Athens, Tennessee, city manager suspended for two weeks without pay

Disciplinary action follows investigation of missing cameras, firing of police chief

Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony in 2019 in Athens, Tenn.

The Athens, Tennessee, city manager has been suspended for two weeks without pay after a special city council session investigating allegations by the police chief that the city manager was involved in the disappearance and reappearance of two city-owned Nest surveillance cameras.

City Manager C. Seth Sumner was suspended on a 4-1 vote Monday that also required that Sumner's job performance be reevaluated in the next two weeks.

Councilman Dick Pelley was the lone no vote, saying the suspension should have been for a month.

Councilwoman Frances Witt-McMahan made the motion for a two-week suspension and was joined by Mayor Bo Perkinson, Vice Mayor Mark Lockmiller and Councilman Jordan Curtis.

Sumner's suspension was effective immediately. Sumner was hired in 2017 at a salary of $92,000 a year. He now makes $114,750 a year, meaning a two-week unpaid suspension amounts to about $4,400 in pay.

The council twice discussed the matter of the missing cameras in secret before holding its first public session on Aug. 10.

Members convened for more than six hours of discussion and testimony related to complaints by former police chief Cliff Couch, who said his department's Google Nest surveillance cameras turned up missing in November 2020 and then mysteriously reappeared.

Couch said he was retaliated against for reporting the matter to the District Attorney's office.

In August, Sumner told the council he took the cameras into his office to consider whether that brand would make a good holiday gift for his wife and that he only had the cameras in question for one night before returning them.

District Attorney Steve Crump in August said he found no crime to investigate, calling it an internal issue for Athens City Hall.

(READ MORE: Athens, Tennessee, police chief fired amid ongoing city probe into problems between them)

Sumner fired Couch on Oct. 9. Couch, a native of Florida and a previous chief in both Great Bend and Goodland, Kansas, was hired in Athens in September 2017 after a nationwide search. Couch now has lawyers representing him in the matter.

Couch spoke briefly to the council Monday, calling the recent turmoil in city government a tragedy.

"I came before this council in August and pled with them to protect me and others like me who may find themselves powerless before a city manager who consistently crosses ethical lines," he said Monday.

"What happened to me will absolutely happen again unless the citizens, unless our community, takes action to ensure that the very deep-seated issues in this government are addressed," Couch said.

"At the last council meeting, I said if I had to choose between being a police chief and an honest man, I would choose the latter," Couch said. "It turns out I did have to make this choice, and I don't regret my decision. Right is right and wrong is wrong."

The former police chief left the meeting without taking further questions.

Sumner was next to speak after Couch left.

Sumner denied there was any retaliation and refused to discuss the details of his decision to fire Couch, saying there were issues of concern regarding the police department that go back a couple of years and that the termination now was "a personnel matter that involves litigation," referring to Couch's acquiring legal representation since he was fired.

Pelley asked Sumner whether anyone in any level of city government had the authority to stop him from firing Couch, and Sumner said no one could.

Sumner was also asked about a gun seized at McGhee Tyson Airport from his luggage in 2019. Knoxville airport police records show the weapon was a Walther .380-caliber pistol with an empty chamber and four rounds in the magazine and that Sumner told officers he'd missed the weapon when he checked his bags.

Sumner called it "a misstep" when the gun was found in a bag he had with him. He said he checked the bag but didn't empty it and didn't find his gun.

"There was no intent for ill will or harm for another person," he said.

Sumner was cited for the offense, he told council members, and then the charge was dismissed.

"I did receive notification that in forfeiture of my firearm, the citation was dismissed," he said.

He said he considered notifying the mayor of the incident but by the time he'd returned home the issue was resolved. He said it was an oversight not to have informed the council.

At the close of Monday's meeting, Witt's motion to suspend Sumner for two weeks without pay was seconded by Lockmiller. City Attorney Chris Trew told officials they would have to determine who would serve in Sumner's place during his suspension before the meeting could be adjourned.

Council members also discussed prior firings, suspensions of other employees under Sumner's watch and appearances of withholding information from the elected panel.

"I do wish he'd told us about the gun, especially being on city business," Lockmiller said, adding that the timing of the police chief firing "was not good."

Lockmiller said he didn't get the email about the police chief's termination until late on the day Couch was fired and that he agreed with Witt that the suspension was appropriate.

The council closed the meeting with a unanimous vote to appoint Assistant City Manager James Gallup interim city manager for the next two weeks.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.