Friday, February 23, 2007

February 23, 2007 Councilman Edmund Ford: No Payments on Utility Bills

The Memphis Commercial Appeal is doing some more investigative reporting on Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford.

Ford has unpaid utility bills on his business of $16,000, but he has never had to worry about having the electricity at his business cut off.

Somehow Ford's "business" bill ended up in a special "residential" utility program that is intended to help low-income residents keep the utilities on at their houses.

And just how low-income is Ford? He makes over $30,000 as a Councilman. He also operates a business, a mortuary. He leases a $50,000 Cadillac Escalade. And event though he can't pay his bills, he gets loans from well-heeled friends who do a lot of business with the City.

Ford's utility bill at his business was "seriously delinquent" in Feb. 2006 according to a utility memo. The memo also states that Ford had made no payments on the utility bill at his business since Sept. 2004.

The investigation has now led to top management at Memphis Light Gas & Water with the head of the utility, Joe Lee, said to have been aware of the situation for at least a year.

Last year, Edmund Ford served as head of the Memphis City Council Committee that oversaw the MLG&W budget and spending.

Ford was indicted a few months ago on federal bribery charges.

February 23, 2007 Hamblen Commissioner Guy Collins Rushed to Hospital

Guy Collins, the longest-serving member of the Hamblen County Commission, was rushed to the hospital just before the regularly scheduled meeting of the Commission yesterday.

I arrived at the Courthouse at about 4:55 PM yesterday and saw an ambulance and other emergency vehicles right in front of the Courthouse doors on Second North.

When I started toward the doors, a gentleman told me that Guy Collins had been rushed out.

County Mayor David Purkey came in shortly after the 5:00 PM meeting started and reported to all that Guy had apparently had a heart attack and had been taken to the hospital.

Our prayers are with Guy and his family.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

February 21, 2007 Fords in Trouble in Memphis

Yes, the FORDS --brothers John and Edmund--are in trouble again in Memphis.

Former State Sen. John Ford's Rolex watch was the topic at a hearing Tuesday in Memphis. Federal prosecutors want to use the $40,000 watch to show that John is prone to taking gifts/bribes in return for political favors.

John Ford once claimed it was a "gift" from wealthy developer Rusty Hyneman. Later, his attorney said John had been bragging excessively and that Ford actually got the watch through a not-so-even-steven trade with Hyneman.

Whatever happened with the Rolex, Hyneman doesn't want to discuss it. At Tuesday's hearing, Hyneman repeatedly "took the Fifth" and refused to discuss the watch.

While John was at his hearing, his brother Edmund Ford, Memphis City Councilman, was also facing additional problems related to his conduct in office. In December 2006, Edmund Ford was indicted on federal bribery charges. Rusty Hyneman, the very same individual who gave, traded, or bribed brother John Ford with a Rolex watch, is also involved in some of the charges against Edmund Ford.

Now, federal prosecutors are looking into Edmund Ford's utility bills. It seems that Edmund doesn't pay his utility bills, but Memphis Light Gas and Water lets it slide. Edmund was chairman last year of the council committee that oversees the MLG&W budget and spending.

Carol Chumney, a member of the Memphis City Council, asked: "As the regulatory authority, we do have some responsibility....Are different people being treated differently at MLGW? That's something we need to know."

In other words, if everyone's bills (including Edmund Ford's) slide by, that's one thing. But if City Councilman Edmund Ford is getting special treatment, that's another.

There appears to be a lot going on that the Memphis City Council and the public need to know.

Same thing in Morristown and Hamblen County. The comparisons are coming. Clean-ups only begin when the cover-ups end.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

February 20, 2007 How Long Will Jerry Cooper's Trial Be Delayed?

The bank fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy trial of state Sen. Jerry Cooper will apparently be delayed as a result of injuries received by Cooper in a Feb. 7 one-car wreck.

The prosecutor is suggesting a 12-week delay. Cooper is asking for at least a 16-week delay.

The full story is in the Chattanoogan.

The doctor who treated Cooper after the wreck and who saw Cooper on a recent follow-up visit is quoted as saying, "Overall, the patient is still somewhat confused and requires around-the-clock narcotics for pain relief.”

It is good that Senator Cooper is on the road to recovery. I wish him well.

With the situation as it is, I wonder if Senator Cooper plans to attend meetings of the Tennessee Senate during the next 12+ weeks?

Will Sen. Cooper be ABLE to understand and cast votes on legislation in the Tennessee Senate over the next 12+ weeks---at the same claiming that he is NOT ABLE to understand, concentrate, and assist his attorney in preparing for trial?

There seems to be a disconnect here.

UPDATE: The News-Sentinel is now reporting that Cooper has been charged with DUI and speeding in connection with the Feb. 7 wreck. The blood alcohol test results have not been released.

Friday, February 16, 2007

February 16, 2007 That Was the Week That Was

The week that was...

It looks like Sen. Jerry Cooper may get his bank fraud and mail fraud and conspiracy trial delayed after all.

Knox Countians continue to fume over the nepotism, deal-making, and private backroom discussions during the appointment/anointment of friends and family to government jobs in Knox County. See the N-S article here.

Embezzlement allegations have been reported involving two employees of the bookstore at WSCC. The problems apparently go back as far as 5-6 years.

More later on TWTWTW.

For the younger crowd TWTWTW stands for a TV show from ancient times called That Was The Week That Was. TWTWTW was an "older" version of today's Jon Stewart's Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

February 13, 2007 Cawoods, Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

More on nepotism and family ties in an interesting News-Sentinel article yesterday.

It looks like the husband and wife tag team of Mark and Sharon Cawood will collect over $90,000 from Knox County for their three county jobs (and more if you include Mark's Knox County pension).

Mark Cawood was a term-limited county commissioner. On January 31, Mark's fellow commissioners quickly appointed his wife Sharon to replace him.

Sharon already had a full-time Knox county job as deputy supervising clerk in Knox Juvenile Court ($42,000 salary + $3,900 allowance) when she was appointed to the Commission. (Her husband had helped her get the deputy clerk job just two months ago).

After the family tag team switch in the county commissioner job, Sharon now gets the $19,000+ commissioner's salary along with her deputy clerk salary of $42,000 and the $3,900 allowance.

Worried about Mark? Don't be. Mark was quickly hired by the Sheriff's Department in a court security officer's position ($25,000).

Does Sharon (or did Mark before her) see a conflict in voting on funding and budgets for departments where they work? Sharon: "I don't see a conflict."

Do people who are not in the "government club" see a conflict? A lot of experts and "non-government club" taxpayers see the conflict. Sharon, though, thinks she can forget the family ties and the family paychecks when she votes for the budget of her boss (Cathy Quist) and her husband's boss (Sheriff J. J. Jones).

And Sharon may be a terrific worker, a "godsend" according to her boss Cathy Quist. But how will it look a few months from now when her "other" job as a county commissioner puts Sharon in the position of voting for the budget that her boss Cathy Quist recommends to the Knox County Commission?

How will it look a few months from now when her job as a county commissioner puts Sharon in the position of voting for the budget that her husband's boss Sheriff J. J. Jones recommends to the Knox County Commission?

Are people really supposed to believe that there won't be any effect and that there is no pressure at all on Sharon when her boss's budget or the budget of her husband's boss is up for a vote? Somebody bring the coffee! Sharon needs to take a whiff!

Nepotism? Good old boys and girls taking care of one another and their family? The article quotes Dr. Michael Gant, U-T political science professor, who says, "The reason we have anti-nepotism regulations is so people won't have to be put in those positions."

Unfortunately, most anti-nepotism regulations in Knox County and many other counties only say that commissioners have to declare publicly that they have a real or apparent conflict of interest, but then they can go ahead and vote anyway.

Making a declaration of a conflict before voting doesn't get rid of the voting conflict.

Too many government ethics policies have anti-nepotism suggestions but no anti-nepotism rules or regs or enforcement.

And Hamblen County is just maybe one degree removed from Knox on the nepotism scale.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

February 11, 2007 Nepotism? In Hamblen County?

Several recent posts on this blog as well as links to other bloggers and articles in the News-Sentinel have criticized the blatant nepotism, appointing family members to public jobs, by the Knox County Commission at its Jan. 31 meeting.

Is nepotism unique to Knox County? No. There is rampant nepotism, hiring family members, in Hamblen County Government as well. And the smell is just the same as in Knox County. The only difference is that a lot of people in Hamblen County have gotten used to the odor of nepotism here, and the people who benefit---and there are plenty---sure aren't going to complain.

Most officials try to keep Hamblen County nepotism "under-the-radar." It's sort of a Courthouse secret or practical joke on the taxpayers. And there are people who benefit or who have friends who benefit from local nepotism. They try to excuse all the family hirings because we're a "small" county or community.

Well, we are not a small county. We ranked 20th in population out of 95 counties in 2000. We have about 60,000+ residents. Qualified, non-family members are available IF that's the kind of open and fair hiring process that officials want.

Trustee Bill Brittain made a statement to me years ago about county government--well before I was elected to the Commission in 2002. I have never forgotten his words. He said that each elected official has his or her own little "kingdom."

What I found out later is not only are there kingdoms, but the elected official who is the king or queen grabs every opportunity to build his/her kingdom and increase his/her extended family's income by hiring family or swapping out family hirings with other officials. You hire my family, I'll hire yours.

Blatant nepotism, where available jobs are not posted or where there is a pretend posting but the family member who will fill the position has already been selected, is just one of the many reasons people are turned off by government and don't even bother to show up at election time.

Nepotism, self-serving deals, and family hirings make a lot of people wonder if officials really run for office to serve and to vote in the best interest of the taxpayers or whether these people run for office just so they get to set up a kingdom and promote their and their families' personal financial interests.

When kingdoms are in place, too often you end up with corruption, taxpayer-funded family hirings, and taxpayer-funded deals and no-bid contracts.

There is a lot of lip-service about avoiding favoritism in hiring, but nobody really wants to get rid of sweetheart deals and family hirings. The party in control of the kingdom now is happy, and the party that is out of office is just waiting until it eventually grabs control of a kingdom and gets to be a kingpin disguised as a public servant.

February 11, 2007 Comments at Public Meetings

In a previous post about politicians who want to eliminate or limit comments from the public at public meetings, I mentioned a recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion.

For those interested in the entire opinion, it can be found here.

Politicians across the state and many right here in Morristown and Hamblen County would like to stop public discussion and debate.

When the public is left out, you get backroom deals and blatant nepotism as officials put themselves and their families above the good of the citizens and taxpayers.

February 10, 2007 Public Records Ombudsman in TN?

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen is discussing setting up a public records "ombudsman" to work out of the Comptroller's Office to help resolve public records issues for citizens.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government [TCOG] has been pushing for over 3 years to improve Tennessee's open records and open meetings laws.

[I support groups that encourage open government, and I am a member of TCOG.]

The full AP article is posted on the website of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG).

Difficulty in getting public records often occurs at the local level. TCOG did a statewide public records survey in 2004 and found that citizens who requested public records at the local level were denied those records about 1/3 of the time.

Currently, if a citizen is denied a record that he thinks is public, there are only two options: (1) give up (government loves that) or (2) file a lawsuit (often expensive and time-consuming).

Now the Governor is talking about a third option--an ombudsman that citizens can contact when public document issues come up.

I hope that "government officials" groups, such as the Tennessee County Commissioners Assn., the Tennessee County Mayors Assn., and others will not oppose efforts to open up government.

[The 2/8/07 article states that Doug Goddard with the Tennessee County Commissioners Association was not available for comment.]

While on the Hamblen County Commission, I met and spoke to Doug Goddard several times. I think that Mr. Goddard himself believes in open government. I hope that the Tennessee County Commissioners Association that he leads also believes in open government and recognizes that there should be a way to resolve public records requests short of a lawsuit that costs the county and the citizen.

I'll be watching and contacting my legislators soon (Rep. John Litz and Sen. Steve Southerland in support of ways to make government transparent and open.

With the goal of making local government more open and transparent, I asked the Hamblen County Commission at its January meeting to consider posting government information (e.g. minutes of all meetings, budget data and amendments, quarterly line item financial reports, monthly check listings, property records, etc) on the Hamblen County Government website.

The information is there. The technology is there. The only thing lacking at this point is government willingness to open up!

Friday, February 09, 2007

February 9, 2007 Knox Conflicts--Great Article

There's a great article by Greg Johnson in today's N-S about the shenanigans, double dipping, and triple dipping in Knox County government.

I'll post later on similarities between Knox and Hamblen conflicts of interest.

UPDATE: Joe Powell has a really good post on Ethics & Government.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

February 8, 2007 Sen. Cooper Critically Injured in 1-Car Wreck

State Sen. Jerry Cooper was taken to Vanderbilt Hospital in critical condition last night after a one-car wreck just east of Nashville.

Cooper is currently facing conspiracy, mail fraud, and bank fraud charges with trial scheduled for March 5.

This morning his condition was upgraded to stable.

February 8, 2007 Bloggers Are Watching Closely

What has been termed a Tennessee "Anti-blogger" bill has risen like the Phoenix from the ashes.

Middle Tennessee blogger Bill Hobbs has a post on a second anti-blogger bill that was recently put in the legislative hopper by Rep. Rob Briley (D).

Briley accidentally introduced (last week) and withdrew (this past Monday) his first anti-blogging bill.

It sure didn't take Briley very long to fix up and file a new and improved(?) bill.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

February 7, 2007 Politicos Want To Stifle TN Bloggers

Blount and Hamblen County officials aren't the only politicians who won't to stop public comments.

Some Tennessee legislators accidentally took aim at bloggers recently. To his credit, however, as soon as the accidental filing of an anti-blogger bill in Nashville was exposed, the sponsoring legislator explained that it was all a mistake.

Bill Hobbs, a blogger in middle Tennessee, was one of the first to report that Rep. Rob Briley (D-Nashville) had filed a bill in the General Assembly directed at bloggers and comments posted by blog readers. Hobbs had been alerted to the bill by Donna Locke.

Word spread through the blogosphere, and Briley promptly called up Hobbs and apologized saying it was all a mistake--or more like two or three mistakes. (1) Briley apparently read the bill and then accidentally put it in the "to file" pile. (2) Briley signed the cover of the bill. (3) Then a staffer filed it with other legislation.

When pressed last week about why he would sponsor this bill, Briley said that he had filed the bill at the request of Sen. Jamie Woodson (R-Knox). He quickly added that he would be withdrawing the bill on Monday, February 5.

Woodson was contacted about the bill by blogger Terry Frank and Woodson said that she had been asked to push for this bill by a law student.

Bloggers aren't perfect--and neither are newspapers, radio stations, or TV outlets. Bloggers, however, are able to provide an inside look and different perspectives about how government works or should work.

Especially in small towns (like Morristown) where there is one newspaper (like Morristown) and where one or more radio stations share ownership with the one newspaper (like Morristown), other sources of information are important.

Nobody has to like blogs. Nobody has to read blogs. But they're there to provide additional sources of information.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

February 6, 2007 Spaced Out

Somebody is spaced out or tumbled into a black hole...

February 6, 2007 Knox N-S Sues Knox County Commission

Two things you don't want to watch being made: sausage and laws.

Now there's a third: Appointments by Knox County Commission to fill the offices of term-limited officials.

I haven't commented much up until now because I wanted to wait until some of the air cleared.

Well, it looks like the air may never clear!

Conflicts, cronyism, and GOB/GOG (good ole boys/good ole girls) deal-making were at their worst throughout the whole debacle.

A former drug-dealing son was appointed to replace mom (Diane Jordan).

One term-limited commissioner (Billy Tindell) was appointed by his colleagues to replace the County Clerk.

Another term-limited commissioner (Mark Cawood) voted for the new Sheriff (J.J. Jones) and, surprise, now this ex-commissioner is working for the new Sheriff.

And just for good measure, this ex-commissioner's wife (Sharon Cawood) was appointed to take his old commission seat. [The Knox Sheriff's Department has a strong hold on several commissioners as well as commissioners' wives, husbands, and other relatives.]

And the new Sheriff (J.J.Jones)? He immediately hired his old boss ex-Sheriff Tim Hutchison to stay on as chief deputy.

The News-Sentinel has filed suit to clear the air about the process and to try and bring some Sunshine in.

Monday, February 05, 2007

February 5, 2007 County Mayor Uses "V" Word

Politicians hate accountability. That's why if you ask a question or make a public comment that they don't like, they just start throwing around the "V" word. VENDETTA.

Locally, that word has been directed at me and at anybody else who asks questions, who likes open government, and who suggests financial changes to save money and to promote fiscal responsibility.

The Mayor of Blount County recently used the "V" word to attack two citizens groups for having the audacity to speak at public meetings and express concern about how Blount County has been operating.

It's all political S.O.P. When they want your vote, they'll eagerly listen to your concerns and even your criticism. When the election is over, suddenly there is zero tolerance for public discussion and the open expression of differing opinions.

Locally, County Commission Chair Stancil Ford interrupted an individual who had gotten up to speak during the public comments portion of the January 18 commission meeting.

Mr. Ford evidently feared that the mere mention of a commissioner's name meant that criticism of a commissioner, or of the County Mayor, or of the Mayor's staff was coming, so he let it be known that that kind of speech wouldn't be allowed.

Mr. Ford might want to think again about telling citizens that they cannot speak about public business or about public officials. Just what is he going to do if a citizen goes ahead and speaks about public business?

Tell the sheriff to arrest him or her? And when you go to this link about First Amendment rights in public meetings, don't think that the decision by the Judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals means that they approve of cursing. There is a difference in approving of what someone says versus acknowledging that they have a First Amendment right to say it.

Well, if the Hamblen County Commission finds that it really can't control public comments and only allow praise of the government, then it will probably just eliminate the public comments portion of the actual commission meetings.

As soon as the August election was over, I had heard that there were already behind-the-scenes discussions among commissioners about eliminating the public comment portion of commission meetings. There were even discussions about stopping the taping and televising of commission meetings.

This commission---even more so than the previous commission on which I served--has members who can't stand openness, televising meetings, and public input. They are just itching to stop pesky taxpayers from talking and meddling in public business.

Of course, it might be a teeny bit uncomfortable for them to flat-out ban citizens and taxpayers from speaking about public business at public meetings, so watch for a political end-run.

The new commission will likely decide soon to allow citizen comments BUT the comments will only be permitted before or after the actual meeting or only at committee meetings. No comments will be allowed after the regular monthly commission meeting has started when a quorum of commissioners would actually be present to listen.

I truly hope that this doesn't happen, but I'm afraid it's coming. The process of shutting the public out began just as soon as the new commission took office and moved "public" committee meetings to 11:30 am.

Having committee meetings at a time when most working people can't be there sends a clear message that the presence of the public and public comments are not wanted.

That same message---no public comments wanted---will be even louder and clearer if the new commission eliminates or relegates the public comments portion of regular commission meetings to a time outside (before or after) the actual meeting.

Friday, February 02, 2007

February 2, 2007 A Question About the Vanderbilt Teacher Merit Pay Study

A previous post mentioned a Vanderbilt teacher merit pay study that will use a number of Metro-Nashville schools as a testing ground to answer the question-- if teachers are rewarded with extra "merit" pay for increasing test scores, will student test scores increase?

A comment was sent to let me know that "Nashville schools, as a whole, are in horrible condition" and "if the teachers don't have decent classrooms, what does it matter how or what they teach?"

What is missing in this comment on the proposed study of merit pay is an understanding of how a valid study would and should be conducted.

This commenter seems to imply that you shouldn't and can't really study merit pay for teachers until after classroom and other needs are up to whatever standard this person thinks is OK or "decent."

While it is obvious that you could study merit pay in an environment where every building is first-class and everybody has a computer, it is also obvious that merit pay can be studied in less than ideal situations as well.

First-class buildings are not a requirement before you can begin a study of merit pay. A computer for every student is not a requirement before you can begin a study of merit pay.

In fact, a study of merit pay would probably never take place if researchers had to wait until a school system had just the "right" kind of buildings or just the "right number" of computers or just the "right" anything else.

Technology and adequate buildings are important. A good curriculum, good discipline, and high academic standards are important. Parental support is important. But none of these factors have to be above average or excellent before the researchers at Vanderbilt can begin a study of the effect of merit pay.

Vanderbilt is in Nashville. The researchers should be well aware of the physical and other conditions--below average, average, or above average--at each Nashville school that they will study. A study of merit pay can occur in a small school or a large school, in a plain building or a fancy one, and in a classroom that has one computer or ten.

A thorough, well-designed, scientific study by Vanderbilt researchers should provide an answer about the effect, if any, of teacher merit pay on student test scores.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

February 1, 2007 Judge Says "No" to State Sen. Cooper

A federal judge has denied State Senator Jerry Cooper's request that his trial be delayed until after the General Assembly adjourns.

In a memorandum, Federal Judge Curtis Collier stated, "So long as the charges remain, a cloud of doubt will hover over defendant's head and will breed distrust not only of defendant but of the entire state legislature."

In other court filings, Cooper is seeking to have the charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, and bank fraud dismissed, contending that law enforcement authorities coached grand jury witnesses.

His attorney has requested government evidence that he believes may be grounds for dismissing the charges due to prosecutorial misconduct.