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Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS)

Original Author: Hemsley, Sid
Date of Material: 02/15/2005


Employees Subject to Summary Dismissal by the Mayor

Reviewed Date: 04/28/2021
MTAS was asked which among certain personnel in the city occupy at will positions of employment subject to summary termination by the mayor.

February 15, 2005

Dear Madam:

You have the following questions with respect to the City:

1. Are any members of this list of personnel at will employees subject to summary dismissal by the mayor?

- Fire chief
- Assistant fire chief
- Assistant police chief
- Finance director
- Personnel director
- Public works director
- Parks and recreation director
- Director of economic development

[I notice that the chief of police is missing from this list. I assume his omission is deliberate.]

2. Can the mayor summarily demote a police lieutenant for certain alleged misconduct in the performance of his or her duties?

The answer to question 1 is no.

The answer to question 2 is no.

Analysis of Question 1

Distinction Between Officers and Employees

It is not always easy to determine whether a person appointed to a board or commission is a tenured officer. However, that is not true of any of the above personnel.

What is a public “office”? A county attorney in Ross v. Fleming, 364 S.W.2d 892 (1963) and the director of law for the Nashville-Davidson County Metropolitan Government in Sitton v. Fulton, 566 S.W.2d 887 (1978) were declared to be officers. In the former case, the Tennessee Supreme Court, citing Glass v. Sloan, 282 S.W.2d 397, said:

In deciding whether a particular employment is an office within the meaning of the Constitution or statutory provisions, it is necessary that each case be determined by a consideration of the particular facts and circumstances involved; the intention and subject matter of the enactment, the nature of the duties, the method by which they are to be executed, the end to be obtained, etc.

The line between the public office and public employment is sometimes not too clearly marked by judicial decisions. One of the criteria of public office is the right of the officer to claim the emolument of said office attached to it by law. Another one of the criteria of public office is the oath required by law of the public officials,...another the bond required by law of certain public officials. But in determining the question of whether or not this Act under consideration creates an office or employment it is not necessary that all the criteria be present, however, it has been held on good authority that tenure, oath, bond, official designation, compensation and dignity of position may be considered along with many other things. [At 894]

In the latter case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals, citing 67 C.J.S., § 2 Officers, defined "public officer" as: incumbent to a public office; an individual who has been appointed to or elected in a manner prescribed by law, who has a designation or title given him by law, and who exercises functions concerning the public assigned to him by law. [At 889]

Then citing 63 Am. Jur.2d Public Officers and Employees, § 10, the same Court said: "A public office embraces the idea of tenure, duration and continuity, and the duties connected therewith are generally continuing and permanent." [At 889]

It was not necessary that the charter specifically declare the law director to be an “officer,” said the Court. The charter established the position of law director, prescribed the performance of certain duties on behalf of the public for a fixed period of time, set salary, etc.

The county attorney and the law director in Ross and Sitton were elected or appointed for a definite term. Those cases also involved the question of whether those positions were public officials within the meaning of Art. 11, § 9 of the Tennessee Constitution prohibiting shortening of the term of office, or alteration of the salary, of a local government officer by private act.

In Wise v. City of Knoxville, 250 S.W.2d 29 (Tenn. 1952), the Tennessee Supreme Court considered the question of whether a policeman was an officer or an employee. The policeman was suspended and terminated, and subsequently reinstated to the position of police officer. He sued for full back salary as a police officer, claiming that the city was not entitled to deduct the money he had earned during the period of his suspension and termination. The Court held that while a public officer would have been entitled to his full salary for the period he had been wrongfully excluded from office, that rule did not apply to the plaintiff because a policeman was not a public officer. The Court reasoned that:

An “officer” when used in the sense of one who holds an “office” which entitles him to the salary for the entire term, carries with it the idea of tenure for definite duration, definite emoluments and definite duties which are fixed by statute. [Citations omitted.]

The charter of the City of Knoxville from beginning to end refers to policemen as employees. Charter, secs 121, 123 and 124. In these charter provisions, policemen and firemen are referred to together. Certainly it cannot be said that a fireman is an officer.

If a policeman is injured in the line of duty, he receives employee benefits as a railroad employee would. If the mayor, who is an officer, is injured in the line of duty, he does not receive employee benefits in such a manner.

A City Director, under the charter of Knoxville can retire a policeman or any other employee but cannot retire an official.

The city policeman is paid a salary like a railroad engineer or a brakeman. He must report at a certain hour and goes off duty at a certain hour. He does the work assigned to him like a secretary or a nurse at a municipal hospital.

A policeman is not an officer, but a mayor, a sheriff or a judge is an office. [At 31]

However, in Gamelin v. Town of Bruceton, 803 S.W.2d 690 (Tenn. App. 1990), the Court, citing the first paragraph of Sitton quoted above, held that a recorder who did not have a definite term was an officer under the charter. That case indicates that the threshold for being an officer under a municipal charter is quite low in Tennessee. There the recorder argued he was an employee covered by the city's personnel policies regulating termination. Citing its definition of “officer” in Sitton v. Fulton, the Court rejected that claim, pointing to Section 3.04 of the Bruceton City Charter, which provided that:

Section 3.04. Town recorder–appointment and duties. The board shall appoint a town recorder who shall have the following powers and duties as may be provided by ordinance not inconsistent with this Charter:.... [At 692]

Without even outlining those powers and duties, the Court pointed to Gamblin’s appointment by the board of mayor and aldermen and declared that, "It is clear that Gamblin is a public officer or official and not an employee." [At 693]

Although the Court did not outline them, the Bruceton City Charter prescribed the following duties for the recorder in Gamblin:

(a) To keep and preserve the town seal and all official records not required by law or ordinance to be filled [filed?] elsewhere.
(b) To attend all meetings of the council and to maintain a journal showing the proceedings of all such meetings, the councilmen present and absent, each motion considered, the title of each resolution and ordinance considered, and the vote of each councilman on each question. This journal shall be open to the public during regular office hours of the town subject to reasonable restrictions exercised by the town recorder.
(c) To prepare and certify copies of official records in his office....
(d) to serve as head of the Department of Finance.
(e) to serve as town judge if appointed by the council.
(f) To coordinate under the supervision of the mayor, the activities of all administrative divisions or line departments, serve as special liaison between the Mayor and divisions, departments, boards, commissions and other bodies, and perform such administrative and executive duties as may from time to time be assigned to him by the mayor.

But none of the personnel contemplated in Question 1 meets the definition of “officer” set out in the above cases, including the liberal definition applied in Gamblin.

With respect to the fire chief, your City Charter does not mention the fire chief. In our sister state of North Carolina it was held in Nissan v. City of Winston-Salem, 175 S.E. 310 (1934), that a fire chief approximately on the same plane as your fire chief was not an officer.

With respect to all the remaining personnel, there is no mention of their positions in the charter, except in the oblique sense that Section 12.01 of the city charter prescribes “a department of general government, department of finance, police department, and department of public works, unless otherwise provided by ordinance....,” and gives the board of mayor and aldermen the authority to create other offices and prescribe the duties of those offices, etc. Similar authority is also contained in Section 12.06. In neither case do those provisions of the charter create “offices” as to any personnel who hold positions established or created under those provisions.

Sections 12.01, 12.02, 12.07 and 6.05 of your City Charter are the starting places to answer the question of what officers and employees are at will employees subject to the summary dismissal of the mayor.

- Section 12.01 is the product of Private Acts 1951, Chapter 143, and which contained a large scale revision of the city’s 1903 charter, provides for the organization of the city’s government, and ostensibly makes certain exceptions to the organizational options available to the board of mayor and aldermen permitted under that section:

(a) the number of members and authority of the Board of Aldermen, as provided in this Act, shall not be changed; (b) all officers and employees of the city, except as otherwise provided in this Charter, shall be appointed and removed and shall be under the direction and control of the Mayor, (c) the office of Mayor shall not be abolished, nor shall his powers, as provided in this Charter be reduced....

- Section 12.02, which is likewise a product of Private Acts 1951, Chapter 143 [See Page 383], also provides that:

He [the mayor] shall have authority to appoint, promote, demote, transfer, suspend and remove all officers and employees and to direct and control their work, except as otherwise provided in this Act....

- Section 12.07, is also a product of Private Acts 1951, Chapter 143 [See p.387]. It provides:

That all employees of the city, except as otherwise provided in this Act, shall be appointed, promoted, demoted, transferred, suspended and removed by the Mayor. During a suspension an employee’s salary may be reduced or eliminated, as determined by the Mayor. Before suspending for more than thirty days or removing an employee, the Mayor shall serve the employee with a written notice of intention to suspend or remove him, containing a clear statement of the grounds for such proposed action and notification that the employee may appeal to the personnel board by filing, within ten days, with the city clerk written notice of his intention to do so. The personnel board shall be composed of three members appointed by the Board of Aldermen for three year terms, except that of the first appointees, one shall be for a term of one year and one for two years. The personnel board shall elect a chairman from its membership and shall adopt rules governing conduct of its business. The decisions of the personnel board in cases of such appeals by employees shall be final.

- Section 6.05 relates specifically to the employment status of “members of the police force.” While it, too, is the product of Private Act 1951, Chapter 143 [See page 368], it was amended by several subsequent private acts. As contained in Private Acts 1951, Chapter 143, police officers were appointed by the board of mayor and aldermen, and “shall serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen.” The employment status of police officers was changed by Private Acts 977, Chapter 13, which reflects the language reflected in the present Section 6.05: “Removal and suspension of policemen shall be governed by the provisions of Section 12.07, Chapter 143 of the Private Acts of 1951, amending Chapter 238 of the Acts of 1903.”

Section 12.01 gives the mayor virtually plenary power over the appointment and removal of both officers and employees, “except as otherwise provided in this Act.” Section 12.02, gives the mayor virtually plenary powers over both officers and employees, over a span of personnel disciplinary actions, including appointment, promotion, demotion, transfer, suspending and removal, but “except as otherwise provided in this Act.” However, section 12.207 shifts gears in two important respects:
- It gives the mayor the power to appoint, promote, demote, transfer, suspend and remove “all employees of the city,” “except as otherwise provided in this Act.”

- It provides that in cases of suspensions lasting over 30 days and removals of employees, the mayor must give the employee notice of his intention to suspend or remove the employee, and the notice must include the grounds for such action.

It appears no grammatical accident that there is a variation between Sections 12.01 and 12.02, which apply to both officers and employees, and Section 12.07, which applies only to employees. Section 12.07 speaks of its application to “employee” or “employees” at least five times. Section 12.07 is an “except[ion] as otherwise provided in this Act” to Sections 12.01 and 12.02.

Unless there are other “exceptions in this Act” [and obviously subsequent amendments to the charter], Sections 12.01 and 12.02 are the general provisions in the charter governing the removal of officers and employees, and Section 12.07 is the provision of the charter specifically governing the removal of employees. Those provisions are not inconsistent. For that reason no resort to the rules of statutory construction to harmonize or otherwise reconcile them need be taken.

There is an “exception” in the charter with respect to police officers that is not an exception at all. It has been pointed out above that Public Acts 1941, Chapter 143 was subsequently amended to provide that the suspension and removal of police officers be controlled by Section 12.07 of the charter.

Because all of the personnel positions contemplated in Question 1 are employees rather than officers, they are protected from termination by the summary action of the mayor by Section 12.07 of your City Charter.

Indeed, the following positions, and no others, appear to be “officers” under your City Charter:

- Obviously, the mayor and members of the board of aldermen;

- Chief of police;

- City clerk and treasurer;

- City attorney;

- City judge.
Analysis of Question 2

A police lieutenant is not an “officer” under your City Charter. [See Wise v. City of Knoxville, 250 S.W.2d 29 (Tenn. 1952), above.] As pointed out above, Section 6.05 of the City Charter gives police officers the same protection against suspensions and terminations as is afforded other municipal employees under Section 2.07 of the charter. However, Section 2.07 does not give a police lieutenant protection against summary demotion by the mayor.

However, Tennessee Code Annotated, § 38-8-301 et seq., gives a certain class of police officers in Tennessee protection against summary personnel actions. Tennessee Code Annotated, § 38-8-309 provides that:

This part shall apply only to those agencies that now provide a property interest in employment for their police officers and that have no other established procedures for dealing with the dismissal, demotion, suspension, or transfer for punitive reasons of police officers.

It is true that your police lieutenant does not have protection under the charter against summary demotion by the mayor, but under Sections 6.05 and 12.07 of the charter, the same person has a “property interest in employment.” For that reason it is probably wise to treat the lieutenant as covered by Tennessee Code Annotated, § 38-8-301 et seq. Under that statutory scheme, a police officer subject to “dismissal, demotion, suspension without pay or transfer for punitive reasons,” has the following protections:

1. Notice in writing of all charges, the basis for the charges, and the action that may be taken; a reasonable time after the date of the written notice to respond orally and in writing to the charges, the time to be determined by the agency, but in no case less than five calendar days unless the police officer agrees otherwise; the assistance of counsel at the officer’s own expense. [Tennessee Code Annotated, § 38-8-304]

2. The right to request a hearing, the hearing to be held within a reasonable time set by the agency, but no later than 14 calendar days following the date of the request, unless the officer agrees otherwise. During the hearing, the officer and the officer’s agency has the right to present evidence and to examine and cross examine witnesses. The hearing panel has the power upon the request of the police officer or the officer’s agency to subpoena witnesses. The police officer has the right to be presented by counsel at the hearing unless the officer and agency are afforded, by regulation, the right to counsel at a subsequent de novo hearing. The panel conducting the hearing shall rule on the admissibility of evidence. A record must be made of the hearing. [Tennessee Code Annotated, § 38-8-305]

The statutory scheme also provides for the immediate suspension of police officers in certain cases, and other provisions governing minor infractions. I will not discuss those because they are not pertinent to the question.

Nothing in the statutory scheme appears to prevent the mayor from demoting the police lieutenant following the notice and hearing; it simply requires that such a notice and hearing precede whatever disciplinary action covered by that scheme is taken by whoever has the authority to take that action.


Sidney D. Hemsley
Senior Law Consultant