Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 29, 2009 Gov. Bredesen Puts Tennessee State Budget Online. County Mayor David Purkey Refuses To Put Hamblen County Budget Online!

Governor Bredesen's proposed 2009-2010 Tennessee state budget is up and available for anyone to view as reported in Tom Humphrey's blog.

Don't hold your breath, however, waiting for Hamblen County's budget to be posted on the Hamblen County website!

Governor Bredesen believes that the taxpayers and citizens of Tennessee should be able to see the proposed budget that he presents to the legislature.

County Mayor David Purkey believes that the taxpayers and citizens of Hamblen County should not see the proposed budget that he presents to the Hamblen County Commission.

Why won't Purkey put the proposed budget on the Hamblen County website? Well, he apparently has several different reasons---just pick one.

On March 20, the Tribune reported that Mayor Purkey says he doesn't have the staff to post the budget online and to update changes in revenue estimates. And he is really worried about those constantly changing numbers: "I just don't think it's a good idea to post constantly changing numbers. It's confusing to the public." David, is it really better to keep the public in the dark than to simply explain the changes as they come up?

Governor Bredesen apparently thinks that legislators and the people can understand the difference between a proposed budget and a final budget.

Mayor Purkey apparently thinks that only commissioners can understand the difference between a proposed budget and a final budget---everyone else would be confused.

As for Purkey's lack of "staff" to post the proposed budget. That's pure garbage. He can and does post anything he wants to post.

What he's really afraid of is that there are people who would not be confused, who understand the county budget, and who would be able to ask penetrating questions if the budget were readily available.

In the Tribune (March 20) budget article, Purkey was very careful to omit his other publicly stated reason for not putting the budget online. Back on March 9 at the Public Services Committee meeting, Purkey's said that he doesn't want to put the budget online because he doesn't want "someone sitting in a law office somewhere" looking at the budget and finding mistakes.

Now what attorney is he afraid of? David, can you be more specific?

Is the County Mayor so afraid of "someone sitting in a law office somewhere" that he chooses to deny ALL citizens of Hamblen County the ability and convenience of being able to view the proposed county budget--that those taxpayers fund--on the county website.

These citizens pay the property taxes, the (temporary!) wheel tax, the sales taxes, the business taxes, and all the other taxes that fund the county and school budgets, but the County Mayor won't let them see the proposed budget!

These citizens pay the County Mayor's salary AND benefits AND retirement AND the hefty car allowance that the Mayor requested just over two years ago, but he doesn't think that these citizens should see the proposed budget as they watch the process of arriving at a final budget. Amazing.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

March 28, 2009 Commission Polled on One High School

According to a little birdie, a county official recently suggested to a Tribune reporter that he "poll" some or all county commissioners to see what their position is on one unified high school for Hamblen County.

I don't know if the poll of county commissioners is complete yet or if the results of the "one high school" poll will be reported to the public.

If the reporter does release the poll results, it will be interesting to see if he includes the identity of the official who suggested the poll and includes the position of that official on one high school.

Friday, March 20, 2009

March 20, 2009 Mayor Purkey Doesn't Want the County's Proposed Budget on the County Website

It's still Sunshine Week in Tennessee, but there's a cloud of darkness over the county budget process courtesy of Mayor David Purkey. [This post has been picked up by Taxing Tennessee, a blog standing up for TAXPAYERS everywhere]

Sunshine and Transparency in the Budget Process: Mayor David Purkey just doesn't get it.

Making the County's Proposed Budget Easily Available TO THE TAXPAYER: Mayor David Purkey won't do it.

Last month, I asked the county commission to place the proposed county budget on the Hamblen County website when the budget process begins in April. Commissioner Phillips had it put in committee for consideration on March 9.

I began pushing for this when I was on commission. As a commissioner, I had the budget documents in front of me, but the citizens and taxpayers couldn't see anything and had no way of getting the same budget information unless they wanted to make a trip to the Courthouse and pay the Mayor's office $20 or so to get copies.

When my proposal to make the proposed budget available online was considered in committee, Mayor Purkey threw out a number of (meaningless) objections and then his real objection.

Purkey said one reason he couldn't put the proposed county budget on the county website is that he doesn't have a full-time technology person.

Well, when there is a bid for county work, he somehow manages to have bid documents put on the county website. And he has somehow managed to get the county's personnel manual, travel policy, and vehicle policy on the website.

You get the drift. He can figure out a way to put what he wants on the county website. But putting the proposed county budget on the website for the taxpayers to see during budget deliberations? He can't handle that. No way.

At the end of the committee meeting, Purkey revealed his own petty and personal reason for not placing the proposed county budget on the county website. He said that he didn't want to put budget information online where "someone sitting in a law office" could pull up budget documents and point out discrepancies or errors.

And who is that someone in a law office that he is so afraid of? Well, though it's been 2-1/2 years since I left office, David apparently still quakes at the idea of scrutiny and questions. In fact, he is apparently so afraid of me being able to view the budget documents and ask questions that he has decided that he'll deny all county residents and taxpayers the ability to see the county's proposed budget.

Interestingly, the County Clerk, Linda Wilder, doesn't have a full-time technology person, but she has figured out how to put the lengthy minutes of county commission meetings onto the website every month.

But long-time Mayor David Purkey can't figure out how to get the county's proposed budget onto the website once-a-year!!

Ironically, Purkey said that he would be able to put the final budget on the county website. I guess a proposed budget is a lot harder to put on the county website than a final budget. LOL!

Sort of reminds you of the federal government and the bailout...we won't let you see what we're working on while we're working on it, but we'll certainly let you know when it's all done and over with and we're ready to send you--the taxpayer--the bill!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 18, 2009 Berkline Gets New President/CEO

Rob Burch, formerly with Simmons Bedding, has been named President/CEO of Berkline/Benchcraft.

Burch officially replaces Bill Wittenberg on March 30, 2009.

Berkline, a longtime leader in the furniture industry and a major employer in Morristown, has been struggling for many years.

With the severe economic downturn, Berkline's attempts to remain competitive and productive in the furniture arena will be more difficult than ever before.

While the latest news is about Berkline, Berkline is not alone. Other major local manufacturers--for example, Mahle and J-Tekt--have also laid employees off and cut work hours, affecting individuals and families throughout Hamblen County and beyond.

March 18, 2009 Sunshine Week Editorials

Some Sunshine Week Editorials Across Tennessee...

Knoxville News-Sentinel

The Memphis Commercial Appeal

The Jackson Sun

The Citizen-Tribune? Nothing yet.

Is support for Open Meetings by the local paper a thing of the past?

Is Mike Fishman's support for Open Records in 2004 a thing of the past?

*Thank you to Michael Silence for mentioning this post on his popular News-Sentinel blog.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 17, 2009 School Board "Invitation" To Commissioners Makes Tribune Headlines Just Hours Before the Meeting

As mentioned in a previous post, the School Board invited county commissioners, County Trustee Bill Brittain, and County Mayor David Purkey to meet last night with the Board at its 6:00 PM work session.

The Board wanted some "direction" from the commission about the proposed $80 Million school building program--or $140-$160 Million if you include interest that the Trustee has projected.

As I speculated in the March 15 post, the Tribune reported the March 11 invitation in a front-page article that ran yesterday, March 16, just hours before the meeting.

It was a very interesting work session. If you listen closely at these meetings, various comments hint at what is going on behind-the-scenes and what is yet to be revealed to the public--about the building program and other local projects.

Since this is Sunshine Week. I just have to add a plug for more SUNSHINE in local government. The School Board really should tape and let its work sessions and meetings be televised on the government-education cable channels.

The Board has cameras, all kinds of technology gadgets, and a very capable technology staff. What an "education" to let the cameras roll and put the taped meetings and work sessions of the Hamblen County Board of "Education" on the government-education cable channels.

More on the work session in future posts.

March 17, 2009 Sunshine Week and Open Meetings Act Lawsuits in Hamblen County: Then and Now

March 15-21 is Sunshine Week in Tennessee. Usually, the local newspaper carries a series of front-page articles during Sunshine Week about openness in government, noting the importance of Tennessee's Open Meetings and Open Records Acts in ensuring open and accountable government. [Update: Thanks to Michael Silence for steering readers to this post]

Newspapers have traditionally been major proponents of open government, and there are some newspapers today who still continue the proud tradition of the press as guardian and protector of the public's right to know when government meetings are taking place and right to access to public records.

In this area, the Knoxville News-Sentinel has continued the tradition of the press as guardian and protector of open government. To protect the public from backroom deals and secret meetings, the Sentinel filed an Open Meetings lawsuit in 2007 against the Knox County Commission. The lawsuit resulted in an important victory for open government not only for the News-Sentinel but also for the people of Knox County.

And one time many years ago, the local Citizen-Tribune took the lead in exposing and stopping violations of the Open Meetings Law by the Morristown Civil Service Board.

The Tribune, a part of Lakeway Publishers, filed an Open Meetings lawsuit against the Morristown Civil Service Board some 15+ years ago. The Tribune asked for an injunction against the Civil Service Board to prevent secret deliberations and future violations of the Act and the Tribune asked that costs be assessed against the Board.

The Tribune won that battle, but only because it was willing to file suit on behalf of the public and the press.

What happens when there are local violations today?

In December of 2008, the Hamblen County Ethics Committee violated the Open Meetings Act by not providing notice to the public of its December 15 meeting. [Yes, as many have people have mentioned to me, there is real irony in the Ethics Committee violating state law.]

On January 22, during the public comments portion of the meeting of the county commission, Ethics Chair Joe Swann, Ethics member Stancil Ford, Ethics attorney Rusty Cantwell, and the full commission were informed of the Open Meetings violation by the Ethics Committee and the Ethics Committee was asked to correct the violation.

A Tribune reporter was present. However, in the Tribune's coverage of the commission meeting, the alleged Open Meetings violation by the Ethics Committee was not mentioned nor were comments or responses from any Ethics Committee member reported.

With no concern, questions, or reporting by the press, the Ethics Committee just ignored and denied the violation. While I would hope that the Tribune is still as concerned about the Open Meetings Act as it was fifteen years ago when it filed its own Open Meetings lawsuit, that just doesn't appear to be the case today.

Stonewalling by the Ethics Committee left only one way to enforce the Open Meetings Act--a citizen lawsuit. The citizen lawsuit was filed on February 17, 2009, only after the Ethics Committee continued to refuse to admit and correct its violation.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Ethics Committee quit ignoring and denying its violation and held a re-do meeting on March 11.

At the Ethics Committee re-do meeting, Bill Brittain, a member of the Ethics Committee, recused himself from the vote regarding discipline of Frank Parker and Paul King after being questioned about a conflict of interest regarding Frank Parker.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fifteen years ago, the Morristown Civil Service Board violated the Open Meetings Act but did nothing about its violation until forced to do so as a result of an Open Meetings lawsuit filed by the Tribune.

In December 2008, the Hamblen County Ethics Committee violated the Open Meetings Act but did nothing about its violation until forced to do so as a result of an Open Meetings lawsuit filed by a citizen.

Some helpful links on Open Government in Tennessee: Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Tennessee Press Association.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15, 2009 School Board Wants Commission Chair Stancil Ford To Meet about High School Building Program

The Hamblen County School Board has invited County Commission Chair Stancil Ford to attend the board's work session on Monday, March 16, at 6:00 PM in Room 204 at the Central Office on E. Morris Boulevard. School Board Chairman Janice Haun wants Ford to provide the school board with some direction in regard to the high school building program.

It is my understanding that the letter of invitation went out on or around March 11 and was copied to all Commissioners, School Board Members, County Mayor David Purkey, and Trustee Bill Brittain.

As reported in a previous post, the Commission's Education Committee, which is composed of all commissioners, voted 10-3 on March 9 to reject the school board's proposal to purchase property near Wal-Mart and across from Walters State for a new East High School.

It looks like the School Board letter to Ford was not copied to the press, and I haven't seen any mention of the invitation in the main section of the paper. Of course, it could be down inside some other story or I might have just plain missed it.

If it hasn't been reported yet, maybe it will be in tomorrow's edition in the afternoon right before the meeting.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009 Ethics Committee Meets To Correct Violation of Open Meetings Act

The Hamblen County Ethics Committee met yesterday at 4:00 PM.

This time around, notice to the public was provided.

Chairman Joe Swann stated that the re-do meeting was in response to a recent lawsuit "challenging the adequacy of the notice provided to the public of its December 15, 2008, meeting."

He didn't state that he was put on notice of the violation of Tennessee's Open Meetings Act on January 22, but simply ignored the violation and did nothing until AFTER the lawsuit was filed on February 17. More on the lawsuit here.

Ethics Chair Joe Swann noted that this corrective meeting was to "re-visit" the December meeting concerning the county's disciplinary actions involving county employees Paul King and Frank Parker.

Joe outlined the procedure for yesterday's meeting by saying that (1) he was going to read the minutes of the December 15 meeting into the record, (2) open the meeting for public comment on the disciplinary actions involving Frank Parker and Paul King, (3) take further comments, if any, from the Committee, and (4) then he "would ask for a motion that we approve, affirm, and ratify by its entirety the actions taken at the prior committee meeting."

The Ethics Committee is composed of Chair Joe Swann, Stancil Ford, Bill Brittain, James Harrison, and Jack Cartwright. Bill Brittain was not at the December 15 meeting. Bill was at yesterday's meeting but recused himself from voting after I pointed out a conflict of interest on his part.

During public comments, I presented information and documents concerning the Parker and King situations. I asked the Committee to not only consider the Victim Albert Walker this time around but to recognize that their recommendation in regard to Paul King and Frank Parker will set a standard for ethical conduct of employees and will have a far-reaching impact on future ethics concerns.

Gwen Holden stated her concern for honesty in county employees and mentioned that this was not King's first criminal violation.

Not surprisingly, the Committee then took a vote and unanimously approved, affirmed, and ratified the same actions it had taken in December.


In its very first vote of consequence, the "Ethics" Committee set a very low standard for county employees.

The Ethics Committee decided to recommend and approve the transfer of county employees who lie and steal to other taxpayer-funded county jobs--with a pay reduction in the process.

Should the Ethics Committee be faced with future ethics violation, its endorsement on March 11 of continued employment for those who lie and steal in the course of their county employment will be the standard against which all other ethics violations are measured.

Prior to the vote, I asked Trustee Bill Brittain to recuse himself from any discussion or vote because of his inclusion as reference #2 on Frank's initial diversion request. I suggested that Brittain's recusal would remove any appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest on his part.

After being asked, Brittain did recuse himself, stating that he agreed that it would be "proper" for him to step aside. Brittain then added that he had supplied "a letter."

Mayor David Purkey, who was listed as reference #1 on court documents filed by Frank and Paul, had earlier asked that the record reflect that "neither was I asked nor would I have provided a reference in a court of law for either of these employees."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Frank and Paul from their supervisor.

Purkey would not provide a "reference" for either employee? Purkey provided the ultimate reference for Frank and Paul in continuing to provide a taxpayer-funded job for each of them. Purkey's reference may not have been in a court of law, but it was the "reference" that Frank and Paul were most concerned with.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March 10, 2009 County Commission Rejects Land Purchase for a New East High

The meeting was at the Health Department on Main Street. There was no set time--the notice just said that the Education Committee would meet "after" the called county commission meeting was over.

It started as a discussion about a 1.4 Million dollar land purchase for a new East High School.

It ended with 10 commissioners voting "no" and 3 commissioners voting "yes."

After the Education Committee vote was taken yesterday, the school board, Dr. Lynch, and Central Office administrators scooped up the powerpoint presentation and left the building.

Commissioner Joe Swann, chairman of the Education Committee, said to Director of Schools Dale Lynch, "You just heard the door slam on your building program."

Joe Swann, Tommy Massey, and Ricky Bruce voted "yes."

Voting "no" were Stancil Ford, Larry Baker, Guy Collins, Herbert Harville, Reece Sexton, Joe Spoone, Doyle Fullington, Paul Lebel, Dennis Alvis, and Dana Wampler. Commissioner Nancy Phillips was absent.

There were discussions about the price of the land, access roads, site preparation costs, increased traffic, safety concerns, renovations vs. new construction, and practice fields for sports.

Joe Spoone said he wanted to see the funding plan for the entire project before any property is purchased.

Well, when you look at the true costs for the entire project, you will see that the $80 Million estimate is just a fraction of the total taxpayer costs.

There is not $80 Million sitting around waiting to be spent on another school building program. The $80 Million has to be borrowed, and that means there are interest costs on top of the actual building costs.

Over a 20-year payout period, an $80 Million dollar building program would cost county taxpayers another $61 Million in interest for a total cost of $141 Million TAX Dollars (principal + interest).

Over a 25-year payout period, that same $80 Million dollar building program would cost county taxpayers another $80 Million in interest for a total cost of $160 Million TAX dollars (principal + interest). [These costs are from a county cost estimate]

Those are sobering figures that should make anyone pause ---but especially so in these uncertain and difficult economic times in Hamblen County and across the nation.

Another sobering figure is the debt still owed by the county (taxpayers) on the previous (1998) $35 Million dollar school building program and $5 Million capital improvement program. The re-payment schedule for that $40 Million debt was set up as interest only payments for the first 8 years or so, meaning that after making "minimum payments" for 8 years or so, the county still owed the same $40 Million that it had borrowed at the start.

Monday, March 09, 2009

March 9, 2009 Official Pow-Wow...the Rest of the Story

In a recent post, I mentioned the rumor going around that at least two elected officials had met with other elected and/or appointed officials to discuss public business in a meeting that neither the public nor the press knew about.

Today at county commission committee meetings, Commissioner Joe Swann admitted that he and Commissioner Ricky Bruce had met with Director of Schools Dale Lynch and others. Joe said it was an unannounced meeting to discuss and prepare the school board's answers to questions about the proposed purchase of land for a new East High.

Joe said he was sorry if he had upset the Tribune by not telling them about the meeting. He said that no votes were taken, and he claimed that the Sunshine Law was not violated because it was just an information-gathering meeting. Ricky said nothing.

Tribune writer Bobbie Young was at the meeting.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

March 7, 2009 After Lawsuit Is Filed, Ethics Committee Wants To Correct Its Violation of Tennessee Open Meetings Act

In a previous post, I reported that the Hamblen County Ethics Committee violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act (TOMA) by not providing notice to the "public" of its December 15, 2008, "public" meeting.

Commissioner Joe Swann, who is chairman of the Ethics Committee, Commissioner Stancil Ford, a member of the Ethics Committee, and Rusty Cantwell, attorney for the Ethics Committee, were put on notice of this violation during the public comments portion of the January 22 meeting of the Hamblen County Commission.

Fortunately, the TOMA provides a very simple way to fix such a violation--- just "re-do" the meeting with adequate notice to the public and then re-consider and fully deliberate again on the public business in a true public meeting. On January 22, the Ethics Committee was requested to re-do its December 15 meeting with proper notice to the public.

Unfortunately, the Ethics Committee chose to deny the violation and ignored the request to correct the situation. With the Ethics Committee stonewalling and refusing to remedy its violation, the only way left to enforce the Open Meetings Act was for a citizen to file suit against the violators.

After waiting weeks and weeks for the Ethics Committee to do the easy thing, the right thing, the "ethical" thing---call another meeting with proper notice to the public---Gwen Holden filed a citizen's suit against the Ethics Committee and its five members on February 17, 2009. I represent Ms. Holden.

After being served with Ms. Holden's lawsuit, the Ethics Committee rather suddenly decided that a "re-do" meeting sounded pretty good after all. The Ethics Committee "re-do" meeting to correct its violation of the Open Meetings Act is set for Wednesday, March 11, at 4:00 pm in the West Wing Conference Room in the basement of the new portion of the Courthouse.

The March 11 agenda includes review of the disciplinary actions taken by Mayor David Purkey against county employees Paul King and Frank Parker who were indicted for felony theft (Parker and King) and felony misconduct (Parker) in May 2008.

Government at its best. The Ethics Committee violates the law. Refuses to admit that it did anything wrong. Ignores a simple request to fix the violation with a "re-do" meeting. Then, after its bluff is called and a lawsuit is filed, suddenly the Ethics Committee thinks that a "re-do" sounds great after all!

It is ironic that a violation such as this would involve the Ethics Committee.

It is unfortunate that the Ethics Committee, faced with an obvious violation of the Open Meetings Act, got its back up and refused to admit the violation and simply correct it. This could have been taken care of right away--at no-cost to the taxpayers--if the Ethics Committee had said 'oops, we're sorry and we're going to fix this right now with a proper meeting with adequate public notice.'

Now, the Ethics Committee and its members will ask the taxpayers of Hamblen County to pay the legal fees that the Ethics Committee has incurred for a lawsuit that they caused by their refusal to correct their Open Meetings violation at the start.

The good news, however, is that Ethics Chairman Joe Swann and the other members of the Ethics Committee have seen the light ("Sunshine") and are now aware that you really can't have a "public" meeting without letting the public know about it.

Hopefully, other local governmental bodies will also be careful to make sure that the public is informed about their meetings.

The Open Meetings and Open Records Acts are Tennessee's Sunshine Laws and help protect and preserve the public's right to know what the government is doing. Visit the website of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

[3/8/09 Special thanks to Taxing Tennessee for mentioning and linking to this post! Click Taxing Tennessee to see the complete website.]