By David Tulis / Noogaradio 1240 AM 92.7 FM
The mayor of a small Tennessee town faces a fight for his seat Saturday after having spent nearly two years involved in a dispute with an elderly couple and demanding the right to search their house absent probable cause.
The case against Thomas and Carol Gaddy has received virtually no local media coverage and many people do not know about the conflict for what he calls an “inspection.” The civil prosecution of the elderly couple, who are restoring a 19th century house, has cost the city taxpayers at least $20,000.
Because the Gaddys would not voluntarily consent to a search, a chancery court jurist without city charter jurisdiction ordered them jailed for contempt. To avoid Judge Thomas Graham’s order, the Gaddys – he 71, she 69 – fled and are in hiding.
“There’s a lot of people that are upset about the Gaddys,” says mayoral candidate Jennifer Lockhart Greer, who seeks to unseat Mayor Dwain Land in an election Saturday. “People are concerned that they are an elderly couple. People are concerned that possibly they could be next – it could be their home next.”
Critics of the Gaddy case grumble that the couple’s renovated house is in much better condition than the ratty-looking mobile homes Mr. Land owns and rents as a cheap housing alternative serving the poorer sort of Dunlap resident. Mr. Land would not respond to a text message requesting an interview. But town residents said he rents out more than 100 trailers.
But Mr. Land is regarded highly among tenants, according to interviews Tuesday with four renters at two trailer parks, one on Chickasaw Lane next to the Walmart, the other on a hill behind the Taco Bell, both national chain stores facing the main drag through Dunlap, Rankin Avenue.
One tenant said he voted early in city elections, implying it was for the incumbent. Mr. Land faces two challengers in Saturday’s balloting: Rhonda Summers, 48, a single mother of two who works at Valley Plumbing, and Jennifer Lockhart Greer, 42, a divorced mother of one son and a government schoolteacher.
No tenant approached by a reporter refuses either to chat or invite him inside; none have anything evil to say about Mr. Land, or ask to go off the record to make a complaint.
“I’ve been here for four years,” says Bobby Raber, 55, a machinist on disability who lives in the trailer with wife and grandson. “Anything I need fixed they come and fix right off the bat. I don’t have no problems. He’s real reasonable with me on the rent. *** He’s really treated me decent. He’s a real good person. He believes in God, so he believes in helping others, too. I respect the man. I really do. Dwain worked with us big time as far as helping my wife and I. He’s really helped us big time.”
Another tenant, Renee Luper, lives for $400 a month at the Chickasaw Lane trailer park. She’s confined to a wheelchair, and lives with her husband, Wayne, a son, Michael, and a grandson.
“Dwain’s a good person to rent from. If we have any problems they take care of it right away. I’ve never had any occasion to get upset with Dwain Land at all. I really like Dwain.” Last winter, her heater went down, and the Lands had a man come and fix it immediately. When Mrs. Luper lost a leg in a car accident in 2006, Mr. Land stood at her door with a gift of food and paid an electric bill for her “just out of the blue,” she recalls. “He’s a good man.”
Another renter, George Melvin Farley, a grizzled 71 and a former farm nursery worker, is happy to live in a Land family trailer. “They do real good. Anything go wrong, they go ahead and get it done. You can’t beat that.”
“He’s a very good man,” says Carolyn Layman, who occupies a trailer with a male friend. “They’re very good landlords.”
Mr. Land paid more than $24,000 in property taxes in 2016 to the county on as many as 34 parcels. According to papers provided by deputy trustee Seth Lockart, two checks totaling $24,748 covered the 2016 tax claim. The Chickasaw Lane trailer park with 15 units is in the name of the mayor’s mother, Stella Faye, who received the property after it was probated in December 1971. Her son, the mayor, is joined in land ventures with a brother, Keith, and other family members.
Challenged for mayor job
The Gaddy case is front and center for mayoral candidate Greer.
“They can put themselves in those two people’s – in their shoes – and they fear that it could potentially be them next,” says Mrs. Greer, a former city commissioner. “A lot of people just don’t think it’s right. . . They’re angry. They’re very upset.”
Traditional signals of campaign strength seem to be on the side of Mr. Land. His campaign has afforded at least one billboard and supporters have tapped many large signs along roadways and in residents’ yards. The Dunlap News endorses him for a third term.
But sentiment against the Gaddy prosecution – the case largely ignored by the media – is widespread. It is aired, albeit guardedly, even by Mr. Land’s rivals. Mrs. Summers refuses to address the Gaddy case as a political matter without first consulting an attorney. Mrs. Greer, while expressing support for Mr. and Mrs. Gaddy, supplies herself with rhetorical padding that seems to give her a back door allowing her to later decide against her platform’s pro-Gaddy plank.
She describes the case as “a hush hush thing,” says she needs to research it, and concludes by saying the litigation should be abandoned. “It’s an abuse of power. I feel like it’s not a court case that should have been followed through with at all. . . I can’t see how [the case] is a valid argument.”
Constitutional rights are important, and those of the Gaddys have been abused.
“The cornerstone of our democracy is based on those constitutional – those private property rights covered under the constitution. And it’s important that government doesn’t overstep those bounds, because every time there’s a court case that sets precedent for the government to do it again and again and again. And that’ something we have to be very careful with as government officials.”
Mrs. Greer is unwilling to accuse Mr. Land personally, which seems to reflect the pall of uneasiness the Gaddy case has thrown over residents.
“A lot of people are hesitant to speak out politically in the area,” Mrs. Greer says, “and I really don’t understand that because I’m pretty vocal about politics. There’s some fear as well going around” as people fret over the Gaddy case. The fear “is underlying and it is there. *** There is a lot of it going around.”
She adds: “People are waiting or a change. And I hope I am the change they are waiting for.”