Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ethics Panel Votes to Dismiss Charges Against Chism

Conflict-of-interest case brought against county commissioner by colleague Roland rejected on 2-1 vote.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 11:56 PM

Principals Faughnan, Roland, and Wilkins Thursday morning as the Chism hearing got under way.
  • JB
  • Principals Faughnan, Roland, and Wilkins Thursday morning as the Chism hearing got under way.

On Thursday, some nine months after Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland initiated ethics-violation charges against colleague Sidney Chism, in the middle of a battle over the county budget, a three-member panel of the county Ethics Commission delivered a verdict of sorts.

By a vote of 2-1, the panel dismissed the charges, which essentially were that Chism had violated both county and state ethics strictures governing conflicts of interest by voting for appropriations benefiting the Horn Lake Road Day Care Center, owned by Chism and his wife, by failing to disclose his interest in the center, and by gaining direct benefit from the funding.

Chism himself was not present at the hearing, which lasted all day and included some dramatic one-on-one confrontations and vigorous interrogations by the two participating attorneys, Ricky Wilkins for Chism and Brian Faughnan, a special attorney operating on behalf of Roland and, formally, for county government.

At issue were several votes participated in by Chism since the Commission’s adoption of a revised ethics code in 2009. Some of the votes involved direct allocation of Head Start pass-through monies destined for the Horn Lake and other day-care centers, and other votes involved Chism’s joining other commissioners in voting for annual budgets that included such wraparound funding for nutritional and medical services.

In the end, Judge James Allen, the panel chairman, and former Probate Judge Donn Southern voted for dismissal, indicating their belief (1)that Chism and his wife had not received direct benefits from the wraparound funding; and (2).that state law — which posits a wider definition of conflict-of-interest, including indirect benefit as well as direct — did not apply to the case at hand. A third panelist, layperson Susan Moresi, voted to sustain the charges.

The bottom line is that, while documents, transcripts, and other evidence pertaining to the case will be passed on to the full 12-member commission, the panel’s vote for dismissal makes that action more or less pro forma. The charges are dismissed.

Among the witnesses heard from were Roland; Dottie Jones, the county’s community development officer; John Lovelace, executive director of Shelby County Head Start, who was not present but whose deposition was offered in evidence; and County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a colleague of both Chism and Roland.

Commissioner Sidney Chism
  • JB
  • Commissioner Sidney Chism
The thrust of what Jones and Lovelace had to say was that the wraparound funds conferred no direct benefit on the Chisms, that they went directly to children in the form of services, and that they could not be construed as giving the Chisms an unfair advantage over other day-care centers, inasmuch as it wasn’t parents but Head Start itself that made assignments of children to this or that center.

By contrast, Roland and Faughnan argued that the case was about, in the attorney’s words, “personal responsibility” and whether public officials could be “held to the highest ethical standards or not.” At the very least, Faugnan said, Chism should have made disclosures of his involvement with the day center before casting his votes on the wraparound funding.

Wilkins said that Chism and his wife had no financial interest in the outcome of the funding votes, “never had and never will,” that “not one dime” had accrued to either of them as profit, and that the burden of proof was on the county (i.e., special counsel Faughnan) to prove otherwise.

Faughnan did his best, as did Roland, who testified that he had no malice against Chism, whom he considered a friend, but that he had been informed via an anonymous letter about his colleague’s connections to the Horn Lake day center and considered it his duty to issue the ethics challenge. He professed to have no faith in what he’d been told by Jones (essentially the same as she told the panel on Thursday) denyng any direct profiting on the Chisms’ part.

Roland accused Jones of “lying” either to him or to Harvey Kennedy, chief aide to County Mayor Mark Luttrell, to whom, according to Roland, she’d given a different, less generous, interpretation of Chism’s actions.

The decisive testimony on Thursday may have been that of Mulroy, who offered strong testimony to the effect that commissioners, in the debate on developing a new ethics code in 2009,had been overwhelmingly against including language like that in existing state codes that proscribed “indirect” benefits to public officials.

Asked if he thought Roland’s charges had been “political” in motivation, Mulroy professed not to be able to divine his colleague’s mind but cited a lengthy list of legal or quasi-legal charges made by Roland over the years against fellow commissioners, usually in the course of debating political differences.

Whether political, legal, or some mixture of the two motives, Roland’s charges against fellow commissioner Chism are done with now, though it is hard to imagine that the disputatious spirit behind them — or a determination to wreak reform, as Roland himself sees it — will be subsiding anytime soon


UPDATE: Apropos the matter of Roland’s determination to persist and whether or not his charges against Chrism are “done with,” Roland on Friday released the text of a letter (see following) to assistant county attorney Damon Griffin asking advice on how to renew his legal challenge:


Damon,

Please provide me with the procedure to appeal the Shelby County Ethic’s [sic] Commission ruling up to the State Ethic’s Commission. I would also like to have a copy of the transcript from yesterday’s Ethic’s [sic] Hearing – especially Commissioner Mulroy’s testimony.

Please be advised that it “appears” the Shelby County Ethic’s Ordinance does not comply with State Law. IF Commissioner Steve Mulroy’s opinion/testimony yesterday is correct then what exactly are the ramifications for Shelby County Government to be in violation of State Ethic’s Law?

Thank you.

Terry Roland

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How Did Our Guys in Congress React to the SOTU?

Here are three responses to President Obama's address.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 at 11:17 PM

Cohen, Alexander, Corker
  • Cohen, Alexander, Corker


Following are three reactions to President Obama’s State of the Union address from three members of Congress representing the Memphis area.

To some extent, their partisan identifications and ideological leanings dictate the tone of their responses, but there are other factors, as well.


9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, Democrat: “There was a lot in President Obama’s State of the Union tonight that should make Memphians feel good. While the recovery from the Great Recession has not included all that it should have, the President tonight outlined his vision for building ladders of opportunity so that every American who works hard and plays by the rules has a fair shot to succeed. Whether it’s job training programs, college affordability, access to high-quality affordable health coverage, housing and retirement security, or a lifeline for the unemployed, that’s what we need in Memphis.”


“I agree with the President that the minimum wage must be raised so families can earn a living wage and make ends meet. Though with the stroke of a pen he is able to raise it for federal contractors, I will continue working in Congress until the minimum wage is raised for all hardworking Americans. We must also work together to provide economic opportunity and create jobs by passing comprehensive immigration reform and a transportation bill that strengthens our nation’s infrastructure. Improved infrastructure means better access to Memphis, more jobs for our city, and a competitive edge for the Mid-South. I’m going to join the President in Nashville on Thursday, and I look forward to continuing working with him to grow our economy, strengthen the middle class, and give every American a chance to get ahead.”



U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican: “I would have preferred to hear the president give a real answer to income inequality, and the first real answer is to liberate the free enterprise system from Obama regulations so it can create more good new jobs. The second real answer is to give parents more freedom to choose a better school for their child, and today I introduced legislation to do just that by allowing $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million low-income children to the schools they attend.


“Each state would make the decision about how much school choice to allow, but these scholarships for kids would redirect up to $24 billion in existing federal school funding that right now is often diverted to wealthier schools. 'Scholarships for Kids' would only benefit children from families that fit the federal definition of poverty, which is about one-fifth of all schoolchildren.

“Allowing federal dollars to follow students has been a successful strategy in American higher education for 70 years, and my proposal would allow the same opportunity to attend a better K-12 school that we have allowed in higher education. ‘Scholarships for Kids’ is the most ambitious proposal ever to use federal dollars to expand school choice. If the president wants to address inequality in America, he should do so by helping all children have the same starting line.”



U.S. Senator Bob Corker, Republican: “I go to these events each year out of respect for the office of president, and certainly for the people that I represent, but I’ve come to see these things as they are. I’ve heard a Republican president for the first two years and now a Democratic president. These end up being sort of poll-tested talks that really have nothing much to do with what may or may not happen.

“What I really pay attention to is what someone does, not what they say. I hope over the course of the next year we’ll have the opportunity as a nation to fully address the fiscal issues that are so important to us [and] the trade issues that are so important to us. We’ve got an opportunity now with a little bit of a reprieve economically to really do the serious bread and butter things that our nation needs to do.”


NOTE: As originally posted, a quote made by another member of Congress was inadvertently attributed to Senator Corker. His actual response has been substituted for the incorrect one.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rotary "Big Club" Conference Meeting Here This Week

Veteran broadcaster Dick Enberg, author Rebecca Skloot among the highlighted speakers at event drawing national attendees.

Posted By on Tue, Jan 28, 2014 at 10:07 AM

Keynoter Dick Enberg (second from right) at Memphis Rotary Clubs Sunday night kickoff of this weeks big club national conference at The Peabody. Here with (l to r) Rotary program chairman Pierre Landaiche, club president Berje Yacoubian, and Gay Landaiche.
  • JB
  • Keynoter Dick Enberg (second from right) at Memphis Rotary Club's Sunday night kickoff of this week's "big club" national conference at The Peabody. Here with (l to r) Rotary program chairman Pierre Landaiche, club president Berje Yacoubian, and Gay Landaiche.

The Memphis Rotary Club is playing host this week to a "big club" conference of fellow
Rotary clubs from throughout the nation. Representatives of major urban areas, north, south, east, and west were on hand beginning Sunday night, with a keynote address by sports broadcasting legend Dick Enberg.

Enberg, whose career of 50-plus years has allowed him to cover major sporting events of various kinds — football, baseball, tennis, what-have-you — for several national networks, regaled the Rotarians with first-hand anecdotes about such legendary figures as Ted Williams, John McEnroe, and John Wooden, citing the renowned late UCLA basketball mentor in particular as a role model in line with the official Rotary slogan of "Service above Self."

The conference which has involved excursions by visiting Rotarians to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Beale Street, and other local landmarks, as well as an in-depth look at the local club's "Stop Hunger Now" project in action, also includes a Tuesday luncheon in The Peabody's Continental Ballroom.

Scheduled speaker for the luncheon was Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, concerning the life and death of the woman whose preserved cancer cells continue to loom large in medical experimentation.

The conference will formally end with a breakfast at The Peabody on Wednesday morning.

A Mayoral Donnybrook?

The list of Democrats hoping to challenge GOP incumbent Luttrell grows: Malone, Harvey, Whalum, etc. Is Mulroy next?

Posted By on Tue, Jan 28, 2014 at 9:09 AM

Maoral Hopefuls (l to r) Deidre Malone, James Harvey, Kenneth Whalum Jr., Steve Mulroy
  • Mayoral Hopefuls (l to r) Deidre Malone, James Harvey, Kenneth Whalum Jr., Steve Mulroy

As the filing date of February 20 for countywide offices approaches, it begins to appear that the Democratic primary for Shelby County Mayor, among other offices, could be a highly competitive affair,

Some name politicians are among those who have drawn petitions to compete in the May 6 Democratic primary for the right to oppose incumbent Republican mayor Mark Luttrell. Former Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone has long had her hat in the ring. But she has been joined of late by such petition-pullers as County Commission chairman James Harvey and former (and possibly future) Shelby County Schools board member Kenneth Whalum Jr.

Not to be too coy about it, a line-up of such prominent African-American Democrats increases prospects for an entry by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, especially inasmuch as Mulroy has himself received private commitments of support from significant black political figures.

The term-limited Democratic commissioner, a law professor at the University of Memphis, has focused of late on applying for open federal and state judgeships but has long considered the possibility of running for county mayor.

Another spirited race is developing in new Commission District 9 between incumbent Commissioner Justin Ford and three Democrats with public names of their own — former School Board member Patrice Robinson, current Memphis Education Association president Keith Williams, and veteran educator and frequent candidate James O. Catchings.

The new Commission format of 13 single districts will undoubtedly result in a series of highly contested races, on both the Democratic and the Republican sides of the ledger. Watch this space. -

Friday, January 24, 2014

Loskarn, Former Alexander Chief of Staff, Dead — an Apparent Suicide

Aide was arrested in December on child pornography charges; had also served U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 24, 2014 at 1:42 PM

Alexander_with_Loskarn.jpg
  • Loskarn (right) with Sen. Alexander before his arrest

Ryan Loskarn, the former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) who was arrested in December for on federal charges of possession and distribution of child pornography, has been found dead, an apparent suicide, at the Maryland home of his parents, where he had been confined since his arrest.

Alexander, who fired Loskarn upon getting news of his arrest in December, responded to his former aide’s death with this statement: "For everyone involved, this is a sad and tragic story from beginning to end,"

Here’s the official announcement of Loskarn’s death, from unidentified law-enforcement sources, in an Associated Press account:

"At approximately 12pm yesterday, Carroll County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to a private residence in the 6400 block of Kenmar Lane for a report of an unconscious male, believed to be deceased," the Carroll County, Md. sheriff’s office said in a statement on Friday. "Family members reported finding 35 year old Jesse Ryan Loskarn unresponsive in his basement where he’d been residing with family since this past December. The preliminary investigation indicates that Loskarn may have taken his own life, and his body has since been transported to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for Autopsy. The investigation continues…"

Loskarn had been a rising star in the D.C. firmament, having served in staff roles of increasing prominence for the last decade. He had worked in the offices of various Republican members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-7th, TN), whom he served as press secretary from 2003 to 2007.

In this role, he had been a frequent contact person for the Flyer and other local and state news media.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Is State Government the New Bully Boy?

Posted By on Thu, Jan 23, 2014 at 9:49 AM

Tennessee_State_Capitol_new.jpg
This week’s Flyer editorial views with alarm the continuing enfeeblement of local governments as power is centralized more and more in Nashville.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Pressure Mounts on Election Officials as Local Probe by FBI Begins

Election Administrator Holden, .now set for Bureau session in early February, and six of his employees are on interview list, SCEC chair Meyers confirms.

Posted By on Mon, Jan 20, 2014 at 8:16 PM

SCEC chairman Robert Meyers
  • SCEC chairman Robert Meyers
The now ongoing FBI’s investigation of the Shelby County Election Administrator’s office, first reported as imminent by the Flyer in December, is moving — in the often-used bureaucratic phrase — “with all deliberate speed.”

So far one employee of the Election Administrator’s office has been interviewed by the FBI, but five more designated on the Bureau’s ask list have not been, nor has the Administrator himself, Richard Holden. Earlier reports had suggested that Holden would be interviewed this week, but Robert Meyers, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission, said he had been informed that Holden’s interview had been rescheduled for some time in early February.

Meyers confirmed that, besides Holden himself, the FBI had designated six employees for interviews — “two in voter registration, three in the election officials department, and one trainer.” The chairman — one of three Republicans on the five-member Commission, which also includes two Democrats — declined, on grounds of “fairness,” to identify the names of the six employees involved, or to indicate the category of the employee already interviewed.

He said, however, that both the list of persons to be interviewed and what he knew of the FBI’s normal interests in election processes would suggest that the purpose of the Bureau’s investigation was to look into possible denials of individuals’ voting rights.

Meyers said he didn’t know whether the impetus for the investigation had come from specific voters or from other persons who have raised questions about the local election process. Numerous election glitches have occurred in recent years, though both Holden and Meyers have insisted that none of importance had occurred in 2013, which saw a series of elections held in Shelby County.

A recent news report had suggested, however, that the Election Commission’s website contains non-matching lists of candidates seeking office this year. The Commission insists there is only one list.

In any case, several problems had vexed local elections in the years immediately prior to 2013.

The election of August 2010, which resulted in a Republican sweep of countywide offices on the ballot, despite the fact that Democrats held a presumed edge in voter registration, generated litigation from several of the losing Democrats. One motivating factor in the complaint was an election-day glitch in which an estimated 5400 voters were incorrectly listed as having already early-voted.

Though apparently only a few hundred people intending to vote in that election were directly affected, and most of those (according to Commission spokespersons) had a chance to vote later in the day, a mood of distrust arose which survived both the fact that margins between winners and losers were far larger than the number of possible errors and that then Chancellor Arnold Goldin would summarily dismiss the legal complaint.

Subsequently several observers, including veteran pollster Berje Yacoubian, raised questions about the accuracy and methodology of an ongoing voter-list purge. And the local elections of August 2012 were characterized by a faulty redistricting process that resulted in several thousand wrong ballots being issued — a fact which a state investigation directly attributed to procrastination and mishandling of the process by the Administrator’s office.

Most recently, a county audit report released in August identified dozens of voter applications that had not been processed during the previous year. The audit designated 19 questionable circumstances, seven of which, including the Election Commission’s cash receipt process and record-keeping, were considered to be high-risk.

In December, more or less simultaneous with the first reports of FBI interest, the Shelby County Commission approved a resolution of No Confidence in Administrator Holden by a bipartisan 9-0 vote. A Memphis City Council committee followed suit, and the full Council was expected to vote accordingly this week.

Neither resolution is binding, and Meyers and other members of the Election Commission’s Republican majority have seemingly rallied around Holden, but the political and P.R. consequences of the two votes, the FBI investigation, and negative publicity are self-evident and mounting.

Haslam, Ramsey State Positions on Meth, Medicaid, Vouchers, Guns, and More

Governor expresses caution on "Tennessee Plan," favors limits on vouchers; Lt. Governor would expand vouchers, disputes Attorney General's authority to mitigate guns-in-parking lots, would halt local options on guns but resist "Constitutional Carry."

Posted By on Mon, Jan 20, 2014 at 10:52 AM

Haslam  at last weeks press conference
  • JB
  • Haslam at last week's press conference

NASHVILLE — As the Tennessee General Assembly ended its first week of the newly convened 2014 session last Thursday, Governor Bill Haslam called a press conference to announce a proposal for strengthening controls on sale of pseudoephedrine so as to control the spread of methamphetamine production in Tennessee.

Haslam would later answer questions about other statewide issues, some of which Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, the speaker of the state Senate, would also address later on in Ramsey’s weekly post-session meeting with reporters.

At his press conference, the governor announced a plan would restrict an individual’s purchase of pseudoephedrine, a widely used decongestant cold remedy, but one also utilized as a key ingredient by illegal meth producers, to 2.4 grams each month. Pharmacists would be allowed, on their own judgment, to dispense another 2.4 grams. Beyond those amounts, totaling a 20-day supply for normal medicinal use, purchasers would require a doctor’s prescription.

Doug Varney, Commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said some 650,000 Tennesseans are buying illegal meth each, and Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, made a point of noting that the “scourge” of meth abuse, which began in East Tennessee, had mushroomed enormously in West Tennessee, particularly in Memphis.
Following the press conference, Haslam fielded reporters’ questions on other topics, especially on (1) the likelihood, increasingly remote-looking, of the state’s receiving a federal waiver for additional Medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act, and on (2) the governor’s plans for a voucher program, allowing the use of public education funding in private schools.

Medicaid/TennCare expansion: While in Memphis the week before for the ceremonial grand opening of the Electrolux plant on Presidents’ Island, Haslam had been asked what prospects for the federal government’s granting a waiver on the basis of the governor’s proposal of what he calls “the Tennessee Plan,” which would route federal funds through private-sector administrators.

In Memphis, Haslam had said he had just engaged in fresh conversations with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and that an early visit to Tennessee from representatives of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was expected.

Asked the status of that, Haslam answered,

“That was Secretary Sebelius’ suggestion when she and I talked on the p hone. She said, ‘Let me figure out a time for our folks to get there.’ I think she’s working on that. In the meantime, we’re continuing, [director] Darin Gordon and the TennCare folks are continuing now with discussions with CMS [sic]. I don’t know the actual date of their visit has been set or not. Again, Secretary Sebelius said, ‘I’ll set up a time, and we’ll make that work.’

“Until CMS comes back and says, ‘Here’s what we can do,’ there’s not a plan to debate. We don’t know what it will look like until they say, ‘Yes, we’ll let you do that, we won’t let you do that.’ Our message to them has always been, we want to have something that bends the cost curve on health care costs. Medicaid/TennCare costs take up so much of our budget, it’s increasing.

“At one point, it had got up to be about 35 percent of our budget. When Governor [Phil] Bredesen cut the rolls, it went down to 25 percent. Well, gradual creep gets it back up to 35 percent again. We have to have something that addresses the cost aspect of that. And we’re in the middle of having discussions with CMS to see if we can have something that addresses, like I said, real meaningful both user engagement and payer engagement in the system.”

Asked how much money the state could make available in long-term matching funds, Haslam responded,

“The current plan, if you expand Medicaid, anticipates the state putting in a lot of money over time. We want to have a system that actually drives down the overall costs. And I think we can do that. I don’t think anybody thinks our current Medicaid system works well. Before we expand a system that doesn’t work well, let’s see if we can make it work better.

Asked if the bill by state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) that would block Medicaid expansion should be passed, Haslam said, “I don’t think so.” He said both “take it as it is” and “block it” are “short-sighted approaches.” He said, “We’re looking for a bill that provides a better plan concerning health care for Tennessee. To pass a bill that blocks that option, I think, is short-sighted for the state.”


Apropos long-term changes in how medical services are dispensed and paid for, the governor said,

“Payment reform is going to happen in this country. Ten years from now, if you talk to any medical professional, they would say, our fee-for-service health care service will have drastic changes. We’d like to see that sped up in Tennessee so we can see the results of that. We think that’s going to happen. We think most health-care providers think that’s going to happen. We’d like to see it happen quicker.”


On Vouchers: Haslam was also asked what the outlook on voucher legislation was. In the 2013 legislative session, he proposed a pilot program of sorts, with state voucher funding made available to 5,000 low-income students in failing schools. Senator Kelsey proposed a more expansive program with much higher levels of involvement. Faced with Kelsey’s insistence on modifying his pilot bill, the governor yanked it in the last week of the session, and no legislation was passed.

Haslam responded:

“I think what we’re going to do on vouchers, is we’re going to engage the legislature right where we left off with them with the bill that we had. We strongly favor an approach that addresses the needs of children in the highest-need circumstances, low-income kids in low-performing schools. We also want to do something that can get passed.

“It’s important for us to have a measured approach...We want an approach that says, let’s see what the impact is, both on students and on districts and on overall educational progress in Tennessee….I think we’re going to reengage with the bill we’ve had out there.

“If we have something that addresses the needs of low-income kids in low-performing schools and something that can get passed, we’re going to have that conversation. We don’t have to have an expansive plan that I don’t think Tennessee is ready for right now.”

Asked if he’d had any conversations with Kelsey about voucher legislation, Haslam said, “We haven’t this year. No.”

Lt. Gov. Ramsey meets the press
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  • Lt. Gov. Ramsey meets the press

At a later press availability of his own, Lt. Gov. Ramsey endorsed a more ambitious voucher concept, similar to Kelsey’s in which the governor’s initial allotment of 5,000 vouchers for low-income students might be stretched to 10,000, with any unspoken-for vouchers being made available, “first come, first served” to whomever applied for them, “regardless of income.”

Gun issues dominated Ramsey’s availability. He began his session with reporters by handing out copies of a legal opinion he’d commissioned from the Legislature's Office of Legal Services contradicting an earlier opinion from state Attorney General Robert Cooper. The attorney general had declared that the guns-in-parking lots bill passed by the legislature last year did not prevent employers in Tennessee, an “at will” state, from firing employees who kept weapons in their locked cars.

The opinion released by Ramsey maintains: that the new law does indeed protect employees from being fired for availing themselves of its provision for keeping concealed weapons locked in their cars.

Ramsey proclaimed himself skeptical of the actual authority of the AG:

“It’s been tradition that the Attorney General’s opinion is law in this state. It’s not. He’s just one attorney. I respect him and think he does a great job….But who would know better [about the law] than the people who wrote the law and sat through every debate?”

“Why did I do this, [i.e,] send the bill to Legal Services for a fresh analysis? I want to be through with this. We passed a good bill….I wanted to stop talking about guns last year, but the Attorney General kept that from happening. He was the only person I know of who took that stance!”

Ramsey said he was opposed, however, to a proposed constitutional amendment, soon to be voted on by the state Senate, that the Tennessee Attorney General, currently appointed by the state Supreme Court, be subject to popular election. The Lt. Governor said he was not for the proposed amendment, that for the state’s chief legal officer to have to raise money for electioneering would “taint” the office. He did, however, endorse, a bill by state Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) that would have the legislature appoint the AG.

Further on gun legislation: Ramsey said he was opposed to any rewriting of the guns-in-parking lots bill so as to further spell out employees’ rights. Such a rewrite is “not needed,” he said, and could give an employer “legal ammunition” to litigate it in court.

The Senate speaker said he would vote for revision of a 2009 gun bill so as to remove provisions of that bill allowing local jurisdictions the option to ban guns in parks. “Local jurisdictions are a political subdivision of the state,” Ramsey said. “When it comes to something like the Second Amendment,” he would be in favor of a “blanket statewide law.”

Ramsey said, however, that he had “never been for Constitutional Carry,” the name given proposed legislation like that adopted last year in Mississippi, allowing the free and unfettered right of citizens to possess and carry concealed weapons without need of permits. He said that such requirements for permits and associated training in firearms use were, along with requirements for background checks by gun-sellers were useful. ““It’s a little bit of trouble to get a gun permit, and it should be….I like he system we have now.”

Asked for his attitude toward a “charter-authorizer” bill favored by his opposite number, state House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) that would empower the state Board of Education to act directly on charter school applications, bypassing and transcending the authority of local school boards, Ramsey said he had “no objection” to the bill, which he had blocked in the Senate last year in retaliation for the House’s rejection of his own proposal to revamp the state’s judicial districts.

The “family squabble,” putting himself against Harwell and his chamber against hers, was done with, Ramsey said, pronouncing relations between himself and the House Speaker to be “fine.” As for his blocked judicial redistricting bill, which would have taken into account population patterns that have developed since the last redistricting in in 1984, it was too late to revise the measure before this year’s judicial elections, but “sometime in the next eight years,” he said, the problem should be dealt with.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Shelby Democrats Manage a Show of (Relative) Unity

Kennedy Day fundraising dinner draws a large and generally cohesive crowd at Bridges to hear California congresswoman Lee (and some concluding fireworks from Carol Chumney).

Posted By on Sun, Jan 19, 2014 at 10:51 PM

U,S. Rep. Barbara Lee
  • JB
  • U,S. Rep. Barbara Lee
In the Tennessee General Assembly, 200-odd miles to the east in Nashville, Democrats are little more than a trace presence. But in Shelby County, as was made obvious at the Democrats’ annual Kennedy Day dinner Saturday night, the local party can still manage a healthy turnout — enough, in any case, to fill the ballroom floor at the Bridges building downtown.

The annual fundraising affair began with several homages to late party icon Lois DeBerry, who served for more than 40 years in the once Democratically controlled legislature, for much of that time as the respected and even beloved Speaker Pro Tem of the House of Representatives.

The event ended with an unscheduled and impromptu oration from former state representative and City Council member Carol Chumney, who urged at some length that Democrats "stick together" this election year, in the process loosing forth a passionate recrimination or two at what she suggested had been uneven party support in her own campaigns.

In different ways, these bookend moments hewed to the evening’s theme, “The Year of the Woman.” And in between them, for a spell of almost three hours, local Democrats dined on chicken or fish and sat back to be regaled by inspirational presentations from U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, the evening’s keynoter, and a panel of women with experience in running and holding political office.

Democratic men were a presence at the event, too, of course — from county Democratic chairman Bryan Carson to state party chairman Roy Herron to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, who introduced House colleague Lee. In attendance also were a generous number of office-holders and candidates of both genders and — something that will be a consistent feature at this year’s political events, regardless of sponsoring party — a healthy turnout of judges, on the ballot for the first time in eight years.

One of those judges was Camille McMullen, a Memphian whose chance of remaining on the state Court of Appeals had just been enhanced by a decision of the state Judicial Evaluation Commission to reverse what had been a prior negative recommendation on her retention. Somewhat cautiously, in answering a question about “challenges” from panel moderator Deidre Malone, McMullen made a cryptic reference to an unnamed challenge, no doubt the matter of her retention election, as a “pending” one.

Other members of the panel, each offering practical advice about the political sphere, were: former Tennessee Regulatory Authority member Sara Kyle, who after a longish period of weighing the option of running for governor had just decided against it; Beverly Marrero and Sara Lewis, former members of the School Board and state Senate, respectively; and state Representative Johnnie Turner, who is still serving.

In her speech to the attendees, Lee offered the example of her own life — that of a single mother on public assistance in California, toting her two small boys with her to college classes (they were the “best-educated “ children around, she said.), then becoming engaged in the 1972 presidential candidacy of Shirley Chisholm, who talked her out of her cynicism and convinced her to get inside the system “and shake things up.”

Congressman Cohen with attendees London Lamar (left) and Liz Rincon
  • JB
  • Congressman Cohen with attendees London Lamar (left) and Liz Rincon
Energized by Chisholm, Lee would run for Congress, keeping in mind some additional advice by her mentor: “When you get elected, you better act like a woman. Don’t play by the rules... Change the rules!”

Lee said Democrats should resolve in this year’s elections to “hold on to the Senate and retake the House.” About the latter body, currently dominated by Republicans, she said, “Steve [Cohen] and I deal with the Tea Party quite a bit.” She called for action on the minimum wage and campaign finance reform, scorning the “Citizens United" decision by the Supreme Court. “Corporations are not people!” she insisted.

At intervals during the evening, when there was no formal program going on, there was a good deal of shmoozing, Candidates abounded, and incumbents and challengers alike worked the floor.

Keeping a quieter profile than Cohen, who was an active participant, was the congressman’s declared Democratic primary opponent, lawyer Ricky Wilkins. State Senator Jim Kyle, newly announced as a candidate for Chancellor, made his presence felt. Making the rounds were Patrice Robinson and Keith Williams, challengers to County Commissioner Justin Ford in the new single district 9.

Among the first-time candidates were Terry Adams, the Knoxville attorney who wants to challenge Republican incumbent Lamar Alexander this year (but must first overcome millionaire Gordon Ball in the Democratic primary), and Mike McCusker, candidate for Criminal Court clerk.

The evening ended with something of a jolt in the form of the aforementioned remarks by Carol Chumney. Contending that Republicans “beat us to the punch” in elevating women to office locally, the former legislator and Council member called on Democrats to “stick together.”

She said that, besides the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, there was something locally called “the Republi-Democratic” party, by which, as she elaborated, she meant Democrats capable of supporting Republicans for office or of looking the other way in contests between Republicans and Democrats.

Newcomer Adams and Chumney
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  • Newcomer Adams and Chumney
“If you’re the Democratic nominee, then the Democrats should support the Democratic nominee,” she said. A few sentences later, referring to a race she lost two years ago, she made what can only be called an accusation. .”Very few people would say I was not qualified to be District Attorney, but somehow one of our congressmen seemed to think that. He said he ‘birthed’ me....I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room.”

The reference was clearly to Rep. Cohen, who, in endorsing several candidates in 2012, passed on the District Attorney General's race, which pitted Chumney against the ultimately victorious Republican incumbent, Amy Weirich. In deciding to make no endorsement in that race, Cohen recalled that he had been a vigorous supporter of Chumney in her victorious maiden race for the legislature, quipping that she was someone that "I gave birth to in 1990."

OK, a little discord mixed in with that unity feeling. Still, overall, the Democrats had themselves a party Saturday night.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Judge McMullen is Declared Free and Clear of Impediment to Retention

Memphis jurist to be panelist at Saturday’s Kennedy Day Dinner; California congresswoman Barbara Lee to keynote annual Democratic fundraiser.

Posted By on Sat, Jan 18, 2014 at 12:51 PM

Appeals Court Judge Camille McMullen
  • Appeals Court Judge Camille McMullen
Judge Camille McMullen of Memphis, a member of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, who has just become unburdened of a serious obstacle to her remaining in office, will be one of the featured participants at this year’s Kennedy Day Dinner, sponsored by the Shelby County Democratic Party.

The dinner, an annual fundraising affair, will be held at the Bridges facility downtown at 7 p.m.

The theme of the event — which will take place Saturday night at Bridges and is headlined by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the keynote speaker — is “The Year of the Woman,” and the theme has special relevance to McMullen, who on Friday saw the state’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission reverse what had been its previous negative recommendation of her prior to this year’s judicial retention elections for appellate judges.

The Commission took its action after hearing on Friday from McMullen and another Appeals Court judge, Andy Bennett of Nashville, both of whom had received negative recommendations from the Commission in November — recommendations that had been suspected in various quarters of being politically motivated. Friday’s hearing had been held in the face of a Davidson County judge’s ruling earlier in the week that the Commission itself was invalid because women were underrepresented in its membership — an obvious irony, and perhaps more, in the case of its judgments on McMullen.

Whatever the future of the Commission, at present composed of seven men and two women, McMullen’s future has taken a decided turn for the better. Before the Commission had reversed its previous verdict, she could have run for reelection this year but might have faced an opponent. The reversal means that, like the rest of the state’s 22 appellate judges, she is subject to a simple Yes/No vote on retention.

California congresswoman Barbara Lee
  • California congresswoman Barbara Lee
Before the Commission’s surprise negative recommendation in November, McMullen had been highly touted, with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade calling her “very well qualified” and state Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons, a former District Attorney General in Shelby County,who had described her as “a rising star” while serving in his office.

Joining the newly liberated McMullen on Saturday night’s panel at the Kennedy Day Dinner will be Sara Kyle, a former longtime member of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority who strongly considered a race for governor this year; state Representative Johnnie Turner, a former president of the local NAACP chapter; Sara Lewis, educator, administrator, and former member of the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools boards; Beverly Marrero, longtime activist and former state Senator; and public relations executive and former Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone, who will serve as moderator.

The subject to be discussed by these panelists is “the challenges of public office, the grit needed to achieve and maintain those offices and the challenge women face running for/being appointed to public office.”

Congresswoman Lee, whose keynote address will precede the panel discussion, will speak on the aforementioned theme of “The Year of The Woman.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Kyle to Seek Open Chancery Seat

Long-serving Memphis state Senator, leader of Senate Democrats, will run for seat to be vacated by Appeals Court designate Arnold Goldin.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 1:51 PM

Jim Kyle, the long-serving Memphis state Senator who for several years has served as leader off the shrinking band of Democrats in the Tennessee state Senate, announced Thursday his intention to pull petition papers to run for the Chancery Court Part Two seat in Shelby County.

The seat is open, due to Governor Bill Haslam’s appointment of incumbent Chancellor Arnold Goldin to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, effective September 1.

State Senator Jim Kyle
  • State Senator Jim Kyle
The race by Kyle will mark his third attempt in recent years to transition from the Senate to other public office. In 2011 he lost by one vote on the Shelby County Commission a bid to serve on the provisional Shelby County Schools board, then in the process of being created.

That service would not have precluded his continuing as a state Senator, but Kyle said last year, when he applied as a candidate for a Probate Court vacancy, that he would resign from the Senate if chosen. But that bid, too, was turned away by the margin of one vote on the Shelby County Commission.

The senator, who has numerous contacts in both the political and legal world, is expected to be a formidable candidate for the Chancery seat this year. A founding partner of the Memphis law firm Domidco Kyle, he was first elected to the state Senate in 1983 and became leader of Senate Democrats in 2005.

Promising in a news release to be a “fair judge who will work hard to ensure that our citizens get their day in court,” Kyle said, “As a senior I have had the opportunity to be truly engaged in the process of making the very laws that I will interpret and apply in the courtroom as chancellor.”

Kelsey Bill to Eliminate Two Shelby Judges Draws Fire in Nashville

Judges, lawyers dispute weighted caseload data, urge county delegation to "speak with one voice" against changes.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 5:19 AM

Judge Childers addressing Shelby County legislators on Wednesday
  • JB
  • Judge Childers addressing Shelby County legislators on Wednesday

NASHVILLE — A trial of sorts is about to pit a Shelby County legislator against a goodly portion of the county’s judicial establishment. Only this showdown will take place not in the courtroom but in the hearing rooms and chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly.

What’s at stake, if legislation introduced this week by state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) makes it through in the current legislative session, is the possible loss of two Shelby County judgeships, and a number of the county’s judges and lawyers turned up in the state capital this week to voice their displeasure at the prospect.

Kelsey’s measure Senate Bill 1484, which so far lacks a House co-sponsor, would, in the language of the bill, “abolish... Parts I and V of the circuit court of the 30th judicial district effective September 1, 2014 and provides that no person will be elected at August 2014 (Shelby County) general election to serve as judge of the abolished parts.”

Divisions I and V of Circuit Court have been filled, respectively, by Judge John McCarroll, who is retiring, and Judge Kay Robilio, whose retirement is already effective. Kelsey cited this fact as the reason for those divisions being singled out for elimination. As for what he perceives as the need for eliminating positions at all, he cited a study prepared last fall by state Comptroller Justin Wilson, which was dispatched to members of the General Assembly, including Kelsey, who serves as chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

Entitled “Tennessee Trial Courts Judicial Weighted Caseload Study,” the document , prepared for the state by the National Center for State Courts as the result of a legislative mandate, is thick with statistics and evaluations of trial frequencies, judges’ workloads, and extrapolated caseload data of other kinds. The bottom line: The state’s 30th Judicial District (Shelby County), which has 9 Circuit Court judges, and three Chancery Court Judges, has an excess of presiding civil jurists — 2.76 too many, in fact.

Led by Shelby County’s senior Circuit Court judge, W.A. “Butch” Childers, a sizeable contingent from the county’s legal community, including other judges and lawyers, were in the environs of Capitol Hill and Legislative Plaza Wednesday,

“We are concerned,” Childers said, to a luncheon meeting of the Shelby County legislative delegation, held in an office building across the street from Legislative Plaza. He noted that the last time Shelby County was granted the right to add a new civil judge was 1984 and said, “It’s very difficult to get a new judge even when you need a new judge. Once you lose a judge it is extremely difficult to get a new judge.”

He presented a series of slides, one of which noted the ratio of active civil judges to population in various Tennessee counties. Shelby County had a ratio of one civil judge for every 77,000 citizens — that latter number being conspicuously higher than in the state’s other major urban areas.

As Childers noted, the legislature ceased taking pure population numbers into effect some years ago — a fact that one of the delegation attendees, state Senator Jim Kyle, remembered as being due to the fact that in counties like Shelby, pure population figures did not take into account the additional number of commuting citizens from adjoining areas, whose presence accounted for a greater likelihood of medical, damage-related, and other cases to be tried in county courts.

Childers noted such factors as the higher incidence of poverty-line residents in Shelby County, a fact resulting in disproportionate number of “pro se” (self-filed) litigation; a huge backlog of untried cases of all kinds, and a larger rate of medical malpractice cases to be tried, even as the number of malpractice filings may have dropped following legislation imposing caps on damages.

The impact of malpractice legislation had been mainly on the type of case that in the past had been subject to summary dismissal, Childers said. “Meritorious” suits were, if anything, requiring more trial time. The weighted caseload study also failed to take into account factors like retrials, repeated appeals, hung juries, and the like, he said.

Childers was supported in his assertions by Memphis lawyers Les Jones, David Cook, and Tim Smith. In what he called “a statement against interest,” Smith attested to the fact of a large and growing case backlog which would worsen if the county lost two judges and said, “If you take away two judges in Shelby County., you might as well call it the lawyer-enrichment act.with small businesses having to pay the tab. This will cause your businesses in your district more money, and this will result in more money for lawyers.”

Circuit Court judges Donna Fields and Karen Williams also made an effort the debunk the idea that Shelby County caseloads required fewer judges than at present. “Why isn’t my docket getting shorter?: asked Williams. She said that, since 2008, the number of cases to be tried in Shelby County had risen in all but one year. A former legislator herself, she called for the Shelby delegation “to speak with one voice” against the proposed legislation.

Kelsey responding to questionsls
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  • Kelsey responding to questionsls
Addressing his question to “the Senate Judiciary chair” (Kelsey), state Rep. G.A. Hardaway asked, “will this bill come to your committee, sir? Are you the reason they (the visiting lawyers and judges) are up here?”

Kelsey had said during the discussion that he he acted on the assumption that, as the weighted caseload study seemed to suggest, case filings in Shelby County had dropped. In an interview after the meeting, he elaborated as follows:

“As the Republican Party, we are the party of small government. If we’re not willing to start by following up on the studies that we’ve funded, where are we going to start? This is my responsibility as chairman of the committee, to make difficult decisions, and sometimes the best decisions for the entire state of Tennessee may be the most difficult to make as a committee chairman, but that’s what we’re sent here to do — to look out for what makes Tennessee a better state and what takes care of our taxpayers and insurors.”

From the Horse's Mouth...

Posted By on Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 5:10 AM

Norris_mug.jpg
State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, subject of this week’s Flyer cover story, offers some additional background on the lens through which he sees public policy in this week’s Viewpoint

Friday, January 10, 2014

County Commission Readies for Monday Vote on Bunker Successor

Billingsley, Chism, George regarded as main contenders to fill Commission vacancy.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 10, 2014 at 1:00 PM

Commissioner Henri Brooks and applicant Robert Escue continued their discussion of the Sons of Confederate Veterans after the close of Escues interview for a Commission vacancy.
  • JB
  • Commissioner Henri Brooks and applicant Robert Escue continued their discussion of the Sons of Confederate Veterans after the close of Escue's interview for a Commission vacancy.

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission, down to 12 members now that District 4 Commissioner Wyatt Bunker has moved on to serve as elected mayor of suburban Lakeland, will select someone from a lengthy list of applicants to be Bunker’s interim successor through this year’s regular election cycle.

On Wednesday, commissioners had a chance to interview most of the 13 applicants remaining after the last-minute withdrawals of two others, Van Turner and Matt Kuhn. Remaining hopefuls are Bennie Cobb, Dennis Dougherty, Diane George, Frank Uhlhorn, George Chism, Jackie Jackson, Kevin Hardin, Mark Billingsley, Rob Johnson, Robert Escue, Ronald Fittes, Leon Hurd Jr, and John Wilkerson.

The withdrawals of Turner and Kuhn, both former chairs of the Shelby County Democratic Party, seemingly assured that the new commissioner will be, like Bunker, a Republican. The 4th District, a collective one soon to pass into history as the result of reapportionment into single districts, has a predominantly Republican constituency and has been served of late by Bunker and GOP Commission colleagues Terry Roland and Chris Thomas.

Although prospects of a victory by a dark-horse candidate cannot be dismissed, especially in view of the multi-ballot outcomes that have come to characterize Commission votes in filling vacancies for various positions, three applicants are regarded as favorites on the eve of Monday’s debate.

They are Mark Billingsley, executive director of the Methodist Hospital Foundation; mortgage banker George Chism; and realtor Diane George, a former member of the Shelby County Schools board. Like most of the other applicants, each of the three is at least nominally Republican, but all — particularly George, who begins with commitments from several Democrats — are capable of attracting crossover support.

Of the three presumed leaders, only Billingsley and Chism have indicated their intent to seek election this year to one of the 13 new single-district positions. Fittes and Jackson have also expressed an intent to run.

Numerous factors, ranging from the partisan to the personal to simple evaluations of candidates’ credentials, will be weighed by Commission members in selecting the new interim commissioner. One multi-leveled issue pertains to the future of the Shelby County Schools district vis-à-vis the new municipal school districts in six incorporated suburbs, involving such related matters as funding and questions of school board composition.

Commissioner Thomas, who is not seeking reelection but intends to serve out his present term, was recently hired as city manager of Lakeland. Thomas asked each applicant in turn their regarding their attitude toward municipal schools. Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a Democrat representing District 5 (Midtown, East Memphis) , was equally persistent in asking candidates their position on the desirability of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, as well as that of funding pre-K programs. And District 2 Democrat Henri Brooks, a representative of the inner city, asked each candidate their views on funding for social services.

There were several intriguing dialogues on Wednesday between candidates and the commissioners who interviewed them. One involved candidate Escue, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization who underwent an extended interrogation from Brooks concerning that organization’s de facto segregation by gender. (Separatism of various kinds was one of the matters candidates were asked about on the application forms they submitted.)

“It’s ‘Sons,’” Escue said, noting that the existence of a parallel organization, Daughters of the Confederacy. He assured Brooks, an African-American female, that she would be welcome to attend the meetings of the SCV and issued her a direct invitation.

The first version of this post incorrectly stated that Commmissioner Chris Thomas intended to run for reelection. He does not.

Luttrell Takes the Middle View in Assaying "the State of the County"

Mayor sees education as key to other issues, expresses concern about Med funding, Head Start, and local job skills.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 10, 2014 at 11:27 AM

County Mayor Luttrell addressing Kiwanians at the University Club
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  • County Mayor Luttrell addressing Kiwanians at the University Club

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s “state of the county” address to the Memphis Kiwanis Club on Wednesday, variations on which the mayor will likely be repeating elsewhere, focused on basic subjects — education, health care, economic development — and was a clear attempt to hit the middle between concern and optimism.

The mayor, who made his remarks to the Kiwanians at the University Club , noted that education would continue to be the county’s “number one responsibility” and foresaw an intermittently difficult transition period lasting “for a number of years.”

But Luttrell made a point of expressing his support for one aspect of the forthcoming complication — the multiplicity of educational venues, ranging from conventional public schools to private schools, to charter schools and the state’s Achievement School District.

One problem Luttrell pinpointed was that of Head Start, Contending that “most Head Start programs moved into the private sector many years ago,” the mayor noted that Shelby County, which has operated the program for the last several years but reaching “only about a third of the children in Shelby County,” is currently involved in trying to shift the local operation of Head Start elsewhere.

“We’re fortunate to have interest from the public school system {Shelby County Schools] as well as [private non-profit] Porter Leath,” Luttrell said. The federal government will ultimately decide on one or both of these applicants to administer the program.

Luttrell linked education to other issues like public safety and job creation. Economic development, he said, “depends on our ability to grow a 21st Century workforce,” and local industries have been hindered by “our inability to find people to step into the jobs that they have.” He hailed the willingness of Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson to “partner” with business in trying to upgrade basic skills.

Health care was another mixed picture, according to Luttrell, who characterized the county as a “rich community” in terms of its available facilities — “Baptist, Methodist, and St. Francis hospitals, Ut Health Sciences, the Med, and on and on” But the nether side of all that lay in high rates of infant mortality, teenage pregnancy,. childhood obesity, and other such issues.

The county mayor expressed particular concern over the financial predicament of The Med. “We see the potential for losing funding,” he said, adding that he’d been in “close contact” with Governor Bill Haslam, expressing the hope that the governor’s proposed “Tennessee Plan,” a private-sector alternative to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, could be worked out with the federal government. so as to make the county and the state eligible for
expansion funds.

“We can build confidence in our ability to grow progressive government,” Luttrell said, characterizing himself as “an ambassador for this community.” He enumerated such “quality of life” amenities as professional theater, ballet, and the county’s developing “greenprint:” plan.

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