Wednesday, January 31, 2007

January 31, 2007 Knox County Commissioners Appoint New Officials

The Knox County Commission began the process of replacing term-limited officials this morning.

J.J. Jones was appointed to replace outgoing term-limited Sheriff Tim Hutchison.

Outgoing, term-limited Commissioner Bill Tindell was appointed County Clerk. Tindell abstained from voting for himself.

Updates from the News-Sentinel can be accessed throughout the morning (and maybe on into the afternoon!) at the above link.

January 31, 2007 Swift Justice in Memphis: Joe Cooper Pleads Guilty

Memphis politico Joe Cooper pled guilty yesterday to federal money laundering charges.

Cooper, an employee of a Cadillac dealership, accepted cash payments for Cadillac leases from drug dealers. The actual leases, however, were signed by other people.

The drug dealers provided cash payments to cover the leases to Cooper who then forwarded the money to the individual who had actually signed the lease agreement.

After yesterday's plea, Cooper's attorney indicated that Cooper will continue helping prosecutors in bribery and extortion cases against Memphis City Councilmen Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford involving payoffs of over $23,000.

Friday, January 26, 2007

January 26, 2007 John Ford Gets a Public Defender

Dapper former State Senator John Ford now has a court-appointed public defender to handle at least one of his cases.

A publicly funded attorney will defend Ford on charges of taking over $800,000 in consultant payments from TennCare contractors during the time he was in the State Senate.

He has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

The former senator from Memphis once made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year as a consultant and was known at the state capital for designer clothing and expensive Rolex watches.

Ford faces other charges as well---including bribery charges in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz sting operation that rocked the state capital in 2005 and led to the arrests of several sitting legislators.

Exposure of at least some of the sources of Ford's consulting income began years ago when Ford attempted to avoid paying child support to one of the women with whom he has a child.

At the child support hearing, Ford resisted providing income information. When he finally did, the press and others started to put two-and-two together about Ford's sources of consulting money from TennCare providers while he was serving on TennCare oversight committees in the State Senate.

Gradually things began to unravel. From child support to taking TennCare consultant payments while serving in the State Senate to the Tennessee Waltz, Ford has legal troubles everywhere he looks.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

January 24, 2007 Koch Foods & Sewer Odors

In a previous post, I reported that the City of Morristown issued an Administrative Order (No. 06-001) on December 20, 2006, in connection with interference with proper operation of the city sewer by the Koch Foods Debone plant.

The Administrative Order contained findings of fact. It also assessed civil penalties in the amount of $23,850 and ordered reimbursement of recovery costs of around $157,000.

Koch Foods appealed the findings on the civil penalties and recovery costs on January 8. The appeal will be heard by the full City Council, but apparently no date has been set.

On January 9, 2007, the City sent a letter to Koch with a Compliance Schedule demanding that certain samplings of TSS (solids) and FOG (fats, oils, and grease) be taken and recorded for 14 straight days beginning no later than January 22.

The City also requested that a comprehensive report and analysis of the samplings be provided no later than February 26, 2007, along with a plan of action that includes "...a timeframe, [and] details [of] all necessary process changes, eliminate bulk sludge and nuisance odors."

The letter goes on to state that until

Koch successfully, and continually, provides adequate pretreatment measures to eliminate bulk sludge and nuisance odors within the collection system, the City...shall...take protective measures to ensure continued compliance with the City's NPDES permit, as well as to minimize and/or eliminate nuisance odors....

The City adds that it reserves the right to recover additional costs that it incurs as a result of Koch's continued noncompliance with Compliance Order 05-002.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

January 18, 2007 Ethics in Hamblen County

The Hamblen County Commission is looking at a draft of an ethics policy that was prepared recently by County Attorney Rusty Cantwell and inserted in each commissioner's January 8 packet.

Cantwell has crafted a policy by using parts of the CTAS Model Ethics Policy with certain additions and changes.

Adopting a detailed and strict ethics policy is perhaps the single most important policy action that the county commission will undertake.

The true measure of any ethics policy, however, will lie in how it is interpreted by the county attorney or others, and how strictly, or if, ethics violations are actually addressed.

With such an important undertaking and with lots of other county information, the county website should have been used to post the entire policy where it could be accessed on home or public computers.

The county website is at

The ethics proposal is only 10 pages long, but I couldn't find it on the county website. I called the County Mayor's Office and was told it was not there.

It sure would be helpful if budget amendments, ethics policies, grant resolutions, minutes, and other information were put on the county website. I always thought putting county information in the public domain on the internet was one of the main reasons for setting up a county website.
In connection with the ethics proposal and the county attorney's presentation, I haven't seen a public comment from any commissioner, the county mayor, the county attorney, or anyone else--since the January 8 (noon) committee meeting.

[And if I have missed something in the newspaper with comments from any of the above about the ethics policy, I apologize in advance.]

I would very much like to know what each commissioner and others think about conflicts of interest and about the proposed ethics policy.

After all, the strictness of the new ethics policy will show just how committed Hamblen County officials, employees, and boards are to eliminating conflicts of interest (in votes and recommendations) and to providing an open and accountable government.

This is surely the time for an open and wide-ranging discussion among county commissioners, other officials, employees, and the public that "foots all the bills." In other cities and counties, there are numerous newspaper articles about conflicts of interest, letters to the editor, and wide-ranging ethics discussions in progress.

So far, however, the local ethics policy is under the radar. The proposal was presented for discussion at a "public" committee meeting that took place around 12:00 noon on a workday. How many members of the public can make it to noon meetings on a workday?

[NOTE: It's hard to understand (or is it?) why county officials schedule "public" committee meetings where the real discussion is supposed to take place at times when most of the "public" can't attend. If you are able to attend an 11:30 or 12:00 noon committee meeting, however, you can watch as commissioners, the county mayor, and other public officials and employees enjoy a "free" lunch.

Well, shucks, the lunch is not really free. The taxpayers pay for it, and the county officials turn around and schedule these public luncheon meetings at a time when the majority of the public (citizens, taxpayers, voters) can't get there.

More about these noon luncheon meetings on another day! I have opposed them from day one, but there are those who absolutely love to have public meetings when the working public can't make it!]


This is the time for a real, substantive, and public discussion about the new ethics policy.

I hope commissioners will express their opinions about the policy today at Commission's 5:00 PM meeting in the large 3rd floor courtroom. I hope the county attorney will be asked to explain the policy to the public today.

I would like to hear the reasoning and thoughts behind each commissioner's vote---and not just hear "aye" or "nay." What do they think about ethics? About the ethics policy? To what ethical standards do they hold?

Does the policy really address conflicts of interest or is it the same-old same-old where it's OK to vote even when family and financial ties are entwined with the votes of commissioners?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

January 16, 2007 Sen. Jerry Cooper Wants a Dismissal

State Sen. Jerry Cooper wants the conspiracy, mail fraud, and bank fraud case against him dismissed.

Cooper, who has been trying to get his case postponed until after the legislature adjourns, now wants the charges dismissed.

His attorney is seeking evidence that he claims may show prosecutorial misconduct and "coaching" of grand jury witnesses.

Part of the case against Cooper is based on a loan from former State Speaker of the Senate/Lt. Governor John Wilder's bank.

Recently, Cooper (D) made the news as he urged Wilder (D) to withdraw from the Senate Speaker/Lt. Governor race. Wilder, 85, refused.

Cooper voted for Wilder, but Wilder lost to Sen. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville).

Sunday, January 14, 2007

January 14, 2007 Tn Waltz Update: Another Conviction

A jury in Memphis convicted the former Shelby County Commission Chief Administrator of bribery on Friday.

Calvin Williams was convicted of soliciting a $1,500 bribe to influence the commission's approval of a $100,000 grant.

The Tennessee Waltz prosecutors now have 3 convictions, 5 guilty pleas, and several more big-name trials scheduled for current or former state senators--John Ford, Kathryn Bowers, Ward Crutchfield.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

January 13, 2007 Teacher Merit Pay Study Approved in Nville

Teachers in Nashville (MNEA) voted overwhelmingly (70% in favor) to participate in what is termed a "definitive" study of merit pay and bonuses for teachers.

Vanderbilt University has $10 million to fund the study and to provide merit pay for the approximately 300 participating teachers. See previous post.

The study is intended to determine through scientific and statistical analysis whether merit/incentive pay improves teaching and student outcomes as measured by test scores.

"Many people from a national standpoint are moving forward with the idea of incentive pay without understanding the impact on student learning," Matthew Springer, director of the center and a professor at Vanderbilt, said late last week.

Hopefully, the study will provide answers about the impact of incentive pay for teachers on student learning. Does merit pay have an effect? If so, what is the effect?

Friday, January 12, 2007

January 12, 2007 Tn Supreme Court Upholds Knox Term Limits

The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld term limits for Knox County officials.

[UPDATE: Running reports may be seen at R. Neal's blog. The ruling can be read here.]

The Court's ruling holds that term limits apply to all Knox County government officials except court clerks and school board members.

[UPDATE: The Sentinel reports that the Knox Law Director has clarified that the ruling also does not apply to judges.]

Term limits were overwhelmingly approved by Knox voters in a 1994 charter referendum. A State Attorney General's Opinion rendered shortly thereafter said that term limits were invalid.

As a result of the AG opinion, Knox County simply ignored the term limits provision of its charter for over 10 years and no one tested it in court.

The Tennessee Supreme Court said today that the charter provision is valid and effective.

Applying term limits will knock many longtime Knox officials out of office---the most prominent of which is Sheriff Tim Hutchison.

I am pleased with this decision. I support term limits.

Term limits may cause the loss of some good public officials. However, the loss of a few good officials to term limits is outweighed, in my opinion, by the fact that term limits reduce the accumulation of excessive power in a few hands.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Term limits help restrict the growth of power in the hands of public officials, and so help reduce the corruption that all too frequently accompanies the accumulation of political power.

The Tennessee Waltz is a perfect example of what happens to far too many longtime elected officials when they become too powerful and choose to sell their power and influence to the highest bidder.

January 12, 2007 It Stinks

There is a terrible odor that apparently comes and goes in the Roe Junction area of Hamblen County.

Several residents of that area complained at different times to the City of Morristown and even to the Hamblen County Commission about what some called a "dead animal" smell.

After months and months of back-and-forth communications and various attempts to resolve the odor problem, the City of Morristown conducted a hearing on December 11, 2006, and found per Administrative Order 06-001 that:

Koch Foods, LLC, Debone Plant has [from February 25, 2005 to November 30, 2006] discharged wastewater into the City's wastewater collection system which resulted in the creation of a layer of sludge in the ETPC (East Tennessee Progress Center) lift station wetwell. This created interference within the Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW), and an offensive odor within the collection system.

The City assessed a civil penalty $ 23,850.00
August 11, 2005-November 30, 2006
477 days @ $50/day

The City demanded recovery of treatment costs $180,668.74
Chemicals, contractors, labor & materials, etc.

On January 8, 2007, Koch Foods submitted a written notice of appeal of the City's "findings on the civil penalties and recovery costs."

Koch said that it had worked "diligently" with the City and the POTW [Treatment Works] to "alleviate any and all discharges that may have had a negative impact on the cities (sic) collection system."

Koch asks for a review of the findings through the appeals process with the City Council.

January 11, 2007 Tennessee AG "unsure" about Investigation of One-Vote Knox Referendum

New Tennessee State Attorney General Robert Cooper is "unsure" whether he has the authority to investigate the Knox County annexation referendum where a 19-year old was the only qualified voter.

After the young voter cast his vote in favor of annexation, his "house" was destroyed and he moved away.

A prior post provides more information.

The Knox County Commission asked the AG to investigate.

January 11, 2007 Tn Supreme Court Set To Rule on Knox Charter & Term Limits

The Tennessee Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on the Knox County Charter tomorrow afternoon.

A Knox County Chancellor ruled months ago that the entire Charter and term limits that were approved in a referendum in 1994 were invalid.

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments in September.

Now the long-awaited ruling will be released.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

January 11, 2007 Waltz Trials Are Postponed

Former State Senator John Ford (D-Memphis) got a two-month delay in his Tennessee Waltz bribery trial.

Other Waltzers have recently gotten their trials postponed as well: former State Senator Kathryn Bowers and current State Senator Ward Crutchfield.

Current State Senator Jerry Cooper's lawyer has also asked for a delay in Cooper's trial until after the current legislative session ends in April or May.

Cooper (D-Morrison) is charged with bank fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy in a borrowing scheme involving the 1999 sale of a lumber mill in Warren County, Tenn.

Cooper's problems also allegedly involve a loan from a bank where former Speaker of the Senate John Wilder serves as a director.

According to a motion filed by Cooper's attorney, state law, which is not binding in federal court, states that a defendant who is a member of the General Assembly is entitled to a continuance if the General Assembly is in session.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

January 10, 2007 Watch the "Tennessee Miracle Vote"

Speaker of the Senate/Lt. Governor Sen. Ron Ramsey (pictured).

The newspapers will have the official reports today.

Yesterday's post and previous posts have the story.

Now you can view the vote here.

Sen. Ron Ramsey (R) defeated Sen. John Wilder (D) for the position of Speaker of the Senate in Tennessee.

A Tennessean article includes some very kind and generous comments by Wilder about Sen. Rosalind Kurita's (D) vote for Ramsey (R).

Regardless of one's opinions on his continued service as Speaker/Lt. Gov., Wilder's offer of congratulations to Sen. Ramsey and his kind remarks about Sen. Kurita were first-class.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

January 9, 2007 A Tennessee Miracle! Wilder dethroned!

It happened! It really happened!

Some people are in shock. Other people think that they just witnessed a miracle.

Senator Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) defeated 85-year old John Wilder (D) for the position of Speaker of the Senate/Lt. Governor.

Many prior posts have discussed this race: here, here, and here.

In the end, it was a Democrat who gave Ramsey the boost he needed. Sen. Rosalind Kurita (D-Clarksville) cast her vote for Ramsey.

After Kurita's voted for Ramsey, Mike Williams' vote (R-Maynardville) for Ramsey didn't even matter. When Williams' vote was cast at the end of the alphabetical roll call, he knew that Ramsey already had the votes.

It was easy for Williams to re-join the Republican fold and vote for Ramsey at that point. In an earlier post today, I speculated that if Williams saw that Wilder didn't have the votes, then Williams might vote for Ramsey.

Wilder didn't have the votes (due to Kurita), and Williams voted for Ramsey.

The final tally was 18-15. Ramsey got all Republican votes (17) plus (1) from Democrat (Kurita).

Wilder got all the other Democrat votes (15). Indicted Sen. Jerry Cooper, who had given early indications that he would abstain from voting, voted for Wilder.

There are several reports out there now. The Tennessean. The City Paper.

I have watched Kurita over the past year---in the state senate and as an early candidate for the Democrat nomination for U. S. Senate (against Sen. Harold Ford, Jr.).

Kurita is a strong and smart person. She has common sense, and she's nobody's fool. I don't agree with her on everything, but I admire the fact that she generally doesn't waffle all over the place. She stands for something and speaks up.

This time she saw what all the men saw---that John Wilder's better days are behind him and that it was time for a change in the Senate. The difference with Kurita was that she had the, shall we say courage, to do something to make a change.

No more Speaker's prayers from John Wilder for those caught up in the corruption of the Tennessee Waltz.

January 9, 2007 Williams Hasn't Made Up His Mind

State Sen. Mike Williams (R-Maynardville) is talking about today's upcoming vote for Speaker of the Senate/Lt. Governor, but he's not saying much. The full story is here.

The vote for Speaker of the Senate/Lt. Governor is scheduled today.

85 year-old Senator John Wilder (D) is running against Senator Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville).

There are 17 Republicans and 16 Democrats in the Tennessee State Senate. That would normally mean that a Republican would be elected Speaker of the Senate/Lt. Governor.

However, Williams, a Republican, has refused to endorse Ramsey while Wilder has stated that he has Williams' vote.

Finally, Williams himself is talking. What he is saying, though, is that he hasn't made up his mind.

When Williams was asked about Wilder's claim to have Williams' vote, he said: "I appreciate other people speaking for me, but that's not the case.... I've said I'll do what's best for the state. Maybe somebody interpreted that as meaning I'll vote for him, but I have not committed."
To add to the uncertainty, there are questions about whether indicted Sen. Jerry Cooper can be counted on to vote for Wilder.

Rumors are circulating that Cooper will abstain from the vote. If Wilder doesn't have a Cooper vote, then Wilder needs at least two Republicans in order to get 17 votes today.

In 2005, Williams voted for Wilder. Wilder won and rewarded Williams with the Speaker pro tem position. If a Democrat (such as Jerry Cooper) abstains today, Williams may be a bit more hesitant to vote for Wilder, that is unless Williams knows that Wilder has at least one other Republican vote and will win.

Today, all state senators, Republican and Democrat, will speak for themselves---and that includes Mike Williams.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

January 7, 2007 Merit Pay for Teachers?

There is discussion in Metro Nashville about implementing merit pay for teachers.

Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives has $10 million to use in a study to determine whether money, merit pay in particular, works as an incentive for teachers.

[I have endorsed not only merit pay but also extra financial incentives for teachers who are certified in difficult-to-hire areas such as physics and calculus in a previous post.]

The Vandy plan is to use Nashville schools as the testing ground. Some research indicates that merit pay improves teacher performance and that the students then perform better as well.

Vanderbilt has selected 297 middle school teachers to participate in a 5-year study.

There has always been some opposition to merit pay among teachers.

Just a few months ago, the teachers' association (MNEA) in Nashville, in a vote that surprised many people, rejected a $400,000 donation that would have put up to $6,000 extra in the pockets of Inglewood and Alex Green elementary schoolteachers.

Association President Jamye Merritt has said that the money was rejected because of uncertainties about the gift and what was expected of the teachers.

According to the Tennessean, Merritt has also said: “People take money every day for things I would not do ... there are people that are paid to be assassins....Sometimes it’s just not worth the sacrifice you would have to make for the money.”

The MNEA was criticized by many individuals and parents for turning down that earlier money. Could the headlines have been: "Merritt says teachers reject Merit Pay"?

The MNEA may be on-board now with the new Vandy study which could resolve the issue of the effect of merit pay for teachers.

Union members (MNEA) will vote on the issue this week, and the results of the election will be announced sometime after Friday.

It is important that the Vandy study is undertaken. Merit pay has been bandied about for years with many differing opinions but few factual studies.

My support for merit pay is based on my opinion that it would end up benefitting the students. If merit pay is proven to work, it should be used.

We should also continue to look at other ways to improve educational outcomes--- year-round schools, longer school days, a greater focus on academic subjects, etc.

Friday, January 05, 2007

January 5, 2007 A Tale of Two Watches: John Ford & the $40,000 Rolex

Poor former State Senator John Ford. His problems just grow and grow.

Remember Ford's $40,000 Rolex watch?

At one point, Ford said he got it free of charge from wealthy Memphis developer Rusty Hyneman after he helped Hyneman avoid hefty fines in environmental battles with the state.

Ford's attorney, in court filings, is stating that Ford was just engaging in excessive bragging when Ford said he got the watch after saving Hyneman over $1 million dollars in fines.

Ford's lawyer states that Ford actually got the $40-$50,000 Rolex through a good old-fashioned watch swap.

Ford apparently swapped his $17,000 watch for Hyneman's $40,000 Rolex. Hint: Do not engage in watch swapping activities with former Sen. Ford!

And now there's a tape.

Federal authorities say they have a tape ---a tape where Ford says that the $40,000 Hyneman-to-Ford Rolex was a gift, the special kind of gift that a public official gets in return for doing a favor for someone.

January 5, 2007 Democrats Nominate Wilder as Senate Speaker/Lt. Gov.

Rumors and speculation about the possible end of the reign of 85 year-old John Wilder as Speaker of the Senate/Lieutenant Governor in Tennessee aren't fazing Wilder.

In a Democrat caucus yesterday, Wilder received the majority of votes from his fellow Democrats.

The vote was by secret ballot, so no one knows how many Democrats voted for the challenger Sen. Joe Haynes (D).

Wilder is well-known for his attack on federal law enforcement and vigorous prayerful defense of his Senate family when fellow Tennessee legislators were arrested during the Tennessee Waltz public corruption scandal of 2005.

A year-and-a-half after Wilder's prayerful entreaties, many members of Wilder's Senate family have been convicted. Others are still awaiting trial.

The most prominent of the indicted members of Wilder's Senate family is John Ford of Memphis, with whom Wilder served for around 30 years.

After the meeting, Wilder said he is confident that he has the 17 votes necessary to win when the vote of the full Senate is taken on January 9.

The current split in the Senate is 17 Republicans and 16 Democrats. Normally, that would mean that a Republican would be the Speaker of the Senate/Lt. Gov.

Wilder, however, has stated that he has the vote of at least one Republican (Sen. Mike Williams, R-Maynardville).

If all 16 Democrats vote for Wilder along with Republican Mike Williams, then Wilder has the 17 necessary votes.

Wilder's Democrat challenger Haynes, however, has stated that Wilder doesn't have all 16 Democrat votes. Haynes says that Sen. Jerry Cooper (D) will abstain rather than vote for Wilder.

If Cooper doesn't vote, Wilder would appear to have 15 Democrat votes along with the Williams (R) vote for a total of 16 votes.

The Republican Ron Ramsey would likely get the remaining 16 Republican votes.

Even with this possible 16-16 tie situation, Wilder "wins."

A deadlock means that Wilder keeps the position he currently holds until someone, Republican or Democrat, gets the magical 17 votes to make a change.

Wilder has hinted that he may have two Republican votes (Williams and ?). If he does, then he will be Speaker/Lt. Gov. outright even if the Democrat Cooper abstains.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

January 4, 2007 TN Supreme Court Grants Expedited Appeal of TSC Appointment

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to "reach down" and consider an appeal of Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle's ruling on selection of candidates to fill a Tennessee Supreme Court vacancy.

In granting an expedited appeal, the Court notes that the questions posed are of "unusual public importance" and should be resolved quickly.

The Court's order can be viewed here.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Feb. 1.

Following the action of the Supreme Court, the Judicial Selection Commission postponed its Jan. 24th meeting at which the Commission was to select a third Supreme Court candidate.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

January 2, 2007 Ethics Laws and Local Officials

Ethics laws that were passed in Tennessee at the beginning of 2006 will soon have their first major impact on local government officials.

The immediate impact on local officials is the requirement that officials file financial information on sources of income by January 31, 2007.

The form that must be completed to report financial interests of the official or of a spouse or child who lives in the same household is here.

When voting on a matter, an elected official must publicly disclose any personal financial interest that they have in the matter to be voted upon if that personal interest actually affects the person’s vote or if the personal interest would lead a reasonable person to believe it affects the person’s vote.

To read more about the CTAS Model Ethics Policy for local governments, click on my previous post.

A local ethics policy must be adopted by June 30, 2007. Adoption of such a policy will be one of the most important actions taken by the new county commission.

Hamblen County Commissioners have a golden opportunity to stand up and adopt a policy that has clear standards and high ethical requirements that address conflicts of interest and strive to remove even the appearance of impropriety in public votes.

Recently, County Commissioner Paul Lebel abstained from public discussion and did not vote on a zoning appeal where he had a professional and financial interest.

That same action should be taken by any commissioner when a measure is before the commission that confers or has the appearance of conferring a personal or family benefit to that commissioner.

Monday, January 01, 2007