The Cumberland County Ethics Committee met today to hear a complaint against 9th District County Commissioner John Patterson by school board member Stace Karge. The Cumberland County Ethics Committee is comprised of Deborah Holbrook, Rick Williams and Valarie Cox.
105.7 News obtained the letter Karge sent to the committee in advance of their meeting that details the complaint. The letter is as follows:
“Honorable Committee Members,
On Friday, December 13, 2019 at approximately 3:45 p.m., I was alerted by Cumberland County School Board Attorney Earl Patton that 9th District Commissioner John Patterson had made a formal request for all emails in my possession regarding the current Director of Schools, Janet Graham. After talking with Mr. Patton, I decided to call Mr. Patterson to ask if he would “respectfully rescind his request,” as I thought releasing the emails in my possession would be a breech in confidentiality between my constituents and myself. Mr. Patterson told me that he would not rescind the request, and instead berated me for trying to “get rid of the best director our schools have ever seen.” He then stated that if I failed to change my “no” vote to a “yes,” that I would be “harming the teachers.” When I asked how, he said “with the supplement.” I didn’t understand to what he was referring, so I asked him what he meant, he again said “the supplement.” Still not understanding, I asked a third time, and he said “the supplement…we control the budget.” (After speaking with BOE member Jim Inman, I now understand he was referring to the maintenance of effort). I asked what that had to do with anything and he said “You’ll find out if you don’t change your vote.” He then threatened me with jail if I failed to comply with the Sunshine Law by not submitting the emails.
On Tuesday, December 17, 2019, I forwarded all electronic communications, as per the request, to Mr. Patton, who then forwarded it on, presumably for Mr. Patterson’s perusal. I complied totally and completely with the request, despite my objections as to what he was asking. I felt it was a bad precedent to set, and could lead to a lack of communication from constituents who were afraid of retaliation.
It is important to note this – mine were the only emails he requested. I also won my board of education seat after running against his (Patterson) wife in the August 2018 election. I believe part of his motivation to come after my emails was retaliatory in nature.
I believe Mr. Patterson’s actions range from bullying and intimidation to the extreme of extortion. At the very least, I believe his actions are unbecoming of an elected official.
I have hesitated in making this ethics inquiry request and I would like to put the entire event behind me, leaving me fully able to concentrate on being the best Board of Education member and public servant that I am capable of being. However, my fear is that if unchecked, Commissioner Patterson will continue to use nefarious means in which to attempt to get other public officials to change their votes when he does not agree with their decision.
I appreciate the service that each of you (ethics committee) has volunteered to do for our community, and I thank you for considering this request for an ethics review on Commissioner Patterson’s behavior.
With kindest regards,
9th District Board of Education Member”
Today the Cumberland County Ethics Committee heard from Karge and Patterson in regards to the complaint.
Stace Karge told the committee everything she said in the letter she still stands behind today. Karge said Patterson only requested the emails she received and not from at least two other school board members who indicated they received emails from constituents. The emails largely were not in favor of Director of Schools Janet Graham getting a new contract. Karge informed the committee after the complaint was filed she disbanded her school email to protect her constituents. Karge added they are welcome to call her now with any concerns they have. Karge ended her comments to the committee with “if no action is taken by the committee, she is good with it knowing that the public was made aware of the situation.”
John Patterson then addressed the committee. He said at least three school board members indicated in a previous school board meeting they were contacted by constituents regarding the contract situation for Graham but only Karge indicated she received emails. This was later countered when school board member Jim Inman told the committee he may have indicated he received emails (he could not recall in today’s committee meeting) but “if Stace says I said in a meeting I got some emails, then I believe her.” Patterson said since he believed Karge was the only one to get emails from constituents, he only requested to see the ones she got. Patterson only received 13 of them to review.
The county attorney, Philip Burnett, spoke to the committee stating it is not illegal to ask for the emails and Patterson did not do anything wrong in that regard. The code of ethics was then entertained stating section 6 of the applicable state laws pertaining to official misconduct. Burnett told the committee that would be really stretching it trying to apply this to the complaint.
“It is a he said, she said situation,” said Burnett to the committee. “Karge does make an allegation of conduct unbecoming a county commissioner but it has to be proven.”
Burnett added that any email sent to an elected official can be made into public record.
After hearing from both sides, the Cumberland County Ethics Committee voted to take no action and drop the complaint.
After the meeting, Stace Karge told 105.7 News she was very happy with the decision and it was a fair one. “My only reason to make the complaint was to have it made public. Any time you put something in writing to an elected official, it is an open record. My phone number is on the board of education website and constituents are welcome to call me with any concerns.”
John Patterson told 105.7 News he wished the committee would have pursued the truth. “Karge did not turn over all the emails. Her saying she only had one email in support of Graham was not accurate. There were more of them.”
After the Ethics Committee meeting concluded, John Patterson handed notes of his conversation with Karge and notes he made to 105.7 News. It reads:
“At the December 5, 2019 meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Education there was discussion regarding the contract renewal of the Director of Schools, Janet Graham. During that meeting one school board member made a statement that he had talked to folks who had positive comments regarding Graham, but he had heard more negative comments. Several other school board members followed one after the other with similar statements, in what almost appeared to be a coordinated manner, culminating with a statement by Stace Karge that she had gotten 37 negative email comments with only one positive comment.
Several days later I happened to run into a school board member while in Crossville. We stopped to chat and after we exchanged Christmas greetings, I asked him what kind of feedback he had received about the director of schools contract renewal. He told me he had heard from a number of folks, with both positive and negative comments.
If it’s one thing I believe to be true, it is when someone is concerned enough about an issue that they fire off an email to a commissioner or a school board member, they usually don’t email just one, they will often send emails to most if not all the commissioners or school board members. At this point in time it became clear to me that Karge’s 37 to 1 statement was somewhat dubious.
With that in mind, I filed an open records request to see those emails. No other school board member spoke of receiving email messages during their statements at the board of education meeting, so I did not request the email messages of anyone other than Karge.
At 3:33 p.m. on December 13, 2019, I received a telephone call from Karge. She identified herself, acknowledged receiving my open records request for her email messages, and requested that I immediately rescind my request as it would hurt the teachers. The following is the phone conversation according to Patterson:
Patterson – “How would this hurt your teachers?”
Karge – “These emails contain sensitive comments sent to and from my teachers and if the emails are released they would be afraid of retaliation.”
Patterson – “You could redact the names and their email addresses.”
Karge – “I’m not going to give you those emails.”
Patterson – “But I do not intend to make those emails public.”
Karge – “I don’t believe you and I am not going to give you those emails.”
Patterson – “I am not going to rescind my request.”
Karge – “And I’m not going to give you those emails. Graham has been mean to the teachers and she has to go.”
Patterson – “Janet Graham has done a great job, an outstanding job and you know it.”
Karge – “She’s got to go”
Patterson – “You’ll be getting rid of the best director of schools this county has had in many years.”
Karge – “I don’t care. She has to go”
Patterson – “What is it about those emails you are afraid of? What would you be hiding? I jokingly added “Just like Sgt. Joe Friday used to say on the Dragnet TV show,”just the facts, ma’am.”
Karge – “If you don’t stop I am telling you that people will be upset with you.”
Patterson – “Are you threatening me?”
Karge – You better rescind your request or I will see to it the entire community will rise against you.”
Patterson – “I am not going to change my mind. I hope you comply with this legal request.”
Karge – “I’m not going to change my mind. I will resign my position on the school board before I hurt my teachers.”
Patterson – “Do what you have to but I hope you comply with my request.”
I was on my laptop when the call came in, so after the call I immediately typed up notes as to what was said. At no time during our conversation was there any talk of the board of education budget or teacher salaries. It seemed obvious to me that her only concern was people might see the emails she had sent to and received from her teachers and those emails would reveal she had been dishonest.
The next afternoon I received a telephone call from a gentleman who said, ”I want you to be aware of what Stace Karge is saying about you. He said she told him I had called her and tried to coerce her into changing her vote on Janet Graham’s contract renewal and that I threatened to hurt the teacher’s salaries when the next board of education budget came up before the county commission.
I passed on to him what was actually said during my conversation with Karge and explained that when the BOE budget is presented to the Board of Commissioners Budget Committee those commissioners do not have the power to line veto anything in the board of education budget or take away from or reduce teacher salaries. I said that the approval of a board of education budget is a straight up or down vote. I also told him that I would not have a voice anyhow about the board of education budget as I was not on the budget committee.
Later that afternoon, I got another call from a gentleman who also told me Karge had called him to say the same kind of things. He also told me, “she said she would destroy you.”
If I actually wanted to threaten of coerce Karge, wouldn’t it be logical that I would have called her to do so? In fact it was she who called me with demands and threats. My home telephone service is with Xfinity/Comcast and their customers have access to a history log of their phone calls, which in this case shows that I did not place a call to Karge, rather the call was received from Karge’s phone number. Karge has been intentionally untruthful regarding this matter in her conversation with members of our community.
In Karge’s written complaint to the Ethics Committee she states, “I forwarded all electronic communications, as per the request, to Mr. Patton (school board attorney), who then forwarded it on, presumably for Mr. Patterson’s perusal. I complied totally and completely with the request, despite my objections to what he was asking.” However, when Karge spoke with a social media newsperson, she said that many of her emails which had been sent to her in confidentially prior to Patterson’s request had been deleted by her. By her own admission Karge did not comply totally and completely with the records request. Karge has been intentionally untruthful in her statement given to the Ethics Committee.
Karge stated at the December 5, 2019 board of education meeting she had received only one email in favor of renewing the director of school contract. I received a total of 13 of Karge’s email messages as a result of my records request. There are five that were complimentary of Graham for her contract to be renewed. There were seven email messages that were critical of Graham and against the contract renewal. There was one that was a rant against central services in general and didn’t mention Graham by name. Karge was intentionally untruthful in her statement on December 5, 2019 to the board of education members when she said she had received only one email favorable of Graham.
Patterson ends his letter asking was there collusion between certain school board members prior to the December 5, 2019 school board meeting. “Has there been violations of the Tennessee Sunshine Law? We may never know because the proof may have disappeared when those email messages were deleted.”