HUNTSVILLE — Dr. Trent Cross was not on hand to defend himself as Scott County Commission debated his fate as the county’s medical examiner Monday evening.
As it turned out, he didn’t need to be.
Perhaps swayed by an impassioned argument by 6th District Commissioner Patti Brown, one of Cross’s closest allies from his own days on the county legislative body, commissioners failed to approve a recommendation that Cross be ousted as the county’s medical examiner.
Despite a majority of the commissioners present at Monday’s meeting favoring a resolution to unseat Cross, the tally of 7-4 failed to reach the majority threshold of the 14-member commission.
So while only four commissioners came to Cross’s defense, it proved to be enough, as the absence of three commissioners may have played a role in the vote’s outcome.
Second District Commissioner June Jeffers, 5th District’s Robyn McBroom and 1st District’s Blue Day joined Brown in voting against a resolution to dismiss Cross, after a motion by 4th District Commissioner Rick Russ and a second by 7th District Commissioner Mike Slaven to move the measure forward. Joining them in support of the resolution were 2nd District Commissioner Sam Lyles, 3rd District Commissioner Sheila Buttram, 4th District Commissioner Kenny Chadwell, 5th District Commissioner Paul Strunk and 7th District Commissioner Rick Burke. Absent were Robin Newman from the 6th District, Ernest Phillips from the 3rd District and Eric Newport from the 1st District.
The vote’s outcome was a setback for County Mayor Dale Perdue, who had sought Cross’s ouster as medical examiner after suspending him earlier this month. The mayor’s move was made in response to a decision by the Tennessee Department of Health to place Cross’s medical license on probationary status for six years.
The Department of Health’s decision was based on Cross’s guilty plea to a Class C felony in Sevier County last year, which resulted from a domestic disturbance that saw Cross discharge a handgun at a public campground. The department also cited inappropriate conversations between Cross and a patient in a separate investigation.
In making her argument in Cross’s defense, Brown said it was not up to County Commission to cast stones or pass judgment.
“I will not lower my morals or standards to vote on something that I don’t know everything about,” Brown said. “I won’t be the first person to throw the stone at somebody.”
Brown suggested that the matter should be sent to the county’s Ethics Committee for review, “before this board makes any decision about something they are not fully informed about.”
But Russ countered that County Commission has an obligation to act when the ethical conduct of a county official are called into question.
“We’re not judging anybody, but we have an obligation,” Russ said, drawing a dismissive response from Brown.
Brown asserted at the outset of the debate that Cross’s criminal record had been expunged and should not be used against him to determine his future as medical examiner.
But the county’s attorney, John Beaty, later clarified that Cross was granted judicial diversion, meaning his record can be cleared only after he successfully completes the terms of the probation that were implemented by Sevier County Criminal Court. Beaty pointed out that judicial diversion is made available to most first-time offenders who do not have a prior criminal record.
At one point in the debate, Brown charged that she had a list of physicians in Scott County who have been on probation at some point, along with some county officials. However, she did not elaborate and was not asked to do so.
Perdue, meanwhile, said that Cross had only submitted three death reports to the state in January, adding that any death outside a hospital or hospice setting is required to be reported.
“I don’t have nothing in writing, but I hear a lot of complaints,” Perdue added.
Brown may have alluded to some of those complaints earlier in the debate, insinuating that there were law enforcement officers who are angry at Cross because he refused to order autopsies in suspected drug-related deaths.
The discussion ultimately revolved back to County Commission’s responsibility to act on the mayor’s recommendation. Russ, who is a paramedic with the Scott County Ambulance Service, said that as an employee of the county, he falls under the same ethical guidelines as does Cross as the county’s medical examiner.
Except for questions asked of Beaty by Strunk and Lyles, there was little discussion preceding the vote, aside from the discourse between Brown, Russ and Jeffers.