Longtime mayor, vice mayor defeated in nine-way race for Athens, Tennessee, city council

Staff Photo by Ben Benton / Athens, Tenn., City Hall is seen Jan. 20, 2022.
Staff Photo by Ben Benton / Athens, Tenn., City Hall is seen Jan. 20, 2022.

A nine-way race on Tuesday's ballot in Athens, Tennessee, for three open seats on the City Council ended with the town's mayor and vice mayor defeated as voters chose a newcomer, a former contender and a longtime incumbent.

Athens Mayor Bo Perkinson, on the City Council since 1996, and Vice Mayor Mark Lockmiller lost their seats.

Voters chose government critic Larry Eaton and 2010 candidate Steven S. Sherlin.

Longtime Councilman Dick Pelley, first elected to the panel in 2002, was re-elected, according to final, unofficial election results.

The results aren't official until certified by the McMinn County Election Commission.

The top vote-getters fill the seats for four-year terms. The mayor and vice mayor are determined by council vote for two-year terms.

Perkinson was first appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council in 1996 and was elected to a full term the next year, according to a City Council biography. He served as vice mayor for five two-year terms between 2004 and 2014. Perkinson was first elected mayor in 2002 for a two-year term and was elected mayor again in 2020, a post he held until this election.

(READ MORE: Mistrial declared in First Amendment lawsuit alleging violation of Athens, Tennessee, man's constitutional rights)

Lockmiller was elected to a four-year term on the City Council in 2018 and held the post of vice mayor the past two years, according to city information.

The newcomers have high hopes.

Sherlin -- retired from industry and business and a native of Athens -- has been critical of city leadership.

He said he liked Perkinson and Lockmiller as people.

"It's just that they've shown poor leadership," Sherlin said Wednesday by phone.

Sherlin wants to see citizens treated better at meetings and will strive for a government that is more transparent and open, something he said has been missing.

"I want our town to become what it used to be and not the laughingstock it has been for the past few years," he said. "Athens can be more than it is."

(READ MORE: Jury sides with Athens, Tennessee, and city officials in First Amendment retaliation case)

Sherlin sought a council seat in 2010 when he lost to then-Athens Mayor Hal Buttram by 10 votes.

"This time, it was kind of redeeming, and I feel good about it," he said.

Sherlin said he knows fellow new Councilman Eaton and considers him a friend.

Eaton said he wanted change but didn't really want to enter politics to do it.

"It was humbling knowing that the city of Athens' citizens are wanting a change," Eaton said Wednesday in a phone interview. "At City Council I have for many years been asking questions about the way things are going, the way they were treating businesses, employees and citizens, and I finally had to go on the inside to fix it because nothing was being done. Athens has been my home my whole life, and I love my hometown."

Eaton said he was urged to put his name on the ballot by someone he saw as a father figure and mentor, the late former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Larry Wallace, an Athens native.

"I swore I'd never run, and Larry Wallace talked me into it," Eaton said.

(READ MORE: Former Athens, Tennessee, police chief files suit after firing)

Eaton said he hopes to improve the pay and benefits for city workers, help the business community, solve any infrastructure problems with the city's new school and address lawsuits filed against the city.

One of those suits was filed by Eaton himself in March, against City Manager C. Seth Sumner and the city.

Eaton said the lawsuit is being negotiated, noting no monetary award is being sought. He couldn't discuss the suit further, he said.

Eaton filed suit in McMinn County Chancery Court over charges for copies of public records related to issues in city government and the Police Department he wanted to investigate.

According to the suit, Eaton contended he was charged $54 per hour -- the city manager's salary broken down by the hour -- for reproducing the records he sought. Eaton in the suit called the charges totaling almost $1,000 outrageous.

The records Eaton sought pertained to two City Council meetings in August and October 2021 about allegations against Sumner made by then-Police Chief Cliff Couch. Couch accused Sumner of interfering with his authority as chief and retaliating against him for questioning the apparent disappearance of city-owned surveillance cameras the chief believed were last in the possession of Sumner. Sumner in the meeting said he returned the missing cameras.

Eaton during that time had been frequently filing public records requests seeking information on communications between city officials and the district attorney, council members' emails and other records. He also corresponded with council members and others about what his requests produced.

In the fallout, Sumner fired Couch, and at the end of the October meeting, Sumner was suspended for two weeks without pay in a 4-1 Council vote.

Eaton and Sherlin said they look forward to taking their places on the five-member panel. There is some uncertainty about the date the newly elected councilmen will be sworn into office, Eaton said.

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


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