Climate of tension, fear in Tellico

Residents request deputies at lakeside village's board sessions

By Hugh G. Willett

Monday, February 14, 2011

Both sides in a long-simmering war of words between some residents and the Tellico Village Property Owners Association are concerned about rising tensions in the upscale lakefront community.

Several incidents at association meetings and offices in the past two years, including allegations of a physical assault, have prompted requests by residents for off-duty Loudon County Sheriff's Office deputies to attend future POA meetings.

"We requested off-duty deputies at future meetings because some of the residents at the meetings said they felt threatened," said John Cherry, public relations manager for the Tellico Village POA.

Cherry described what he calls a climate of tension, and sometimes even fear, orchestrated by a small but vocal group of residents who hold mistaken beliefs about the management of the community. He said he has also been the target of personal attacks on Internet boards.

Village resident Sharon Addison was an attendee at one of the board meetings late last year where she said she feared for her own safety.

In a video of the meeting, residents can be seen rising from their chairs and facing off to argue while the board attempted to control the situation.

"I felt like violence was about to break out," said Addison, an active resident who considers herself independent of any village faction.

In the two or more years since some residents began speaking at POA meetings with allegations of fraud and misappropriation of funding, every charge they have made has been addressed by the board and been proved false, Cherry said.

"They practically shut this office down for six months with repeated requests for documents," Cherry said.

The Tellico Village Property Owners Association has the responsibility for the village's governmental functions - maintaining roads, water and sewer systems and operating all village facilities - and represents all property owners.

The POA is a nonprofit organization that's funded by a monthly assessment fee paid by the property owners. Its board is volunteer, and its staff is paid.

POA employees now work behind a large security door installed after a disgruntled resident was charged with assaulting Tellico Village General Manager Winston Blazer in his office. An armed guard was stationed at the POA office in the days after the August 2009 incident.

The residents who have complained about finances at the POA board meetings claim that they are the ones being harassed by the POA.

One resident who has asked questions at POA meetings said she has received a death threat.

Jeannie Pilgrim, who has a background in accounting, is among the more vocal of the residents asking questions. Pilgrim said she has analyzed the village's balance sheet and is concerned about the cash position of the POA.

"We're almost broke," she said.

Cherry said Pilgrim and the other residents who are concerned about the village's finances may have good intentions, but their facts are often wrong. Tellico Village is in excellent financial shape, he said.

"We've spent a lot of time trying to understand their positions," he said. "Sometimes they just get it wrong."

Pilgrim said that shortly after she began asking questions at the POA meetings and decided to run for the POA board, she received a flyer in her mailbox that stated: "If you were my dog, I'd shoot you!"

Pilgrim said she brought the threat to the attention of the POA.

"They shouted me down at the meeting," she said.

Neighbors have harassed her, even coming into her yard to scold her for speaking out, Pilgrim said.

"I had to call the sheriff's office," she said.

According to Cherry, there isn't much the POA can do to control the activities and disputes between neighbors. The POA has never engaged in any sort of retaliation against residents who have asked questions at board meetings, he insisted.

Pilgrim disagrees. The POA's only response to her allegations has been a series of denials followed by a letter warning her that she would be removed from POA meetings if she continued disruptive behavior, she said.

"There is a statute in Tennessee against disrupting public meetings," Cherry said. The few "disgruntled" residents keep asking the same questions, using valuable board time that could be used to attend to more important business, he said.

Pilgrim insists that all she is doing is exercising her right as a property owner.

"The reason I keep asking the same questions is because they never answer the questions," she said.

Resident Richard Anklin said he also had trouble getting answers to questions about the village finances.

"The board would tell me to talk to the finance committee and then the finance committee would tell me they didn't have the information and that I had to talk to the board," he said.

In July 2009, Anklin went to court to get access to POA documents under a Tennessee law that makes records of nonprofit organizations such as the POA open for public inspection. Anklin claims the POA did everything it could to delay the court action, including refusing to accept documentation that had a slight error on the address.

Despite a court order in February 2010 affirming his right to look at the records, it was not until April that Anklin and another resident were allowed to view the documents, he said.

"They made us sit in a room by ourselves for hours while they brought out one document at a time," Anklin said.

According to Cherry, Anklin did not provide a list of documents in advance, which slowed down the retrieval process. Some of the documents required redacting of personal information, such as Social Security numbers.

Among the items allegedly discovered by Anklin and his co-plaintiff, Dan Hutcherson, was a large number of credit card purchases made at Walmart by POA employees.

Cherry said the POA conducted an exhaustive analysis of the credit card purchases after receiving the report from Anklin and discovered nothing amiss.

"The auditor concluded that the employees were saving the village money," he said.

Other matters cited by Anklin included how landscaping vendor bids were handled and errors on tax documents regarding the general manager's full compensation. Cherry said the contract in question was properly handled and the tax return errors were small and corrected once the POA learned of them.

The most important result of the document lawsuit was the affirmation by the court that the residents have the right to view financial documents, Anklin said.

"The court said that all the documents of the POA were considered public records and open for inspection, not just the documents we requested," Anklin said.

The POA is now trying to close the case, arguing that all the documents requested were provided.

According to Cherry, the judge's order gave the plaintiffs the right to view documents under certain terms and conditions outlined by the judge's order and the village document access policy. He said the plaintiffs' lawyer has agreed to a lawsuit dismissal order, which is being sent to the judge - with each party responsible for its own attorney fees and costs.

So, with a trial seemingly avoided and, according to Cherry, no smoking-gun financial irregularities uncovered, what's really the rub in the village?

Most of differences between the board and the small group of resident activists are not based on real issues but instead reflect a difference of philosophy on how the community should be run, Cherry said.

Fifteen-year Tellico Village resident Norris Shake has been attending the POA board meetings for years, and asking tough questions. He said he believes in the right of residents to speak up but is concerned about the way some residents voice their concerns.

"I don't know whether they're right or wrong," he said. "I think that sometimes they're rude."

Shake said he thinks the residents with complaints should be more concerned about how they present themselves: "The first thing you have to do is sell yourself before you can sell your ideas," he said.

Hugh G. Willett is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.