Rift between county officials widens over road closure

Huntsville, TN (2017-07-07) Litton Covered Bridge Road has created a rift between some members of the Scott County Commission and the Scott County Road Superintendent, who disagree that the road should be open immediately to vehicular traffic.

“We’ll fix it when we’ve got the money and it don’t interfere with other road work where people live,” Scott County Road Superintendent Donald (Dick) Sexton told the Scott County Commission last Monday night.  Sexton was responding to sharp criticism from Commissioner Rick Russ, who questioned why the road remained closed, even though a judge order it opened in March.

“I’m asking you professionally now, please open (the) road up,” Russ said to Sexton.  Russ’ plea followed some contentious moments between the pair, who sparred over the reason behind the continued closure.  Sexton contended the road was unsafe and would have to meet certain specifications before it could be reopened.  Russ implied Sexton’s stance was out of blatant disregard to the county commission’s directive to keep the road open.

“(If) you’ll take the responsibility for it, and let the Road Superintendent and the road department be eliminated from liability, we’ll open it,” Sexton said.  Sexton told Commissioners he had reservations about opening the road due to the potential for a lawsuit against himself and his department.  In most cases, the county would also be named a party to any such litigation.

Legally, Sexton can temporarily close a road, or a section thereof, and allow his department adequate time to properly repair it; provided the closure isn’t preventing any landowner from accessing their property. The statute doesn’t limit the time of such closures.

“I’m not saying I won’t open the road.  I’ll probably get to it pretty quick,” Sexton said.  Sexton claimed a lack of funds had prevented him for working on a lot of roads in the last couple of months. “The court wanted it open bad(ly), but they didn’t want to appropriate (any money) to help me pay for it,” Sexton added.

After the county legislative body voted to keep the road open, Sexton formally asked the county to help fund the improvements, which, at the time, he estimated at $70,000.  The county doesn’t provide operational cash to the road department, which is funded mostly by state-shared gasoline tax revenues, and other state and federal dollars.

While the county hasn’t provided operational funds to the department, it has, on occasion, authorized one-time expenditures to help purchase equipment for it.

“When can we drive down there and check it out ourselves,” County Mayor Dale Perdue asked.  According to Perdue, he had fielded a couple of telephone calls about the closure and felt that motorists who are buying gas in the county were indirectly providing money to the road department.  “I’m not trying to get down on you, but I agree the judge said open the road,” he told Sexton.

Sexton agreed to take any interested county official down to view the road at any time.

“If they start giving you a hard time, tell them to call Dick Sexton,” Sexton told commissioners.  The Scott County Road Department may be reached at (423) 663-3832.

Last May, the Scott County Board of County Commissioners denied a request to close a 2.1 mile stretch of the road to the public.  Days later, Sexton closed the road citing a complaint from a motorist, who allegedly damaged their vehicle.  In June, members of the Commission pushed back, demanding the road be reopened.  Shortly thereafter, the landowners barricaded the road and filed a lawsuit against the county.  In March, Chancellor Elizabeth Asbury ruled the road was a public thoroughfare, and should be reopened to the public.