A McMinn County Circuit Court judge has ordered sanctions against an Athens City Council member and his attorney after calling their 2022 ouster petition seeking to remove a former mayor "a fraud upon this court."
Athens City Council Member Adolphus "Dick" Pelley, who has held his seat for more than 20 years, filed the ouster petition in August 2022 seeking the removal of then-Mayor Bo Perkinson over allegations Perkinson blocked Pelley from fully participating in an Aug. 16, 2022, council meeting.
Pelley's petition, filed by Knoxville-based attorney Van R. Irion, included a list naming 17 other people, along with Pelley, as petitioners in the suit against Perkinson. It sought Perkinson's suspension pending a trial on his ouster.
In his ruling, Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Sharp on Aug. 18 found six or more of the "petitioners" testified Irion was not their lawyer, they didn't know what the petition sought, hadn't met Irion until the day they provided testimony considered in Sharp's order, and when some signed a document to participate, they didn't know it was to become part of a petition to seek Perkinson's removal.
There were also discrepancies on the dates the people signed paperwork for the petition — weeks before the disputed meeting even took place.
"Their declarations were simply untrue on their face, based upon the dates of the signatures alone," the judge found.
Sharp ordered Pelley and Irion pay more than $55,000 in Perkinson's attorney fees and court costs.
In his petition, Pelley contended the former mayor violated his rights as a council member, refusing to hear or allow him to make motions, and refusing to allow him to speak at a council meeting Aug. 16, 2022.
"Perkinson also instructed Pelley to sit down and stop talking, while Pelley properly had the floor," Pelley's petition states.
Because Pelley was unable to make a motion at the meeting, he contends he was forced to sign up to address the council as a member of the public without Perkinson's interference, according to the petition. Pelley alleges his election to his council seat had been "nullified" by Perkinson's actions.
Meeting minutes list Pelley among members of the public who asked to address the council on that date. Pelley told council members they violated rules on meetings in the municipal code and asked for an outside investigation into how council meetings are run, according to a video of the meeting.
Judge Sharp's order arose from a motion by Perkinson's lawyer, Cookeville attorney Dan Rader, that sought attorneys fees of $48,682 and discretionary costs of $6,993, in addition to sanctions against the two men who sought the ouster, court documents state.
Pelley declined comment Monday when contacted by phone. Irion didn't respond to a phone message left at his office or an email sent to the account listed in court documents.
Sharp noted petition signature pages, referred to in court papers as "declarations," were simply blank forms with blanks for the name and signature, the order states.
Sharp also found some signature pages were dated and signed days or weeks prior to the Aug. 16, 2022, meeting at issue in the petition, the order states. Of the 18 signature pages contained in the case file, 12 had no dates, including Pelley's, and six were dated Aug. 2, 2022, or July 29, 2022, the order states.
There was "no way" the people who signed the petition could have agreed to pursue action related to a meeting that hadn't happened yet, and those issues constituted an act of bad faith on Pelley's and Irion's part, Sharp said.
"The court has great concerns that this entire lawsuit was represented to the court to have been filed by people that did not even know a lawsuit was being filed, much less what the subject matter or issue of the lawsuit was," Sharp wrote. "This court finds that the ouster suit itself was, and is, a fraud upon this court."
'I was unaware'
Statements were taken from some of the people who signed the petition in depositions to be introduced as testimony in court. Irion was present during the depositions.
One of the signers of the petition, Carla Aterburn, filed a court notice to have herself dropped from the ouster petition.
"I was unaware as to what the petition sought," she wrote in her notice.
Testimony from three other signers — Dawn Whiting, Christine Corum and Daniel Richesin — said they didn't know Irion and that he was not their lawyer and never had been.
Corum testified she hadn't seen or read the ouster petition, and Richesin didn't know Irion on sight.
"When asked if he knew the man sitting next to him — who was apparently attorney Van Irion — he answered, 'I have no idea,'" the judge's order states.
Signer Sarah Shytle testified she was unaware the document she signed would be used in a suit seeking to remove Perkinson from office, documents state.
"She testified that she signed it because her husband wanted her to do it," Sharp wrote. "She testified that she does not know now, she did not know in the past and she has never known of anything that Mr. Perkinson had done wrong."
Point of order
A video of the Aug. 16, 2022, meeting at issue in the petition shows Pelley, holding some papers in his hand at the beginning of the meeting, attempting to speak about problems he believes exist in the way the city conducts its meetings while Perkinson briefly listens, notes Pelley is not on the meeting agenda and doesn't allow him to speak, calling him out of order and striking the gavel after a couple of interruptions.
When the consent agenda came up for discussion on several topics, Pelley sought to make a point of order, a query made in formal debate as to whether correct procedure is being followed. Perkinson responded in a back-and-forth saying a point of order had to be on the agenda before declaring Pelley out of order.
"I'll ask you to sit down please and let us proceed," Perkinson said. "Because it's not on the agenda, it's not been given ..."
"Point of order," Pelley interrupted.
"No, sir. You can't present it this evening," Perskinson said.
"Can we just let him talk and let him read what he's got?" Vice Mayor Mark Lockmiller said.
Perkinson continued to refuse Pelley's interjections and urged him to take up his matter at the next month's council work session.
After the council addressed the consent agenda, Perkinson turned to new business, and Pelley again attempted to introduce his item of discussion while Perkinson refused him, telling Pelley the discussion could be held at the next month's council study session. Pelley's backup plan was to speak as a city citizen during the public input period of the meeting.
When Pelley took the podium as an Athens citizen, he was allowed to speak.
"I have here the general administration for conducting City Council meetings, and we are in violation of it," Pelley told council members. "As we have seen tonight, there are rules for some and not for others. You again have intentionally violated the rules that are set up in the ordinance to try to use them to keep me off the charter but then to refuse to follow them when it suits you. The citizens who are watching, I would hope that they tell each of us this corruption has to stop. I am requesting that we call in an outside investigator to look into how we are illegally running our meetings."