Sunday, April 27, 2008

April 27, 2008 A Request for More Openness and Taxpayer-Friendly Meeting Times

In an earlier post, I discussed the April 24 Hamblen County Commission Meeting.

I did not mention in the earlier post two suggestions that I made to the commission during the public comments portion of the meeting. In my remarks, I asked the Commissioners to consider (1) making budget data and documents for the upcoming budget process available online and (2) setting committee meetings at more "taxpayer-friendly" times.

The following is what I submitted for consideration:

1. I asked the commissioners to have budget data and documents for the upcoming 08-09 budget placed on the county's website.

The county has the capability to do this. The County Clerk has commission minutes on the county's website, and the Purchasing Department has bids and RFP's (Requests for Proposals) on the county's website. The technology is there.

With the county budget process for the 08-09 fiscal year (July 1, 2008-June 20, 2009) beginning in early May, this is the time to put the entire budget out there for the taxpayers. For those who come to budget meetings as well as for those who can not attend budget meetings, the budget documents should be accessible online.

This is an easy way to let interested citizens--who may or may not be able to attend all the budget meetings in person--see the details of where the money is coming from and where it is going.

2. Next, I asked that the commission move its committee meetings to the late afternoon. Committee meetings currently begin at 11:30 A.M. on the second Monday of each month. The purpose of moving the meetings to a much later time would be to set these meetings at a time that provides the greatest opportunity for interested citizens and taxpayers to attend.

Committee meetings are where the real discussion, if there is any, takes place. Committee meetings are a little more open to informal discussion and even letting a citizen speak up if he or she has an idea. Commission meetings are dominated by button-pushing.

The current commission which took office in September 2006 moved the starting time for committee meetings to 11:30 A.M.

When I inquired about this change, Commission Chair Stancil Ford told me that the committee times were moved to allow people to attend on their "lunch hour." I told Mr. Ford then, and I repeated on Thursday, that I don't think 11:30 A.M. meetings are for the convenience of working taxpayers or average citizens. Let's be honest. Mid-day meeting times exclude the average working citizen/taxpayer.

First of all, there really aren't that many working taxpayers who have a "lunch hour." And even if a taxpayer had a job with a "lunch hour," an 11:30 A.M. meeting would probably require at least 15 minutes travel to the Courthouse and 15 minutes back to work--and those times assume that the citizen/taxpayer works fairly close to the Courthouse.

Second, since the taxpayer would probably also want to use some of his "lunch hour" to eat lunch, he wouldn't have much time left for the committee meetings anyway.

Finally, surely commissioners realize that one's lunch break--no matter how long--would seldom coincide with the committee meeting times. In fact, only one committee has a "set" meeting time. That is the Finance Committee which begins at 11:30 A.M.

If you want to attend the Public Services Committee meeting, you still have to get there around 11:30 A.M. because Public Services has no set meeting time--it simply starts whenever the Finance Committee adjourns --and that could be 11:40 A.M. or 12:30 P.M.

In the spirit of serving the public, I hope that the commission will discuss moving committee meetings to the late afternoon hours that are convenient for most working taxpayers.

The previous commission had a policy of referring public comments issues to a committee for consideration and then either taking action or issuing a report of some kind. No commissioner said a word about either suggestion, so I don't know if these proposals will be discussed in May committee meetings during the working taxpayers' "lunch hour" or not.

Friday, April 25, 2008

April 25, 2008 Hamblen County Commission Meeting

Yesterday's meeting of the Hamblen County Commission was very routine.

Thirteen of the fourteen commissioners were present. Commissioner Frank Parker, the subject of a TBI investigation that is scheduled to be forwarded to the local grand jury in May, was absent.

Sheriff Esco Jarnagin addressed commissioners at the end of the meeting about employee turnover in his department and about the TBI investigation mentioned above.

During the regular meeting, there was actual discussion on one item before the vote was taken! The issue that prompted two commissioners to speak and four to vote "no" was whether to purchase some hand mowers and have a few low-risk inmates mow the courthouse lawn.

Commissioner Paul Lebel was first to speak. He was adamantly opposed to having inmates mow the courthouse lawn. Lebel said he was concerned that the inmates might meet their girlfriends or family members. Commissioner Joe Swann joined with Lebel and expressed concern over liability issues.

When the vote was taken, there were 9 in favor and 4 opposed to having inmates mow the courthouse lawn. Commissioners voting "yes" were Baker, Bruce, Collins, Ford, Harville, Phillips, Sexton, Spoone, and Wampler. Voting "no" were Fullington, Lebel, Massey, and Swann.

Currently, low-risk inmates are allowed out to work on the "can truck" picking up litter. Low-risk inmates are also allowed out to work for Central Services and other non-profit groups when requested and when proof of insurance is provided.

Commissioners apparently haven't raised liability issues over 4-5 low-risk inmates out in the community picking up litter. However, one or two low-risk inmates mowing the courthouse lawn causes concern.

During the discussion of this issue, Sheriff Jarnagin pointed out that while there are some violent criminals in the jail, the ones who would be allowed out to mow the courthouse lawn would not be rapists and murderers--instead, they would be the same low-risk inmates who work on the can truck or go to Central Services to help out occasionally. There is no guarantee that there will never be a problem, but do you treat the person who wrote a bad check like the rapist or murderer?

Sheriff Jarnagin spoke again at the end of the meeting on two other issues. He began his remarks by saying that at least one commissioner as well as some other people had been claiming that he had fired numerous employees (anywhere from 50-60) since taking office in September 2006.

Jarnagin acknowledged that there had been a large employment turnover, but he explained that some of the departures were the result of voluntary quits, one employee was arrested by the FBI, another was arrested by the TBI, there were discharges due to various types of misconduct, some employees would find that they could not handle the stress, and some employees were let go during the probationary period when the sheriff determined that the employee was not suited for employment in the jail or in other areas of the sheriff's office.

Jarnagin then said that he also wanted to answer a question that was raised but left unanswered at the last county commission meeting about a $750 charge to get a car out of the sheriff's impound lot. Jarnagin said he wanted to make it clear that the Sheriff's Office did not charge anyone $750 to get a car out of impound.

At the March meeting, Commission Chairman Stancil Ford had refused to discuss the $750 charge, saying that the matter of a $750 impound charge was under investigation. Later D.A. Berkeley Bell reported that the TBI had indeed investigated the matter and that the TBI would take the case--allegedly involving Commissioner Frank Parker and perhaps others-- to the grand jury next month.

Then--almost like clockwork--Commissioner Guy Collins moved to adjourn the meeting. OK?

Monday, April 21, 2008

April 21, 2008 Residents' Suit Against City of Morristown

After having provided the required 60-day notice of intent to sue, Roe Junction and Witt residents filed a lawsuit against the City of Morristown on March 27, 2008, regarding Koch Foods' continuing discharge into the city sewer system of wastewater that has been inadequately pretreated.

The first three pages of the suit, listing the resident plaintiffs and describing the "Nature of the Case," are shown above. You can enlarge each page by clicking on the image.

Other pages of the 24-page Complaint describe general allegations regarding Koch Foods' discharge of wastewater into the city's sewer system and the City's violation of the Clean Water Act and other standards.

The wastewater that has been inadequately pretreated is wastewater that has been "used for the cleanup of blood, chicken guts, and other offal" prior to its discharge into the sewer system. The City is alleged to have "failed to force Koch Foods to remediate the underlying problem."

Several claims are made in the suit such as (1) Violation of Pretreatment Standards; (2) Discharging without a Permit in Violation of the Clean Water Act; (3) Nuisance; (3) Trespass; and (5) Inverse Condemnation.

Residents of these two areas previously filed a lawsuit against Koch Foods over many of the same issues that are noted in the residents' suit against the City of Morristown. The problems are alleged to have begun around February 2005 when the deboning factory opened in the East Tennessee Progress Center.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

April 17, 2008 Eric Boyd: Guilty

I, like many other people, have followed with overwhelming sadness the horrific carjacking and brutal torture, rape, and murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom as reported in the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Yesterday, I happened to be handling civil cases in Knox County General Sessions court on the day that the jury verdict in the trial of Eric Boyd was announced.

Boyd was charged with two federal crimes--accessory to carjacking and failing to report a felony. Boyd was the first to be tried in connection with the Christian-Newsom case. The other four individuals--who face murder charges--will be tried in state court in 2009.

Before I went back to my office, I went into the federal courtroom to see and hear the jury verdict in person.

The federal courtroom is huge but with very little seating. Yesterday, one side of the courtroom was filled with the Christian and Newsom families and friends. The other side had a row of reporters and courthouse employees and others who came in just to hear the verdict. There were a number of law enforcement officials there as well---some of whom had participated in the investigation.

In the early afternoon, the Judge considered a question raised by the jury regarding a difference in the wording of the indictment and the statute under which Boyd charge. You can read the N-S story for a full explanation. The short version is this: the jury wanted to know if the indictment that used the word "and" or the statute that used the word "or" should guide their deliberations.
The Judge brought the jury in and advised that the indictment is just a charging instrument. He then read the statute.

They jury went back out for a short time and then returned with a guilty verdict.

News-Sentinel reporter Jamie Satterfield has provided extensive coverage of the trial of Boyd over the past 1-1/2 weeks. Her article on yesterday's verdict is online. There are also links to other information that can be pulled up.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

April 15, 2008 Income Tax Deadline!

Is income tax preparation painful?

Taxing Tennessee thinks so. Ben Cunningham has a cartoon on his website.

Friday, April 11, 2008

April 10, 2008 Is Crumley on the Way Out?

It looks like Morristown City Administrator Jim Crumley has been or soon will be given two options: Resign or be fired.

The rumor going around is that at least four city councilpersons have signed on to the ultimatum. It sure shows what a difference a year can make! It was not that long ago that the council was upset and totally devastated at the thought that Crumley might leave for an administrator job in another city.

There was wailing and gnashing of teeth. Cries of pay Crumley more, give Crumley more benefits, do whatever it takes to keep Crumley directing the city.

Now the reports are coming out on how Crumley has led the city into a financial disaster during the past several years. With Crumley about to depart, mismanagement, overspending, and the horrific accumulation of debt over the past several years are being exposed.

Crumley--now or in the very near future--will get the boot. The Mayor and City Council will use him as a convenient scapegoat for the overspending and debt that has marked the city's recent financial "management."

While Crumley will be blamed, the Mayor and City Council are just as culpable for the overspending and outrageous debt that plagues the city. Crumley can not and did not get the City into the current financial mess all by himself.

When city councilpersons do not ask questions, they are not doing their job for the taxpayers.

When city councilpersons blindly vote for more spending, they are not doing their job for the taxpayers.

When city councilpersons are oblivious and unaware of a pending financial disaster, they are not doing their job.

Crumley bears a great deal of responsibility for the city's financial debacle. But the Mayor and City Council sat there silently and let it happen!

Questions + Checks and balances + Responsibility= Accountability.

Let's hope that the council members now realize that no person, no city administrator, should be given free rein. Council members must PAY ATTENTION and ASK QUESTIONS.

Trust, yes. But always verify! No matter who is in charge.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

April 4, 2008 TBI Will Take Case Involving Commissioner Frank Parker to Grand Jury

The Tribune is reporting today that D.A. Berkeley Bell says that the TBI will take the case involving Commissioner Frank Parker and Constable Paul King to the Hamblen County grand jury in May.

[Check the story out quickly! The link to the article will only be good for a short period of time as the Tribune deactivates links after just a few days]

Two weeks ago, I reported that a commissioner was visibly upset at the March 20 Commission meeting when a gentleman walked forward to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting.

That commissioner was Frank Parker.

The gentleman Frank did not want to be allowed to speak was Albert Walker.

Now it is clear why Frank Parker was upset by the sight of Mr. Walker walking up to speak to the full County Commission.

Frank was upset because he apparently knew that Mr. Walker would be asking why he had had to pay $750.00 (to Frank) to get his car out of the sheriff's impound lot.

That's a good question. Why would anyone have to pay $750.00 to Frank Parker when, according to Sheriff Esco Jarnagin, there were NO impound charges due for Walker's car--zero, zip, nada!

Jarnagin apparently thinks that Walker is "credible" and points out that Walker has a receipt for the $750.00 "impound charge" he gave to Parker.

The TBI investigation is complete, and the findings will be presented to the grand jury in May.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

April 2, 2008 Witt-Roe Junction Residents Sue City of Morristown

After sending a 60-day notice of intent to sue, several residents of the Witt-Roe Junction area have filed a lawsuit naming the City of Morristown as Defendant in connection with sewer odors in the Witt-Roe Junction area.

These residents previously filed suit against Koch Foods claiming various damages due to persistent sewer odors.

If you sign up for PACER, you can view the court documents for a charge of .08/page. But if you can wait a few days, you can save your money. I'll post more specifics--including the suit--in the next few days.