by requesting Kon meet with her the day before scheduled council meetings beginning in October. She said he had not done so.

Kon, speaking from the audience, announced his son plays basketball on Mondays and that he plans to be at his son’s games. He said he had offered to provide papers answering Vice’s questions, to which Vice expressed some surprise. Kon also proposed the two set another mutually agreeable meeting time.

Some council members proposed a possible executive session with both sides presenting “facts” to support their positions. Vice indicated she would want any such to address only one matter at a time, while Kon asked whether or not he could have his attorney present.

Smith spoke against Kon having legal representation. He held that council members could not be expected to speak with candor in such a setting.

With the allotted time for the work session over, Vice sought to move into the regular council meeting. Continued discussion delayed that effort a few minutes. In the regular session, Hanby, whose town responsibilities include finance, summarized monthly account figures and then said she would like to move that the town limit legal fees incurred between Vice and Smith over matters related to the police department.

She expressed concern that the present nearly $2,600 in calendar-year legal fees appeared excessive. She proposed that any discussions Vice and Smith might have concerning the police have prior council approval.

Both Vice and Smith objected to that possible motion. Smith held the motion an illegal act in its limitation on the mayor. Vice argued one could not determine ahead how much research a legal question might entail. Smith advised that the council could return to a prior policy of reviewing any or all bills before payment, but could not legally act in accordance with the proposed move. Council members tabled the motion.

The council proceeded with routine business toward the meeting conclusion until councilor Chase Moore moved to return town vehicles to the officers. (Herbert “Buck” Buchanan and Kon are the town’s two paid police.)

Once again, Vice noted such a move would require amending the agenda. Smith advised that since the motion applied to a continuing matter the council would need unanimous approval to consider the amendment that night. Moore, Hanby, and Malek quickly voted for the move. Adams and councilor Sid Nelson each hesitated a few moments before adding their assents. Vice voted, “No.”

The regular January meeting would fall on New Year’s day. The council rejected a prior suggestion to hold that meeting on Jan. 7, which would conflict with the national collegiate football championship. Councilors agreed to move the next regular meeting and work session to Jan. 8.

Ed. note – A special meeting was called for Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m.