Russell Baker named latest property assessor

J. H. Osborne • Jul 31, 2017 at 10:15 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County has a new property assessor for the second time in as many months.

In a special called meeting Monday evening, the Sullivan County Commission appointed Russell Baker to fill the vacant office until voters go to the polls in August 2018.

Baker has for the past several years handled personal property assessment within the county property assessor’s office.

And he’s a Republican — an unwritten requirement to win the appointment due to the partisan nature of races for local constitutional offices.

With 22 members, the GOP dominates the 24-member county commission.

The office first became vacant with the death of Ron Hillman in early June. Three weeks later, in a split vote, the commission appointed Robert “Bob” White to take over the post. White was a county commissioner but was required to resign his seat immediately after being appointed assessor. Between Hillman’s death and White’s appointment, Hillman’s chief deputy, Randy Morrell (also a county commissioner and a nearly 40-year employee of the assessor’s office), fulfilled the duties of the assessor’s office, as dictated by state law. Morrell, not a Republican, sought the interim appointment the day the commission appointed White. After the vote, Morrell retired.

Four days later, White resigned with little in the way of a public explanation. A letter he submitted to County Mayor Richard Venable read simply: “The purpose of this correspondence is to notify the county of my decision to resign as assessor of property effective immediately. The inconvenience of this decision is understood but necessary. With most notable regrets to my supporters and colleagues, this is respectfully submitted, Robert White.”

When voters go to the polls next August, they’ll elect someone to serve until 2020, filling out the last two years of the four-year term Hillman won just last August.

The two rounds of legally-required advertisements the county ran announcing the vacancy and appointment process drew widespread interest from would-be nominees, especially considering few legal requirements to hold the post — and its state-mandated salary of $94,719 per year.

At the June meeting in which White ultimately was named, several other hopefuls spoke to the commission.

At Monday’s called meeting, Baker was the only speaker.

The commissioner who formally nominated Baker? Randy Morrell.