Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 21, 2007 Sen. Cooper Turns Himself In

Sen. Jerry Cooper who left a reception for legislators and was then injured in a 1-car wreck on Feb. 7 has been charged with DUI.

Blood alcohol tests recently released showed a .18 reading. Cooper's blood alcohol level was twice Tennessee's intoxication standard of .08.

Cooper has been released and faces a May trial on this charge.

Cooper also faces land fraud charges in a separate trial that was postponed until June 4.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

March 15, 2007 State Holidays in Tennessee

The Tennessee Trivia Question posted on March 13 asked for the names of the legal holidays in Tennessee.

There are 11. Source: Tennessee Blue Book 2005-2006, p. 626.

One person got 9 of them.

Here are the eleven in chronological order:

1. New Year's Day
2. Martin Luther King Day
3. Presidents' Day
4. Good Friday
5. Memorial Day (also called Decoration Day)
6. Independence Day
7. Labor Day
8. Columbus Day
9. Veterans' Day
10. Thanksgiving Day
11. Christmas Day

March 14, 2007 Sen. Mike Williams (Ind.)

State Sen. Mike Williams, formerly R-Maynardville, is now I-Maynardville. Williams, who recently lost his position as Speaker pro tem, announced today that he is now an Independent.

The switch means that the Tennessee Senate-- which was composed of 17 Republicans and 16 Democrats-- is now 16-16-1.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

March 14, 2007 Robbing Peter To Pay Paul

Monday's committee meetings were fascinating. It's a real shame that Hamblen County commissioners don't tape and show committee meetings on the cable TV government/education channels.

$1.5 million was given to the school system for architects to do studies and draw plans as decisions are made about what to do at East and West High.

The vote was 12-1. Larry Baker cast the only "no" vote because of concern that the school board plans to tear down the historic old portion of East High. Guy Collins was absent.

Joe Swann made the motion to give the money. Later, a few people realized and reminded Joe that when you spend money, you do have to know where it's going to come from and you do have to include that information in your motion.

And just where is the money coming from? An "inter-fund loan." That's sort of government-speak for robbing Peter to pay Paul on a temporary basis. In this case, though, it's more like robbing Peter to pay Paul and then getting Pansy to pay it back.

Confused? Here goes: The plan is to get the $1.5 million for the schools (Paul) in the form of a "loan" from the Garbage Fund (Peter). Then the Debt Fund (Pansy) will pay off all this newly-acquired Garbage Fund "debt"--debt that wasn't ever really Garbage Fund debt anyway.

The Garbage Fund is just acting as a "middleman" or broker (no pun intended) to funnel the money out of the debt fund.

No one ever asked why the school board had been depleting its School Fund Balance year after year instead of planning for these costs. A few questions came up about maintenance because most people realize that the problems the school board is talking about didn't happen overnight and that millions will have to be spent to fix it all. No answers---just a statement that Maintenance is great.

Joe Swann did manage to rankle several feathers as he blamed the county commission for the problems at East High! Someone get out the coffee and give Joe and everybody else a big whiff.

It's the School Board that is charged with maintenance of the schools and that is responsible for the health and safety of the children.

This is the first time that the school board has come to commission with a request for money to address these problems.

Now I can hardly wait to hear that good fiscal planning has reduced the county's $40 million debt load over the past 7-8 years so that we are in a position to take on new debt without a tax increase!

Don't hold your breath on that one....

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

March 13, 2007 Tennessee Trivia Time

It's Tennessee Trivia Time.

How many legal holidays are observed in Tennessee?
And just for added fun, can you name them?

reply to

I'll post the answer here on the Ides of March. And that's NOT a state holiday.

Monday, March 12, 2007

March 12, 2007 Conflicts of Interest on State and Local Election Commissions

A recent News-Sentinel article discusses a proposed law to address conflicts of interest on Tennessee state and local election commissions.

There is information about past involvement by election commissioners in Hamilton and Knox counties who advocated and/or wrote letters of endorsement for a particular candidate while these same election commissioners were charged with the conduct of fair elections in their counties.

The Tom Humphrey article also reports that local state Rep. John Litz (D-Morristown) mentioned during hearings in Nashville that two election commissioners in Hamblen County have children who are public officials.

One of the sponsors of the legislation Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) thinks that the current proposal would: "... send a signal to commissioners that they need to appear impartial if they are going to be overseeing the integrity of the election process."

Other lawmakers oppose restrictions on election commissioners.

When asked whether he would support Dunn's bill, Gov. Phil Bredesen said he wasn't familiar with the bill's specifics but that "having election commissioners taking part in partisan elections is probably something that ought to be eliminated."


March 11, 2007 Hamblen County Government Website Has More Information Now

The Hamblen County government website has tomorrow's committee agendas available.

Commissioner Nancy Phillips and I pushed for the creation of a website shortly after taking office in 2002. Everyone supported this effort, and a basic website was created. However, it never has included a whole lot of information other than names and contact information of officials, various links, and sometimes RFP and bidding data.

Because the website hasn't been expanded and effectively utilized, I spoke before the Commission in January of this year (as a citizen) and asked that more information be posted including committee and commission agendas, committee and commission minutes, budget information, budget amendments, financial reports, etc.

It looks like several committee agendas (including tomorrow's) are available on the website now. To find tomorrow's agendas, go to the website, click on county commission, click on subcommittees, and then click on the Finance Committee or the Public Services Committee and you will be able to see tomorrow's agenda and the time of each committee meeting.

Unfortunately, only the January 2007 minutes of these committees have been posted.

I talked to County Clerk Linda Wilder about posting minutes of the full commission meetings a while back. At that time, she told me that she was still scanning the full commission minutes and that she hopes to post them soon.

When commission minutes are posted, commissioners, the county attorney, and citizens won't have to call or visit the Clerk's Office and thumb through books to find out about official actions and approvals taken at previous meetings. That will save time both for the people who are looking for information and for the people who are providing information.

A good website promotes government openness, transparency, and accountability---and it's easy to have an effective website if public information is posted on the website at the same time that the final document is created or shortly thereafter.

When information on meetings dates and agendas and minutes are posted on the website, it reduces the need for people to call for this information. When financial information and documents are posted and available on the web, it cuts down on records requests.

Hopefully, the next step in the process will be to get all committee minutes posted (going back to September 2006), all commission minutes posted, and to put the county budget, budget amendments, check listings that are approved each month, monthly operating reports, county and school system and M-H Hospital quarterly reports, contracts, county attorney billings, and lots of other government records on the website.

Posting records to the Hamblen County website should be routine. Internet and electronic access to public records is growing and is good for Tennessee government and for Tennessee citizens.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

March 10, 2007 Rumors of Change

I'm hearing lots of rumors from two or three different sources that a big announcement and perhaps even a job change in Hamblen County Government might be coming---maybe within the next month or more.

It could all change in the twinkle of an eye, but I'm hearing that an elected official just might have decided that the heat is too hot here. While he's been drawing a handsome salary from Hamblen County, he has apparently been out job hunting elsewhere.

If everything works out-- and there are probably still some details and timing to work out--you can bet that the move will be quick.

Of course, there will be an announcement that a "wonderful opportunity" has suddenly come available.

Of course, he'll say that he has been presented with a "real challenge."

Of course, he'll say that he hates to leave. Of course, he'll add that he just can't pass this up.

The departing statement will make it sound like he's had a tough time making a decision when really he's been working to get another job for a long time.

March 10, 2007 Conflicts of Interest: The Beat Goes On

Greg Johnson, Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist, shines the light on another conflict of interest in county government. The entire column is worth a read.

The story of conflicts, this time, starts in nearby Sevier County.

Due to the recent death of the longtime Sevier County Sheriff, the Sevier County Commission had to pick a replacement. They went through all the right motions. They set up a committee, held a public hearing, allowed public comment.

Sounds good, but actually there were three problems. Three commissioners work for the sheriff's department and get a sheriff's department paycheck each month along with, of course, their county commission paycheck. These three commissioners, one of whom chaired the committee that recommended the new Sheriff, all got to cast a vote for their new "boss."

Johnson says, tongue firmly planted in cheek, "Wonder how those three will come out the next time raises are awarded?" He could have added that job security for these three is also mighty high now unless they go out and murder somebody.

Sevier is just one of the most extreme examples of double paychecks and conflicts of interest in county and city governments across the state.

Eliminating conflicts of interest is extremely important---to me, it ranks right up there with accountability, fiscal responsibility, and open government. That's why I'm particularly glad to see that the light is now shining on these issues statewide.

Hamblen County has conflicts, but nothing will really change here until state action is taken to apply to all counties. The conflicted will never fix the problem.

According to Johnson, "While it seems to make perfect sense that the inmates shouldn't run the asylum, we're talking about county government here."

It took the Tennessee Waltz to force ethics reform and legislation. Widespread exposure of conflicts of interest may be the catalyst that gets something done in this area.

Commissioners across the state know about the problem. A Maury County Commissioner, Glen Hasse, has stepped up to push this issue at the state legislature. Commissioner Hasse, according to Maury County Mayor James Bailey, Jr., wants to get rid of the two-paycheck "conflicted" commissioners.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Tom DuBois, R-Columbia, are sponsoring the bills (HB 0433 and SB 0880) in the state legislature to bar county employees from serving on county commissions beginning in 2010.

Johnson's article is very timely and follows by just a couple of days my March 7 post "One County Paycheck is Enough" on this legislation.

As Johnson says, watch the conflicted do some fancy posturing in opposition to this bill and expect to hear them do a lot of "caterwauling."

Thursday, March 08, 2007

March 8, 2007 Conflicts of Interest & County Election Commissions

Conflicts of interest continue to be a hot topic in the Tennessee Legislature. See yesterday's post.

Addressing possible conflicts of interest on state and county election commissions is the subject of HB 1442.

Partisan participation by election commissioners in Hamilton County created a push for this new law. [Apparently some members of the local election commission took an active part in supporting specific candidates while at the same time serving on the election commission and directing the conduct of the election]

Rep. Gerald McCormick recently obtained a state attorney general's opinion that the proposal to prohibit certain partisan political activities by election commissioners would be constitutional.

Keep in mind that attorney general's opinions are not law. For example, a state AG's opinion back around 1995 said that Knox County's term limits were unconstitutional. When this opinion was tested in court in 2006, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that Knox County's term limits were constitutional and that they applied to county commissioners and constitutional officers (Register of Deeds, Trustee, County Clerk, & Sheriff) as well.

The present five-member Hamblen County Election Commission:

1. Dwaine Evans, Democrat, serves as Chairman of the Election Commission.
2. Gayle Bruce, Democrat, had a son (Ricky) running for County Commission in August 2006.
3. Randall Johnson, Democrat, actively promoted the election of Paul Lebel to the Hamblen County Commission in August 2006 and is the father of Morristown Mayor Gary Johnson who is running again in 2007.
4. Judy Swann Blackburn, Republican, had a brother (Joe Swann) running for the Hamblen County Commission in August 2006. (See UPDATE for correction)
5. Lyle Doty, Republican, is a former Hamblen County Commissioner.

UPDATE: Judy Blackburn is Judy "Helton" Blackburn. Judy Blackburn is Alice Helton Swann's sister. Alice Helton Swann is Commissioner Joe Swann's sister-in-law. Alice Swann (Judy Blackburn's sister) is the wife of Morristown Utility System manager Bill Swann. Bill Swann is Joe Swann's brother.

I received the above correction from Commissioner Joe Swann this afternoon. When there are so many connections in local political relationships, it's like a very tangled web of yarn. Sometimes it's hard to pull the right string.

I always try to get things straight, but I'm happy to run a correction when there's a mistake! Thank you, Joe, for pulling the correct string out of the pile for me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

March 7, 2007 One County Paycheck Is Enough


It's not a bird, it's not a plane, it's HB 0433.

*HB0433 by *DuBois, *McDaniel.
County Government- Disqualifies county employees from serving on county legislative body;
current members are exempted. Amends TCA Title 5, Chapter 5, Part 1.

SB0880 by *Ketron, *Black, *Burchett, *Crowe, *Johnson, *McNally, *Stanley, *Tracy, *Watson, *Woodson. This is the companion Senate version of the bill.

This commonsense legislation would prohibit county employees from being elected to the county commission.

Sounds very straight-forward. I support it. It will help get rid of at least one type of conflict of interest on county commissions.

Since there is an exemption for current members of a county legislative body, the bill, if passed, would not affect Hamblen County Commissioner Frank Parker.

Frank is a county employee (Director of Cherokee Park) and recently ran for and was elected to the Hamblen County Commission. Frank gets two paychecks from the county each month--a commissioner paycheck and a county employee paycheck.

In Knox County, several of the commissioners (both elected ones and recently appointed ones) get two paychecks from Knox County each month---a commissioner paycheck and an employee paycheck.

Some of the two-paycheck commissioners in Knox, Hamblen, Shelby, and other counties across the state abstain from voting on their own budget, salaries, and raises.

Others vote on the budget, salaries, and raises for their own departments ---right after they cross their fingers and announce publicly that, yes, they have a conflict of interest but that, no, the conflict won't affect their vote!

March 7, 2007 A Tough Ethics Policy

As a result of the Tennessee Waltz arrests in 2005, the state legislature now requires that each county adopt an ethics policy no later than June 30, 2007.

Hamblen County has been considering adoption of a new Ethics Policy for several months now, but few public comments have been made by Hamblen Commissioners.

At one meeting, there were one or two comments with Larry Baker asking the county attorney whether commissioners who work for Hamblen County or for Hamblen County Schools (or who have close relatives working for the county or school system) have to declare a conflict of interest before casting a vote on budgets or issues involving their or their family's employer?

Joe Swann mentioned that he's concerned that the Ethics Policy might be used "against" sitting commissioners by potential opponents.

Avoid conflicts of interest and any appearance of impropriety and you have nothing to worry about.

Government corruption, nepotism, and conflicts of interest are everywhere. It's not just Hamblen County. It's Memphis. Sumner County. Knox County. Williamson County. Claiborne County. The State Legislature.

People are sick of it. Many people have simply dropped out of the political process entirely because of a complete sense of hopelessness in the face of widespread favoritism, cronyism, and corruption.

Shelby County is looking at a very stringent policy that applies to a broad range of government officials and employees. The Memphis Commercial Appeal has a link to the Shelby policy. Sections 4-9 provide standards and an enforcement mechanism through an Ethics Committee.

Hamblen County should take a look at the Shelby County proposal.

The standards that are set in the Ethics Policy and the effectiveness and composition of the Ethics Committee are the key elements to whatever is adopted locally.

The Ethics Committee should be selected from a broad base of individuals and should include citizens with no connection to the government payroll---as was done in Knox County and as is proposed in the Shelby Ethics Policy.

The Ethics Committee does not need to be just another elite board of just commissioners and other elected officials---government types who naturally pander to the power structure to which they themselves belong.

Officials are naturally going to resist even looking at ethical violations by their fellow "good old boys and girls." An Ethics Committee doesn't need to be another board of government-types who rule over themselves.

The fox shouldn't be put in charge of the henhouse!

Monday, March 05, 2007

March 5, 2007 Want to Pay to Drive on Roads in TN?

Toll roads are being discussed at the state legislature in Tennessee. Toll roads would be built by private companies who would charge drivers for using them.

Rep. Philip Pinion (D-Union City) has offered legislation to permit toll roads.

Mr. Pinion is chair of the House Transportation Committee in Nashville. Mr. Pinion has a girlfriend-- Velma Jones. His girlfriend used to work for TDOT as chief of staff to Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely.

Last year, Jones resigned her position with TDOT and took a job representing a company that would like to build toll roads and make money off of Tennessee drivers.

Pictures of the happy "toll road" couple with Commissioner Nicely are here.

Conflict of interest? No! says Pinion. Pinion then does the standard attack bit as he uses the old "How dare you think that there could be a conflict here" bit. The reporter probably thinks there is a conflict because if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck, 99+ % of the time it is a duck!

This all ties with another report coming out of Channel 5 in Nashville about TDOT, this same lobbyist, and a hefty increase in no-bid contracts to the company she represents as mentioned in a previous post on March 2.

The state ethics law prohibits commissioners from lobbying their own agencies for one year after they leave the office.

Unfortunately, however, the current state ethics law still allows deputy commissioners and high-level employees to leave their government job and jump right in to lobbying former bosses and co-workers.

Friday, March 02, 2007

March 2, 2007 That Was The Week That Was

And what a week it was......

Joseph Lee, head of Memphis Light, Gas & Water, admits to a grand jury that MLG&W kept a "privileged customer" list (privileged customer=politician).

City Councilman Edmund Ford, who has already been indicted for bribery, was one of many on that list. Ford was protected from utility cut-off even when his delinquent bills totalled $16,000.

Joseph Lee recently offered to resign, but Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who appointed Lee, wouldn't hear of it. Herenton says it's a "witch hunt." Herenton blames everyone, except Lee, for the favored treatment of high and mighty Memphis politicians.

GOOD NEWS IN MEMPHIS. John Ford and Edmund Ford have just come into a sizable inheritance. Edmund Ford will probably rush down to MLG&W to pay his utility bill and then on over to the Cadillac dealership to pay his Escalade lease. Maybe his brother (former State Sen. John Ford) will take his share and pay for his own defense attorney.
Jerry Cooper. Due to a wreck in February that was accompanied by DUI and speeding charges, Sen. Jerry Cooper got a delay in his wire and bank fraud trial. Previously, the judge had denied Cooper's efforts to delay the trial.
Newly-appointed Knox Register of Deeds (ROD) Sherry Witt can't handle her job without the help of her former boss Steve Hall. Hall was term-limited as ROD, and Witt was appointed to replace him on Jan. 31. Now Witt has turned around and hired her ex-boss as an administrative assistant earning $69,000.

Term-limits or no term-limits, one way or another politicians are going to keep their government jobs! The Jan. 31 appointments were a farce--just musical chairs to shift the term-limited officials and their families to new and different positions.
Speaking of the musical chairs appointments, the N-S filed suit against the Knox Commission alleging violations of the Sunshine Law when commissioners "recessed" the Jan. 31 meeting several times, During the recesses, commissioners met outside the public view to discuss and deliberate toward the 12 appointments for the term-limited Knox County officials.

Knox Commissioners recently rejected the News-Sentinel's offer to drop the lawsuit if commissioners would admit to violations of the Sunshine Law and then re-do the appointments with public deliberation in a public meeting.

Now, the Commissioners have asked the News-Sentinel to hold off on the suit until the legislature considers changes to the Sunshine Law! Since it took the legislature months to even appoint a Sunshine-in-Government committee, the Knox Commissioners know that there won't be action any time soon from Nashville.

Just a cheap delaying tactic by another set of ethically-challenged officials.
Phil Williams is a great investigative reporter. He has an interesting report on who gets TDOT (Tennessee Dept. of Transportation) consulting jobs and how they get these jobs.

Gerald Nicely is head of TDOT and he alone gets to pick who gets TDOT consulting contracts. His former chief of staff resigned and went to work for CTE, a consulting firm doing business with the TDOT.

Nicely gave $2.7 million in state contracts to CTE in the first three years of the Bredesen administration. Then after CTE hired Nicely's chief of staff, the commissioner gave CTE more than $4.1 million in contracts in 9-months.

Nicely admits that there is the "potential" for abuse, but denies [of course] that there has been any abuse or favoritism.
Speaking of no-bid deals, a former Sumner County Sheriff was convicted of wire fraud in a scheme to give his brother a no-bid contract to build a maintenance garage. Just like in Knox, nobody can resist helping themselves---and their family and close friends---to tax dollars.