If the commission votes to approve the budget on its agenda next week, the taxpaying citizens of Blount County will be paying $96,717 more in salaries and benefits than the state mandated minimums for four elected officials. Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher and Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick will make 10% above the state minimums. Sheriff James Lee Berrong and Mayor Marvin Ed Mitchell will both make 32% more than the state mandated minimums. The sheriff’s additional pay of $30,603 could be used to fund an additional deputy or give $1,000 pay raise to 30 employees.
During the last two annual budget discussions, I (Tona Monroe) tried to cut the salary supplements from the budget bringing the pay for these 4 elected officials down to the state minimums. Both times only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted to reduce the pay. Last year Jerome Moon argued that the commission had to pay the sheriff more but did not state the law requiring an additional pay supplement. These pay supplements aren’t required.
Meanwhile the mayor, Governor Bill Halsam, Lord of Croynism Randy Boyd and Gentlemen of the Bedchamber Byran Daniels have been busy getting their pictures in the paper for job creation. The local rag is happy to serve as their PR firm.
The Tennessee General Assembly has been largely nonresponsive to reforming salaries that are double, triple and quadruple the average annual salary. Most of them don’t feel your pain. Many voted for the gas tax and most voted for Haslam’s bloated budget.
|Mayor – Mitchell||132,550||must make 5% more than Sheriff||100,416||32,134||6207||38,341||101|
|Circuit Court Clerk* – Hatcher||95,635||other elected officials plus 10% for more than 1 court||86,941||8,694||1716||10,410||101|
|Sheriff – Berrong||105,199||must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC)||95,635||30,603||5914||36,517||101|
|Highway – Headrick||105,199||must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC)||95,635||9,564||1885||11,449||131|
Figures provided by Angelie Shankle, Budget Manager for Blount County government.
Open Records Policy
The majority of commissioners showed themselves to be overlords rather than servants of the people by adopting an open records policy with a process making it difficult for people to obtain their government records. The policy speaks for itself. Only those with disdain for the people they are suppose to serve would make it as difficult to obtain your records as this commission just did. These people can claim they’re there to serve you but actions speak louder than words.
The policy was designed by an ad hoc committee comprised of 3 county commissioners and 2 citizens. 2 of the commission members, Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor, are local government employees who consistently support government of the government, for the government, and by the government rather than government of the people, for the people and by the people.
The ad hoc committee proposed charging 50 cents per copy, for both black and white and color copies. The fee for black and white copies in the Schedule of Reasonable Charges produced by the state Office of Open Records Counsel, within the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, is 15 cents. Jerome Moon, the Chairman of the committee that wrote the policy, took the extraordinary measure of changing the fee for black and white copies in the policy before presenting it to the commission. Rather than respecting the process by proposing an amendment, he actually changed the policy that the ad hoc committee had recommended.
Commissioners Moon and Grady Caskey sponsored the resolution that adopted the open records policy. These two falsely claimed in their resolution that the commission was adopting the policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee. The fourth whereas statement in the resolution reads:
“WHEREAS, the Blount County legislative body finds that it is mandated to establish a written public records policy and hereby adopts and approves the proposed written public records policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee and attached hereto as Exhibit A.”
This is a false statement because the policy presented to the Agenda Committee, which consists of all members of the commission, was changed. Commissioner Moon is the Chairman of the Blount County Commission. He is well versed in parliamentary procedure. There is absolutely no excuse for what he did. All he had to do was present an amendment and explain his reasoning for the amendment. Instead he changed what was presented to the commission.
Appointments for records inspections – take a number
From the Office of Open Records Counsel’s website, see the 3rd paragraph:
“Under the Tennessee Public Records Act, a records custodian cannot require a request for inspection of public records to be in writing. However, other provisions of law may permit or require such written request. A records custodian can require a request for copies of records to be in writing, or to be made on the Records Request Form, and to include that requirement in their public records policy. If a request must be on a specific form, a copy of the required form must be included in their public records policy and should be readily available for public use. If a governmental entity does not require a specific form, requestors may use the Records Request Form.”
The policy approved by the commission requires an appointment for records inspections, although a section below it makes it sound like it is the decision of the Public Records Request Coordinator (PRRC).
“IV. Inspection of Records
A. There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records. An appointment is required for inspection.
B. The location for inspection of records within the offices of Blount County Government should be determined by either the PRRC or the records custodian.
C. Under reasonable circumstances, the PRRC or a records custodian may require an appointment for inspection or may require inspection of records at an alternate location. The time for appointments should be made with in normal business hours unless mutually agreed upon by PRRC and the requestor.”
For clarity on the matter, I asked the Office of Open Records Counsel for its opinion on Section IV, Part A and Part C. This was the response I received:
“Good Afternoon Ms. Monroe:
I assume your question is regarding Section IV, Part A of the draft policy, which provides: “There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records. An appointment is required for inspection.” However, Part C of the same section provides that the PRRC may require an appointment for inspection of records “under reasonable circumstances.”
Whether requiring an appointment to inspect the records is reasonable will ultimately be left to a court to decide, based upon the particular facts and circumstances of each case. However, to the extent that a county’s public records policy provides a blanket rule that an appointment is required for the inspection of any records in any situation, we find it difficult to imagine that a court would find it reasonable to require an appointment for inspection under the facts and circumstances of each and every situation.”
To resolve the confusion and to reduce the burden upon those requesting records, I offered an amendment to remove the sentence in A that required an appointment for all records inspections. This would have left in place the flexibility of requiring an appointment when circumstances warrant it. The commission rejected this. Only commissioners Akard, Archer, Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted to resolve this issue. If the county is ever sued over the matter of requiring an appointment, it will be the fault of the commissioners who opposed the amendment and voted for the policy. They have sufficient knowledge to know that the matter needed to be resolved.
Proof of citizenship and a photo ID – Papers “please”
You will have to prove that you are a Tennessee citizen and may have to provide a photo ID for records request. These two impediments can really slow things down. This isn’t papers “please.” This is papers demanded and just to see or obtain records. Karen Miller and I were placed in an interrogation room at the justice center when a photo ID was demanded of me when I make a records request of the Sheriff’s Office .
I offered an amendment that would have required that proof of citizenship only be required when someone is requesting a fee waiver with their records request. It was rejected.
Proof of citizenship should only be obtained to verify that the person receiving a waiver of fees is actually a citizen and once is it provided it should be destroyed. How is the county going to keep your citizenship and photo ID records? These records may contain sensitive information that Blount County has no legitimate reason in demanding, other than to provide a waiver of the costs/fees to its citizenry.
A photo ID should not be required just to see or get copies of public records. This is not Nazi Germany.
Requests request must go to Blount County Records Manager and Archivist
Jackie Glenn, the Blount County Records Manager and Archivist, will serve as the PRRC. This concerns me because some years back I asked her to provide me with copies of some records. She wrote that it would cost a couple hundred dollars to provide the records but I was able to make copies of the records for a few dollars on my own. I hope that no one finds themselves in a similar situation where a request for copies of records turns into hundreds of dollars when the records can be copied for a few dollars.
Only Commissioners Akard, Daly, Miller and I rejected a policy that put in place with nearly as many unnecessary impediments to obtaining records as the courthouse clique could get away with. While Daly was absent from the commission meeting, she voted against it at the Agenda Committee meeting.
Cutting commissioners off
It has become standard operating procedure for Commissioners Dave Bennett and Mike Caylor to call a point of order while I am speaking to shut me down. This makes it difficult for me to do the job that I was elected to do.
Some have suggested that this is occurring because I am a woman. It’s possible. Commissioner Karen Miller has been questioned about her income and statements have been made about my employment.
A study of the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS) found that women justices are interrupted more frequently than men by male justices. Male advocates arguing cases are much more likely to interrupt than female advocates. The article says, “gender is 30 times more powerful in explaining interruptions than seniority.”
Agenda Committee meeting
Commissioner Dave Bennett was absent.
Commission pay raise rejected
Commissioners Ron French and Grady Caskey proposed giving the commission a pay raise. Currently Blount County Commissioners make a salary of $405 a month. There are no official benefits such as health care. However, taxpayer funded meals are provided before and after some special meetings. Additionally, some commissioners are county employees and already receive benefits from the county.
The proposal would have increased the salary to $450 a month and pay commissioners $200 for their attendance at the Agenda Committee meeting. This would have increased the pay from $405 to $650 a month.
I offered an amendment to remove the $200 for attending the Agenda Committee meeting but that amendment failed. Only commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Steve Sample and I supported the amendment. Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.
The resolution failed in a 9-10-1 vote. Commissioners Archie Archer, Brad Bowers, Shawn Carter, Grady Caskey, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton and Jerome Moon voted yes to placing the resolution to increase their pay on the commission agenda. Commissioners Mike Akard, Andy Allen, Rick Carver, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Tona Monroe and Steve Samples voted against sending the resolution forward. Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.
This is a hot button political issue that gets a lot of attention but its best to view the voting records of commissioners in their entirety. Some of the commissioners who voted against increasing their pay rarely, if ever, look out for you the taxpayers.
The issue was simple for me. This is public service and I am not going to vote to increase my own pay. I tried to turn down my commission salary but was forced to take it after great resistance on my part.
Commissioners Cole, Daly and Lewis were absent.
Planning Commission appointment
The Blount County Commission rubber stamped Mayor Ed Mitchell’s latest nomination to the Planning Commission. Some rural districts of the county still have no representation on the Planning Commission, despite it having authority to propose regulations that impact the rural areas of the county. I was the only commissioner that voted against the mayor’s appointment.
$350,000 more for equipment for the Highway Department
The new Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick has gone on a spending spree, purchasing new equipment. Previous equipment purchases totaled more than $1.4M.
This month the commission approved a request for $350,000 to purchase a new 8′ paver. The county already has a 10′ paver.
The memo accompanying the request said that this will save the county money since the county will be able to do more of its own paving. However, there were no documents or figures to support this claim. Some counties contract this out as it costs less to pay companies to do the paving but I was cut off from fully expressing this and further reasons why I couldn’t support this issue.
Without any information to support the claim that it will save the county money, I wasn’t comfortable with spending the money. I made motion to postpone this for a month so that the commission could be provided with numbers to back up the claim that this purchase will save money. The motion failed. Commissioner Akard made an amendment, which I seconded, to reduce the amount to $200,000 so that the county could purchase a used paver. That failed as well. The commission approved the purchase with only commissioners Akard, Miller and myself voting against it.
Road for Denso
Unfortunately, corporate welfare is ingrained in local and state governments. Blount County government already spends $1,062,200 annualy on “economic development”, without the commission being provided any info on how the money is spent. Commissioners aren’t even given a budget showing how this $1M will be spent. After asking for the budget in 2015, Bryan Daniels of the Blount Partnership/Blount Chamber of Commerce/Industrial Development Board/Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority blocked me.
Despite spending $1M+ on “economic development”, the commission was asked to approve an additional $60,425 to build a road for Denso. The letter from the Tennessee Department of Transportation accompanying the contract is dated September 16, 2016 but the commission was not told about this or provided anything until this month.
$1M is enough of your money for secret, crony, corporate welfare deals. Only commissioners Miller and I voted against giving more of your money to another special deal.
I am all for business friendly tax policies but tax breaks should be fair to all and apply equally to similar businesses. Giving one business the farm (literally), another a building, building a road for another, or a tax abatement for another should stop. Tax policies could be written to provide incentives to all businesses, not just those that cozy up to the courthouse clique and the swamp in Nashville.
Watch out for Randy Boyd, who is running in the Republican primary for Governor of Tennessee. He is the king of corporate welfare, having spent two years as the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development. During that time he traveled the state giving corporate handouts to businesses while he and local elected officials could get their pictures in papers for “creating jobs” with your money. As such, 22 east Tennessee mayors recently endorsed him. Multiple media outlets serve as PR firms rather than news reporters, promoting how wonder these special, secret deals are. That’s how powerful the corporate welfare, special interests have become. Boyd has been well groomed to be the next big government governor, next in line after Bill Haslam.
Highway Dept. agreement with 4 local cities
The majority of commissioners rubber stamped local agreements between the Blount County Highway Department and the cities of Friendsville, Louisville, Rockford and Townsend. The agreements were simple, only 1-2 pages each. However, there was no mention of liability for the parties. I inquired as to who would pay for what should an accident occur and was met with silence rather than answers. Only commissioners Akard, Miller and I voted against taking the risk of the unknown with these agreements.
While there is no tax rate increase proposed in the upcoming budget, spending will increase. The revenues recommend by the Budget Committee are available here. The expenditures recommended by the Budget Committee are available here.
Local government elections
“The future has a way of arriving unannounced.” George F. Will
In many of these monthly commission reports I encourage you, the public, to get involved. The 2018 local government primary election is less than one year away. All partisan elected officials in Blount County are Republicans. Thus all county government races, with the exception of the school board and Property Assessor, were determined in the May 6, 2014 primary election and the races will likely be determined in the May 1, 2018 election. School board races are nonpartisan and the Property Assessor election occurs in the same year as a presidential election.
If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, please give consideration to running and/or supporting good candidates for local office next year. It is not to early to start preparing.
“A year from now you will wish you had started today.” Karen Lamb
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Will Rogers
According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, the average daily cost to house an inmate in state prison is $76 a day. That is more than twice what the state pays counties to house state felons. The state currently pays counties a daily per diem of $37. It’s no wonder that the state is content with letting their felons be housed in local jails. It makes their costs lower, their books look better and it frees up more money to spend elsewhere.
But don’t worry the state is here to help local governments out by increasing the daily per diem rate for housing state felons in local jails to $39 a day. That’s a whopping $2 daily increase. Never mind that, at $39 a day, the state still averages saving $37 a day.* State lawmakers and officials need to be able brag about being good stewards of taxpayer money by keeping the state budget lower and having a $2 billion surplus of your money.
Some good news: statewide recidivism was down in 2016.
*The cost savings to the state may be less in counties with a contract for state sentenced felons.
Agenda and Commission Meetings
This was a light month for the Blount County Commission. The agenda was short. There was a zoning request that was had no objections and the commission voted to approve its minutes and receive reports.
The only thing of significance that happened was the commission moved the regular meeting time of 7 PM to 4 PM. This was likely because the Republican Party of Blount County scheduled its Lincoln Day dinner for the same night at 6 PM. Commissioner Dave Bennett had the item placed on the agenda for the Agenda Committee but he wasn’t present at the meeting to explain his request. He is the former chairman of the local Republican Party.
Would the all Republican commission change the meeting time for the Blount County Democratic or Libertarian Parties? The Information Technology Committee meeting, which was scheduled for 6 PM the same night, was also canceled. I was the only commissioner present to vote against catering to the local Republican Party.
Paper takes down a story related to jail expansion
Last month I wrote about the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) cutting me off and not letting me do the job that I was elected to do: ask questions and get answers related to jail expansion in order to make an informed decision. This month the paper removed a story from its website that it wrote related to my research and questions about this endeavor.
Blount County Tax Revolt, a local citizens group, asked me to come speak about the BCCP cutting me off and explain what I was prohibited from asking and what I had hoped to learn by asking questions. A reporter for The Daily Times was present at the meeting and a story was written. The story did not appear in the print edition but it was online with a link on the homepage of the paper’s website until the early afternoon when it was taken down.
The Daily Times has twice published that the Purchasing Department had an open meeting related to the jail RFQ. This cherry picked reporting is a disservice to this community. Most of the purchasing process related to the selection of a firm was done in secret because of a new state law. It seems that the paper is more interested in publishing the talking points of the courthouse clique than it is evaluating a new law that made what was formerly an open process largely secret. This law coupled with the actions of the BCCP have made my job more difficult than it should be.
At the March BCCP meeting, Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr said that she would have to refer to her notes when I asked her who she had contacted in Loudon County when consulting references for the architectural firm Michael Brady Inc. (MBI). I requested a copy of her notes and all communications records that she had with other governmental entities related to MBI. Kerr informed me that she has no communications records related to MBI.
She says that she did contact someone at Loudon County regarding MBI but can’t remember who she spoke with or what office/department this person works in. I checked with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office to see if anyone had any recollection of speaking to Kerr or anyone from Blount County related to MBI. Anita Green with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office responded with, “I have spoken with several department heads and none have any recollection of speaking with anyone from Blount County.”
I’ll likely write more on this in the future.
Spectra Recycling Center to close
Blount County has been fortunate to enjoy having recycling services provided free of charge by a private company. Spectra will be closing its recycling center on May 1st. Spectra has provided recycling services free to city and county residents for 17 years.
While some recycling materials are profitable others are not. The demand for glass is low and many governments that provide recycling services have stopped collecting it during garbage pick up.
In 2015, I served on an ad hoc committee that looked at recycling options for Blount County. You can read the report issued by the chairman of that committee here.
If the county were to provide recycling, there will be costs associated with that service. We had a valuable service being provided by a private business. I don’t know if that service could have continued but I do wish that possibility had been fully explored before looking to provide a new county service. Do you support using your tax dollars for the county to provide recycling?
Open Records Policy
The commission will soon vote on an open records policy. Those who are interested in open government and obtaining or inspecting records will want to pay close attention to this.
Last week I wrote about the Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) sending a newsletter telling local elected officials to call their legislators in support of the IMPROVE act. This legislation increases the gas tax and raises the non-commercial vehicle registration fee $5 annually.
This organization is funded by you, the taxpayers. Here is a copy of the meeting minutes for the meeting that the TCSA voted to support the IMPROVE act. The TCSA website says the board endorsed the legislation. Since the meeting minutes don’t give a roll call vote of the TCSA Board, I asked if any voted against supporting the legislation that will soon be law. Executive Director David Connor wrote, “The board vote was a voice vote. No members voted against supporting the measure and no one asked to be recorded as a no.” The minutes contain a listing of the members that were present and absent from the meeting.
Do you think your tax money should be spent to fund an association that supports/endorses raises taxes and fees on you?
The press has many important functions that can be invaluable. As such, it’s important to know the people who are doing the reporting as it can give insight into the mindsets and biases that occur in journalism.
Buzz Trexler is the pastor at Green Meadow United Methodist Church and an editor at The Daily Times. His blog/website can help readers glean information about his approach to journalism and preaching.
There you will find that he preached a sermon at the Friendsville United Methodist Church entitled, “Christian Belief Is Like Penguin Sex.”
And that folks is who is editing your daily source of written news in the Bible belt.
The Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) sends local elected officials a newsletter, called Capitol Update, while the Tennessee General Assembly is in session. The TCSA failed to mention the purchasing secrecy legislation in the six issues that it sent to me in 2016. When I asked TCSA Executive Director David Connor why he didn’t include bills that made an open process a secret government process he wrote, “Since it was mirroring the process used at the state, I didn’t see a problem with it.” Two wrongs apparently make a right.
This year the TCSA has sent newsletter with a headline telling local officials to call their state lawmakers and tell them to support the gas tax increase included in the slyly named IMPROVE act. TCSA seem more interested in telling local officials what to do rather than keeping them informed of legislation that creates local government secrecy. Is the tail wagging the dog?
The commission recently started voting to receive reports and minutes from committees and entities that provides us with information because of the new software system that the commission started using in January. Prior to the new system, these records were available in the commission packet as information without a vote. I (Tona Monroe) pointed out that some of the meeting minutes were drafts and subject to being changed by their respective bodies. The draft minutes were postponed until April so that the commission can figure out how to properly handle voting on minutes being received in the future. The matter shows how most commissioners operate on auto pilot during the meetings and how little thought most put into the process.
Commissioners Mike Akard, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly and Tom Stinnett were absent.
Evergreen pay study for Highway Department
The Evergreen Solutions salary study pay increase request for the Highway Department was back on the agenda after being pulled by Commissioner Dave Bennett last month without any explanation for it being pulled. The request increased from $13,579.46 to $15,346.13.
The $15,346.13 will be used to increase the pay of 14 employees. Shortly before this, one employee was about 2/3’s of this amount in one year. Certain people get huge page raises while many get small ones. According to the 2015 payroll, Assistant Superintendent Chico Messer made $71,999.98. According to the 2016 salary list, Chico Messer’s salary increased to $82,801 on August 25, 2016 (see page 42). In 2014, Messer’s annual salary was $66,000.06. It’s interesting that Messer sought and received certification from the state to run for the position of Highway Superintendent but chose not to seek the postion. Could the big pay increase be a deterrent to Messer running in 2018?
In 2015, the Blount County Commission voted to adopt the recommendations of the Evergreen Solutions employee classification and compensation study for all county departments except the Highway Department and the Schools. This request adds the Highway Department to the rest of the General County government pay scale.
You may remember that one of my objections at the time was that the report wasn’t even finished when the commission was asked to vote to adopt its recommendations. The final study was not made public until 7 months after the commission had voted on the matter. Well this new study wasn’t in the Agenda Committee packet. When I asked why, I was told by the Human Resources Director that she had just received the report that day. That raises the question of why it had been put on the agenda last month when the report wasn’t finished. Do these people ever learn? Do they even care?
Furthermore, the previous study only compared Blount County to one other county. The rest of the comparisons were to schools, even though Blount County Schools didn’t participate, cities and other entities. This new study only compared Blount County to cities. Not one county was included in the study. It wouldn’t be that hard, particularly when you’re only looking at one department, to obtain the payrolls for other counties and analyze comparable positions. Commissioners Karen Miller and I were the only no votes.
A couple donated $10,000 to the county for the purchase of a service dog. Blount County currently has 7 service dogs and will soon have 10.
State legislation has been filed that would add the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) to the list of government entities that would sunset and have to be renewed by the Tennessee General Assembly after a review process. All of the status quo, courthouse clique commissioners signed onto a resolution that opposed this legislation.
If enacted, an Evaluation Committee would review the objectives of CTAS. TCA 4-29-105 says:
The Evaluation Committee shall have as its objectives:
1) The review of present programs and strategies of entities to determine the quality, efficiency, and success of such programs and strategies in implementation of legislative mandates.
What’s wrong with a regular review of CTAS? CTAS can be political and is cliquish, picking their favorites.
On at least two occasions that I have asked CTAS questions, the local government consultant for this area, Wesley Robertson, has called Commission Chairman Jerome Moon and given him the answer to my questions rather than calling and giving the answers to me.
I’ve talked to local elected officials in several counties around the state. Those who are principled reformers receive similar treatment. A commissioner in another county shared with me that she has quit contacting CTAS because as soon as she inquires about anything, her CTAS government consultant calls her county mayor to inform him of what she is inquiring about. Another elected official in a different county told me that we should get together and ask the Tennessee General Assembly for some real help, since we aren’t getting it from CTAS. She shared with me how another lady she knows in local government is treated poorly by CTAS. It seems that CTAS has a history of treating women who oppose the status quo, poorly. However, I have talked with men in local elected office who don’t consult with CTAS either because they consider them to be part of the problem within the bureaucracy in government.
CTAS is a part of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service (IPS). IPS blocked me on twitter after I posted tweets critical of CTAS. Amazingly, the IPS unblocked me the day before the commission voted on this resolution and is now following www.twitter.com/bcpublicrecord.
A thorough review of CTAS might be just exactly what it needs to provide better service. It makes no sense to oppose a review process of your tax dollars at work; therefore I voted no. Only Commissioner Karen Miller joined me in voting no. Commissioners Akard and Daly, who were absent from the commission meeting, voted against putting this item on the agenda, at the Agenda Committee meeting.
Open records policy
The state legislature enacted a law requiring local governments to have open records policies by July 1st. This should have been a law many years ago. However, the law is not as specific as it should be and will probably require changes to it in the future.
As an elected official, I thought that it would be easier to obtain information but that is often not the case. It can be difficult obtaining records needed to make important public policy decisions. I’ve had to go to the Office of Open Records Counsel for assistant several times in obtaining records from Blount County government. Several people have shared with me how difficult it can be to obtain help from the Office of Open Records Counsel. Thus, a clear policy is needed.
Commissioner Jerome Moon chose to place himself and Commissioners Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor on the ad hoc committee that will write the open records policy. Both Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor work for local governments and tend to favor government. Hopefully the policy to be written will serve the people of Blount County well.
Lack of discussion
Other that the normal course of speaking required for the chairman to run a meeting, I was the only commissioner to discuss anything on the agenda that was put to a vote. Many have said that these meetings are a done deal before the commissioners get there. With no discussion except from me, I see why so many conclude this.
Commissioner Dodd Crowe’s only statement of the night came at the end of the meeting to inform those in the audience that the IT Department was working to ensure that all of the commissioners and their votes appeared on the screen displaying the votes. All of the commissioners, and their votes, had not been showing on the screen because of an issue with the new software system.
Blount County Corrections Partnership
The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) is a charade that exists to appease the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) to keep the jail certified. Certification by the TCI Board of Control (BOC) is pretty close to worthless. Jail standards are good but the TCIBOC has and continues to certify jails that are not in compliance with the standards because they jump through hoops.
One of those hoops is having the BCCP. Part of the charade even includes TCI employees Detentions Facility Specialist (DFS) Robert Kane, who inspects the jail, and the Corrections Partnership Coordinator Bob Bass. DFS Robert Kane makes false statements in his jail inspection report such as the March 3, 2016 report that gives the BCCP credit for things that it doesn’t do such as submitting monthly progress reports to the TCI. It doesn’t, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office does that. He says that the BCCP meets monthly and discusses the findings of the ILPP report. The BCCP met 4 times in 2015. You can read more about the report here.
CPC Bass serves as the bully for the TCI. He comes to some of the meetings to talk tough to the BCCP about how the jail could be decertified if the county doesn’t build. Talking tough is about all he can do, other than educate us in meetings with videos available on YouTube. He once popped off to me about shutting the jail down but he and the TCI lack the authority to shut the jail down. All he can do is go to the State Fire Marshal’s Office like the rest of us can and speak against the jail getting a nearly worthless certification from the TCI.
TCI certification is voluntary but many don’t know that. Certification is used as a red herring for the TCI’s lack of authority to shut a jail down. Jails that aren’t certified operate without being shut down. Increased insurance rates can be a consequence of decertification, but this will not likely impact Blount County significantly because the county is self insured. Read this letter from the legal counsel for the TCI on its certification and authority regarding shutting a jail down.
We are currently looking at architectural and engineering firms because Bob “the bully” Bass and Robert Kane came in and talked tough. That was the excuse the political machine needed to start the expansion process. Reality is that little to nothing would have happened if Blount County hadn’t solicited a firm because certification is a voluntarily process.
The only person to speak during public input was Commissioner Karen Miller. She expressed how disappointed she is that the BCCP hasn’t actually examined the possible solutions that have been given in the studies that have been done and instead is wanting to pay an architectural firm to look at what the BCCP should be looking at.
Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr spoke briefly about the jail RFQ process and how Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) was chosen for jail renovation and/or expansion. She was quick to say that the interviews for 3 of the companies that submitted qualifications were public but failed to mention that most of the process, including the decision making, was done in secret. The Tennessee General Assembly last year decided that you the taxpaying citizens might some how corrupt the integrity of the process and made most of the purchasing process sealed. Yes, state legislators thinks that you lack the integrity to interact with the Purchasing Agent and the evaluators that she selects until she has chosen a company and they made a law to stop you for interacting. However, the names of the Screening Committee/Evaluation Team were published on this website before she made the names of the evaluators known.
MBI employee Jay Henderlight and John Eisenlau with TreanorHL gave a presentation on what they can and have done related to jails. Eisenlau would work with MBI throughout the process. I asked them if they were considering a new facility at a new location and was told that they haven’t considered that and didn’t think it would be necessary. This is important because of what happened in Loudon County.
Loudon County Justice Center: Expansion and renovation vs a new facility
In the letter of engagement from MBI to the Loudon County Purchasing Agent, under Project Information the proposed improvements/use says “Expansion and Renovation of Existing Justice Center.” The site location reads “12680 Highway 11 W., Loudon, TN” which is the location of the current Loudon County Justice Center.
Loudon County had previously paid MBI about $16,000 to see if the current location of their justice center was suitable for expansion. After it was determined that the existing location is suitable for expansion, the Loudon County Corrections Partnership (LCCP) voted to move forward with expanding the existing facility in August of 2015. However, that changed after the Loudon County Commission approved paying MBI up to $60,000 to provide options to expand the justice center at its current location.
MBI provided several expansion and renovation options but the recommendation that came from the LCCP in 2016 was the construction of a new facility at a different location. While the LCCP was considering building at a new location, the Loudon County jail was decertified by the TCIBOC. Who and/or what caused the change in plan from expansion of the existing facility to the construction of a new facility isn’t entirely clear. What role, if any, MBI played in this isn’t clear either. Who caused the deviation from expanding the existing facility to building a brand new facility at a different location?
Since MBI touts their work in Loudon County and PA Katie Kerr recommends MBI, both should be able to explain to the BCCP and the commission what happened in Loudon County. I asked PA Kerr who she spoke to at Loudon County when evaluating MBI. She said she would have to go back and look at her notes. Even if she couldn’t recall the name of the person that she spoke with she should have been able to recall the conversation but she didn’t offer anything specific about her conversation with Loudon County.
Exactly how much research did Kerr do into MBI prior to recommending them? Kerr has taken 11 months to complete the process of selecting a company. Kerr’s office took nearly 3 months to issue the RFQ, despite her saying that 30 days should be sufficient time to issue the paperwork.
Furthermore, Kerr deviated from the jail RFQ issued by her office. The RFQ says that the Screening Committee selected to evaluate the firms that submitted proposals would be county commissioners and employees Sheriff’s Office (see page 16). 2 of the evaluators were neither county commissioners or employees of the Sheriff’s Office.
I continued with my efforts to learn exactly what happened in the change of course in Loudon County but was prohibited from questioning Kerr further on the matter. Chairman Rick Carver said that my questioning was out of order. I challenged the rule of the chair and the rest of the voting members voted against allowing me to continue.
The people of the 7th district elected me to ask the though questions. The BCCP voted to prohibit me from asking the necessary questions to make informed decisions the protect the taxpayers of Blount County and are in the best interest of the community. We were there to decide whether to recommend the company chosen by the PA to the Blount County Commission. I was prohibited by the BCCP from doing what I was elected to do.
What is point of attending these meetings if I am not going to be allowed to do my job? The people deserve to know exactly what happened in Loudon County and how much research that PA Kerr did on MBI but I was prohibited from finding out.
When a new justice center was recommended to the Loudon County Commission, the matter died for a lack of motion.
MBI is the same company that was chosen for the renovation proposals for the high schools that was original estimated at $40M and has now ballooned up to $66M. Given that the same company has been recommended for and involved in two important, and very costly proposals the people deserve answers that Commissioners Dave Bennett, Rick Carver and Mike Caylor and Blount County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff French and Jail Administrator John Adams prohibited me from obtaining.
This is a farce. Nothing about the jail can be trusted.
I have requested Kerr’s notes related to MBI for the jail and high school renovations. We’ll see what I get.
Chairman Rick Carver firstname.lastname@example.org
Commissioner Mike Caylor email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Commissioner Dave Bennett email@example.com
Commissioner Tona Monroe firstname.lastname@example.org
Chief Deputy Jeff French email@example.com
Jail Administrator John Adams firstname.lastname@example.org
Finance Director Randy Vineyard email@example.com
General Session Judge Mike Gallegos firstname.lastname@example.org
Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington email@example.com
Agenda Committee Chairman Steve Samples firstname.lastname@example.org
Commission Chairman Jerome Moon email@example.com
Up next: The commission will be considering MBI for work related to the jail and expansion and renovation of the high schools. Some have contacted me about these matters. If you want answers, you’re going to have to help me as I’ve been stonewalled by the courthouse clique.
Spending increase rejected
The commission actually rejected a spending increase request from the schools for tennis court renovations. This is the first spending request, apart from the annual budget, that this commission has rejected.
State inmate revenue reported incorrectly
After the Tennessee Department of Corrections announced that it would transfer some of its state felons to state facilities, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office started providing the commission a monthly report showing the revenue that the county is receiving from the state for housing state felons. The county receives $37 a day from the state of Tennessee but the reports have been incorrectly stating that the daily per diem rate is $37.50. $37 a day is substantially less than the cost to the county for housing state sentenced felons. Blount County Sheriff James Berrong told the commission last April that the state inmates are only a good deal for the state and that he doesn’t want to keep them.
The commission was asked to approve spending $800,000 of fund balance for the Blount County Highway Department (HD) in a special called meeting. This request was deemed an emergency by Highway Superintendent (HS) Jeff Headrick, due to trucks being damaged by salt.
The request included 8 new single-axial diesel salt trucks and 4 trailers. I asked how many salt trucks the HD has. Headrick didn’t know. Assistant Superintendent Chico Messer told the commission that the HD has 15.
A common sense fleet management policy would be to replace these trucks at the rate of 1 or 2 a year. It doesn’t make sense to replace the majority of your fleet (8 of 15) in one budget year. While this seems to be poor management on the part of the former Highway Superintendent Bill Dunlap, it is also poor planning on the part of the new HS. A slower, more consistent, replacement of the fleet allows for better budget planning and as well as use of the vehicles.
The HD had just purchased 2 new triple-axial trucks in December at a cost of $145,746.80 each. There was a transfer for $35,000 in January for parts.
At the regular commission meeting, the commission was asked to approve $281,000 to purchase a pug mill and asphalt patching trailer as well as $120,000 for asphalt. Commissioner Mike Akard asked if the $120,000 for asphalt was an emergency. Headrick said that it was but no explanation was given as to why it wasn’t included in the special called meeting with the equipment purchase.
Additionally, there was a $13,579.46 request to increase salaries in the Highway Department. Commissioner Dave Bennett asked for this item to be removed without providing an explanation for its removal.
The requests and purchases for equipment and parts total over $1.4M in less than 3 months. This was too much too fast.
It makes sense to approve more money for asphalt because the county hasn’t been keeping up with its paving needs. Headrick said that the $120K will pave an additional 2.25 miles of the 830 miles of local roads. Additionally, I asked him for a list of roads that will be paved in the next year. You can read that list here.
Taxpayers footed the lunch bill for the commission, the mayor and his staff and some highway employees for the special called meeting. Meals paid for by the taxpaying citizens of Blount County have become all too common of a practice.
The commission was asked to approve the use of local tax money to bail out a federally funded program. This isn’t the first time that the federal government has failed to fund one of its programs. Funding was cut and service was to be temporarily halted. This is a good example of why the federal government shouldn’t be running programs. There is no constitutional authority for the federal government to fund this program.
There were unanswered questions. A commissioner who is a part of the courthouse clique said after the meeting that this matter wasn’t explained well to the commission.
As a county commissioner, it isn’t my job to vote to bail out unconstitutional, federal government programs. Furthermore, not one person from my district called me and asked me to vote for this. I was the only commissioner to vote no.
Workers compensation (comp) settlement
The commission was asked to approve a workers comp settlement because the settlement was more than $50,000. The case had been ongoing for over 2 years. I had asked for records related to the case back in December, primarily because I wanted to know the cost of the legal fees for the case, and was provided with nothing. Since I didn’t receive anything, I called Director of General Services Don Stallions and he told me that the legal fees for the case is about $75,000.
I told Mr. Stallions that the commission should, at a minimum, be provided with an annual report on the status of lawsuits and claims against the county, but ideally it should be provided quarterly. He agreed and said that the information used to be provided in the past when the county had a committee dealing with these matters. When I mentioned this at the commission meeting, Commissioner Bennett made a statement cautioning against releasing information. Apparently the status quo of having nothing is acceptable to him, although I doubt he’d run a private business without having this information.
For almost a year, I have been trying to get records and information from Stallions regarding the status of law suits, claims and settlements. To date he has provided me with nothing. This lengthy delay is not out of sort. A former commissioner shared with me that Mr. Stallions stalled him for 2 years on a request.
Jail RFQ purchasing meeting
After I publically criticized the secrecy created by a new purchasing law, the Purchasing Department held a meeting open to the public so three companies chosen in secret could give presentations as to why their company is the best to look at jail expansion or construction of a new facility. No decisions were made at the meeting. The selection of the company was done behind closed doors, to protect the integrity of the process, according to Purchasing Agent (PA) Katie Branham Kerr. This means that the Tennessee General Assembly and the Purchasing Agent think that the public lacks the integrity to allow her to select a company openly.
The Evaluation Team/Screening Committee consisted of 4 of the 5 people that I named here. Laurie Bell did not participate at the meeting. Commissioner Mike Caylor missed two of the three presentations.
Presenters for Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) said that Blount County has a better jail that most in the state and that Monroe County would love to have what we have today.
When asked what the county needs a presenter for Barber McMurry (BMA) said he didn’t know. This affirms what I have been saying, that Blount County got the cart before the horse. The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) and the commission never identified what the county needed.
A presenter for Cope Architecture said he suggested a jail committee that would meet weekly during planning and construction. His suggestion for the makeup of the committee is essentially what exists now with the BCCP.
Upon request, PA Branham Kerr informed me that MBI was chosen. This is the same company that the schools are using that came back with a $66M proposal after originally estimating $40M. The public wasn’t allowed to express concerns about a company that went way over what was originally estimated. We’re told that your comments would have corrupted the integrity of the process.
It’s not surprising that MBI was chosen. They’ve been watching this for years. Roy Latham, an employee of MBI, has been attending commission meetings for years. Commissioners receive a chocolate bar for Christmas from MBI. Allowing them to be chosen in secret makes me wonder if MBI was a shoo-in all along.
Up next: “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.” Indian Proverb
Blount County is facing two big renovation/building project: the 2 high schools and the jail. These two matters could become very expensive, quickly. Pay close attention to these matters.
The Purchasing Agent will make her recommendation for MBI to the BCCP on March 28th at 5:30 in room 430 at the courthouse.
The jail evaluations will meet in the commission room on February 23rd at 8:30 AM to interview the 3 architectural firms that were chosen based on scoring of written qualifications. These written qualifications and scores are currently secret due to a change in Tennessee purchasing law last year. The public will still not be able to comment on the firms. Purchasing Agent Katie Branham wrote of the interviews, “They are open to the public for observation only.”