New Athens, Tennessee, council ends contract with longtime city attorney

New mayor, vice mayor elected

Staff Photo / Jackson Street in downtown Athens, Tenn., is seen on May 31, 2012.

Two incoming City Council members elected Nov. 8 became the mayor and vice mayor of Athens, Tennessee, on Tuesday night, and in their first official meeting, they ended the municipality's contract with its longtime attorney.

The 3-2 vote to remove City Attorney Chris Trew -- who has represented the municipality for more than two decades -- combined with the former council's vote Monday night approving a resignation agreement with now-former City Manager C. Seth Sumner -- leaves two significant vacancies for city leaders to fill.

Following Tuesday's meeting, the council and new Mayor Steven Sherlin and new Vice Mayor Larry Eaton -- both elected to their leadership posts by their fellow council members -- now must find permanent replacements for Trew and Sumner. Eaton, Sherlin and incumbent Dick Pelley won the three council seats open on the Nov. 8 ballot, unseating former longtime Mayor Bo Perkinson and Vice Mayor Mark Lockmiller.

The vote to end Trew's contract was opposed by sitting council members Frances Witt-McMahan and Jordan Curtis, while re-elected incumbent Pelley and newcomers Sherlin and Eaton held the majority.

Trew was being paid a retainer of $300 a month for incidental items, plus an hourly rate for other work done, according to interim City Manager Mike Keith.

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

Witt-McMahan and Curtis said the move was too sudden, and the matter should at least go to a work session before any decisions were made about Trew's job, according to meeting video posted on the new mayor's social media page.

"I think that it is very reckless to remove our city attorney during such a time as we're experiencing," Witt-McMahan said.

"There is a lot of really important business that needs to be done that he is totally involved in. Not only that, I appreciate the relationship that Mr. Trew has with the city of Athens. I appreciate the relationship we've had as a council with Mr. Trew," she said.

The matter should first be a discussion, she said.

"This is the first night for two of you," Witt-McMahan told Eaton and Sherlin, "and I think you all need some time to sit down with him yourselves before we vote on any kind of removal."

Curtis echoed her caution.

"We need to let things simmer down a little bit," he said Tuesday. "Let's think through this. I think that would be a little bit of a knee-jerk decision."

Pelley denied the move was "knee jerk," and Eaton said that he attended meetings and followed council business for more than six years and had no reason to consider the matter further. Eaton has had a contentious relationship with the council, the city manager and Trew over recent years, and earlier this year filed a Chancery Court suit against Sumner and the city over the amount he was charged for copies of public records. Eaton said recently that suit is being negotiated.

Sherlin said the changes made this week came as a call from voters.

"I deeply respect Mr. Trew. I think he is a very fine attorney. He did an excellent job last night," Sherlin said of Trew's recommendations and advice in Sumner's dismissal Monday by the previous council.

"I think the city has spoken in this election wanting new leadership, and I think the city wants a complete turnabout," Sherlin said. "That doesn't speak against Chris Trew because he is a fine individual, a good attorney."

Sherlin said he hoped Trew would be willing to work with the city's interim attorney until a permanent replacement is hired. Sherlin also sought to amend Pelley's motion to include recognition of Trew's service, but Trew broke in with a little more advice.

"I'm not going to speak to what you do other than to say the motion should be amended to terminate me, not ask me to resign," Trew said. "If you want to terminate me, Dr. Pelley, just say what it is, call it what it is."

Pelley said he wanted Trew's resignation, but Eaton asked to modify the motion to say the city was instead ending its contract with Trew. Pelley was agreeable to the change.

"That's a lot better terminology," Eaton said.

Some more debate on the wording continued, but Sherlin cleared the air.

"According to the charter, the city attorney serves at the will of the council," Sherlin said, withdrawing his suggested amendment.

After more discussion of the motion's wording, the vote was taken -- 3-2 -- and Trew's fate was sealed. Even so, Trew offered advice and recommendations when called upon or when he felt the need.

Witt-McMahan attempted to provide context for the council's discussion and actions.

"Just for the record, Mr. Trew came here tonight knowing that this might happen," she said. "But he had the decency to show up here to keep the three newly-seated councilmen from sitting here twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone to swear them in."

She said new members' refusal to take a deeper look was a bad start.

"I think it is shameful, and I think it is a very bad way to start your first night on the council," she said.

In a subsequent motion, the council voted 5-0 to hire local lawyer Bill Buckley as interim city attorney until a permanent replacement is picked.

Trew commented Thursday on his exit from service to the city.

"My firm has served as legal counsel for the city in excess of 60 years. I took on this role through our firm greater than 25 years ago," he said in an email.

"I have enjoyed my relationships with the council members through the years , with several city managers, a number of department heads and other city employees," he said. "I would not have served in this capacity for this length of time if my legal services and efforts were not meeting the needs of the city and appreciated."

Trew acknowledged his contractual relationship with the city.

"I have no right nor intention to contest the decision made by the new council to seek other legal counsel," he said.

"One City Council member has been for years at odds and in conflict with the city manager who recently resigned, the mayor who was not re-elected, and myself," Trew said. "With the turnover on the council, he was able to garner the support of two newly-elected council members to remove me as city attorney. As it is written, 'To the victor go the spoils.'"

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