Archives

Justice Department: States Should Not Jail Poor People Over Fine Nonpayment

Tennessee trial court judges are the best paid in the nation after a cost of living adjustment while the taxpaying people of Tennessee don’t fare so well.  The General Sessions Courts in Blount County have the highest collection rate in the state for court costs.  Should court costs and fines collections be the standard measure of success?

A criminal justice system assessment look at Blount County’s use for the jail as a debtors prison.

From page 87 of the report:
“The answers to these two questions will be an indicator of how often the Blount Jail is being used as a debtors prison. Although federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833, this relic of the past has returned in a modern guise: probation violation. ILPP strongly finds that Blount Jail’s probation violation numbers are substantial enough, and the release of these people would ease or eliminate crowding and/or the need to build.

The federal government is taking a stronger stand on debtors prisons.

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/department-justice-states-should-not-jailed-over-fine-nonpayment-n537796

The Blount County Corrections Partnership should be looking more in depth into the use of the jail to see if anything like this may be going on.

Purchasing Agent explains her duties when it suits the machine

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham is an attorney who came to the county with little relevant purchasing experience.  The citizens of this county are not being well served under her leadership because she is controlled and does what the machine wants.

One of the first things that she did was push to weaken the competitive sealed bid process.  She wrote the jail RFQ resolution but failed to include the word jail in the resolved portion of the resolution.  She presented the commission a contract for leasing cars without providing any comparison of buying verses leasing.  Now she is being selective in describing her duties and authority under state law.

At the April 8th Blount County Corrections Partnership meeting, Branham told the body that under the Purchasing Act of 1957 she could proceed with a request for qualifications (RFQ) to look at jail expansion and program services at the request of the Partnership.  She said that commission approval wasn’t necessary to issue the RFQ.

The commission approved a resolution to authorize the purchasing agent to do something that she said she could do without its authorization.  Why did Branham write a resolution to authorize herself to do something that she said she can do without commission approval?  Couldn’t she have used more accurate wording in the resolution that she wrote for the commission?

Blount County government needs to take a close look at the authority, under state law, of each office and position in county government.  The commission met to authorize the purchasing agent to do something that she said she could do without their approval.  Sheriff James Berrong told the commission at that meeting that the state prisoners were out of local control when state law says that counties don’t have to keep state felons with a continuous sentence of more than one year.  Furthermore at the same meeting, the sheriff said the federal inmates were his decision, while the Comptroller’s Office has said it is unaware of any specific state statute that says he can sign a contract to house federal inmates without commission approval.

Does anyone within the political machine of Blount County government understand their duties and authority under state law?  Commissioner Mike Caylor was so unaware at the BCCP meeting that he consulted the finance director, who told him that he had heard the same thing that the finance director heard.

Does Branham understand what she is doing?  When asked if 30 days would be enough time, she said that 30 days should be sufficient time for to issue the RFQ.  It took Mrs. Branham’s office 12 weeks to issue the RFQ.

I (Tona Monroe) was told that the US Marshals Service follows local purchasing procedures with federal inmate contracts.  Thus, I sought to find out what, if any, authority the local purchasing agent has related to contracting to house federal inmates.

Mrs. Branham won’t tell me if she has the authority to sign or execute a contract to house federal inmates.  She had no problem explaining her duties as she understands them under the state law when the machine asked for clarification.  Why the selective explanation of duties?  Unfortunately this is par for the course of questionable legal authority in Blount County government.

Sheriff Berrong said he doesn’t want to keep state prisoners and they’re only a good deal for the state

In April, Mayor Ed Mitchell called a special commission meeting for the sole purpose of the commission
voting to authorize the purchasing agent to issue a request for qualifications related to jail design and program services.  At that meeting, Sheriff James Lee Berrong said that he and his staff try to get rid of state prisoners every day, that is out of his control whether the state takes its prisoners, that he doesn’t want to keep the state prisoners and that the revenue the state sends the county is only a good deal for the state of Tennessee.

Direct quotes from Sheriff James Lee Berrong at the meeting include:

“We try every day to get rid of the state prisoners.  I don’t want to keep the state prisoners.”
“We make a request every single day.” (to get rid of state prisoners)
“Out of our control (state prisoners).  We get like $37.50 which is not a good deal for anybody other than the state.”

You can listen to the sheriff’s statements.

How do these statements compare to the sky is falling Chicken Little PR propaganda that we’re hearing now that the state actually removed many of its prisoners from the jail?

Which is the biggest tall tale: the mayor saying there has been no conversation about expanding the jail or the sheriff saying that he doesn’t want to keep state prisoners and tries to get rid of them every day?

The series of articles has begun

Yesterday I posted a comment that I received that the typical response from government related to a reduction in inmates in the jail is to allege how harmful this will be to Blount County’s budget and how the media will be right there with these government officials publishing a series of articles.  Predictably there is another article today and we are seeing the situation described in the comment come to fruition.

A TV station also did a story.  The story didn’t include any of the actual figures and solutions that I provided to the TV station.

Mark Twain is credited with saying “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”  This same is true for other news sources.

I gave several figures and solutions to resolve the issues related to state inmates being removed from the local jail but the TV station didn’t publish that and instead published the two sentences that sounded the most sensational.  Americans have grow distrustful of media.  I can see why.

This is another comment and view of the media coverage of the jail situation that was sent to me last week.  “All that sheriff does is talk about you in the articles. He doesn’t address the topic at hand, he just passively says he’s doing his job and then goes on a tirade about you.  That writer Joel in all these articles needs to go back to journalism school and learn how to focus his writing on the topics at hand.  He’s just spewing gossip at this point, with very little substance in his pieces.  He’s not writing for the national enquirer about celebrities here, but that seems to be his writing style.  Journalists are now held in similar regards/disdain as lawyers in this country.”

I recommend the book Stonewalled by Sharyl Attkinson.  Attkinson, a reporter, talks about obstruction, intimidation and harassment tactics from the federal government and the media’s willingness to go along to get along and repeated failures to accurately cover the news.  The situation is similar in Blount County.

Comment on inmate labor in animal shelter and jail and media coverage

Emails and phone calls have been rolling in regarding the jail and possible bias in media coverage of the jail.  This comment was received today, in response to the article in the paper about the Animal Center requesting a budget increase.  People are questioning why it appears that only the state felons were doing the inmate labor.

“That is soooo typical.

It was only the state felons who fed and walked dogs and cleaned kennels who got pulled. And there are no others left in the jail who can do this!

It will end up with a “series” of articles on the awful impact of having fewer inmates in the jail.

So crime and an overcrowded jail are the keys to Blount’s budget?

You depend on crime and state felons to fund your budget and provide labor.

Your 400 “other” inmates can’t/won’t pick up the slack?

The animal shelter can’t find any other inmates in a 400-person facility to clean kennels and walk and feed dogs?”

Note: Comments/statements should not be viewed as total statement of facts.  This includes statements from government officials, that the media parrots and likes to sensationalize.  However, comments from the community do reflect the views and questions of the community.

July 2016 Commission Report

Proverbs 23:  1When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee:  And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite.  Be not desirous of his dainties: for they are deceitful meat.  Labour not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom.

Agenda Committee
Commissioners Mike Akard, Mike Caylor, Peggy Lambert and Tona Monroe were absent.

Commissioner Jamie Daly put forward a resolution to say that citizens aren’t out of order for citing sources and should be allowed to speak rather than being declared out of order.  This came as a result of Commission Chairman Jerome Moon shutting down citizens during public input at the special called commission meeting in April.  Commissioner Mike Caylor objected to me citing the Institute for Law and Policy Planning study.  Moon declared me out of order as well as the citizens when the study was referenced.  Daly’s resolution said “the Commission Chairman and the Blount County Legislative Body will not prohibit citizens from citing supporting references during public input.”  You can read the resolution here on page 108.

The commission voted to table this.  Only commissioners Archie Archer, Jamie Daly and Karen Miller voted against the motion to table the resolution.  I would have voted for the resolution had I been present.  The majority of commissioners are now on record saying that they don’t want you to come to commission meetings prepared with references that support your positions.

Commission meeting
Commissioner Peggy Lambert was absent.

Zoning request for storage units was voted down
The commission rejected a request to rezone a parcel of land from residential to commercial.  I have to wonder if the request would have been approved if the man making it had been politically connected.

Commissioner Ron French led an effort to amend the zoning regulations so that a politically connected office holder could have his land rezoned to commercial to put in a commercial business.  The regulations were written such that one of the few intersections that could be rezoned belonged to an office holder.  Would you and I be able to get the zoning regulations amended to put a commercial development on our property?  Why would commissioner French work so hard for one of the good ole’ boys but vote against this request?

After serving nearly two years, I’ve come to the conclusion that zoning has destroyed the private property rights of the people of Blount County and is nothing more than a tool of the political machine to limit competition.  Unfortunately, there are some in the community who play right into the hands of the political machine, thinking that they are keeping Blount County safe from developers while preserving the scenic beauty.  However, the machine gets what they want, competition is limited and property rights are nothing more than property privileges granted by government.

I’ve been asked what I like best about being a county commissioner and what I like least about being a county commissioner.  What I enjoy best is advocating for the liberty of the people that I represent.  Government should be limited and justice should be blind.  The most disappointing thing is the lack of citizen participation in government.  I’d love to see more involvement from the people.  What I dislike the most about being a county commissioner is voting on zoning regulations and requests for rezoning.  21 people sit as a board of overlords and micromanage land use regulations.  We’re suppose to protect property rights, not eliminate your rights and grant special privileges to a select few.

It is ridiculous that we don’t have more small businesses such as restaurants out in the county.  People shouldn’t be forced to drive into the cities for small businesses that could be readily available in the county without destroying the scenic beauty.  We should stop to think about the pollution created by people driving into cities for simple household items and a meal that could easily be obtained in the county.  Small businesses aren’t going to destroy the scenic beauty of Blount County anymore than new subdivisions, yet subdivisions have been placed all around the county.  Have you noticed that it is usually the large chain that can work through this complicated, political process?

We’re always told that the roads can’t handle any more traffic.  It is true that we have some roads that are in bad shape and some that are in need of expansion.  However, we need to ask if private property rights are dependent upon which road you live on.  We’re told that roads are too narrow for trucks to travel through.  If that is the case then then trucks should be prohibited from traveling on these narrow roads, but this is often not the case.  Rather than talking about how bad roads are to limit development, we should work to fix the roads that are dangerous.

Furthermore, the economic consequences of zoning has resulted in the cities getting the lion’s share of sales tax because the county’s zoning regulations are so restrictive toward development.  The last time I inquired, I was told that roughly 85% of businesses were in the cities

Zoning was started 100 years ago in New York City to deal with skyscrapers.  The County doesn’t have skyscrapers.  The only building that might fit that definition is in the City of Maryville.  However,  zoning regulations have been expanded through the last century to impact nearly all development.

What we have in place with zoning is a system that is suppose to protect property rights but it doesn’t.  Connected people get what they want and those who aren’t connected don’t get what they want.  No one that I talk with thinks the system is fair, even if they strongly support having zoning.  It’s just a system and not a very good one at that.

Some land use regulations are good, such as setbacks from roads and flowing water.  However, I think it is time for Blount County to have a discussion on whether zoning is serving us well.  For reasons stated here and many more, I conclude that the county is not well served by the system in place and that we should look at taking a different approach to land use regulations.

Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP)
The BCCP met and did nothing other than approve the meeting minutes of the last meeting and receive and briefly discuss some paperwork that is submitted monthly to the Tennessee Corrections Institute as a part of the Plan of Action to address issues related to overcrowding.  The updated Plan of Action was not included in the paperwork provided to the BCCP.  I had to request that.

The resolution that I introduced in May to request that the sheriff stop housing federal inmates in the local jail was sent by the Agenda Committee to the BCCP after the courthouse clique failed to kill the resolution through parliamentary procedure.  None of the sheriff’s employees, friends and relatives would second my motion; therefore it died for a lack of a second.

I wasn’t able to offer discussion on the matter.  If I had been able, I would have referenced the response that I received from the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury that says their legal staff could find no specific law that says the sheriff can sign a contract to house federal inmates without commission approval.

Commission Secretary Rhonda Pitts continued her failure to accurately record the meeting minutes.  The minutes of the April 7, 2016 BCCP meeting say, “Tona Monroe made a motion to amend the motion.  There was no second.”  The minutes do not reflect what my motion would have done to the recommendation that the BCCP sent to the commission.  However, I made the same motion at the commission meeting that the mayor called to authorize the purchasing agent to issue an RFQ related to the jail.  That motion is reflected in the commission minutes.  Why was my motion fully recorded in the minutes of one meeting and not the other?

The one good thing that is happening is the Sheriff’s Office request for guidance in establishing a reentry program for those who are incarcerated to integrate back into society.  This is something that I would have liked to have seen several years ago.  Furthermore, this is something that  I would have tried to get the BCCP to look into if the BCCP had been meeting regularly and without interference from people like Commissioner Rick Carver.  The BCCP and County Commission should have listened to the findings and conclusions of the author of the jail study.  A reentry program would have been a logical step forward after hearing from the author who could have helped us get started on this process much sooner.

Information Technology (IT) Committee
The IT Committee meeting was canceled with no explanation given for the cancellation.  With $1.3M having been put into a fund in a rush last year, these meetings should not be canceled.

Up next
The Agenda Committee meeting will be held at the courthouse at 6:30 PM in room 430 on Tuesday the 9th.  The commission meeting will be held in the same room at 7 PM in the same room on Thursday the 18th.

Cumberland County Commissioner and Jail Administrator says state inmates are 900-pound gorilla not being discussed

I’ve done what I can to see that state inmates are being discussed in Blount County. 

http://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2016/02/04/county-jails-shoulder-cost-housing-state-inmates/79709958/

Is someone not telling the truth?

The local paper had a quote from Mayor Ed Mitchell in the Saturday paper saying, “There has been no conversation between me, the sheriff, nor anyone else about building a jail.  You’ve heard so many people out there say that we’re wanting to build a jail.  You’re listening to one person who is giving fact-less information, disseminating it to the public with no basis.”

Fact #1: State record mentions conversation between mayor and sheriff

The mayor says there has been no conversation between him and the sheriff about building a jail and that one person is giving fact-less information to the public.  Let’s compare what he said with the minutes of the September 2, 2015 Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control meeting.  Statements attributed to Sherriff James Berrong appear to contradict what the mayor told the Blount Partnership/Chamber of Commerce.

“Sheriff Berrong said he addressed the board three years ago and at that time said that the mayor did not think he had a problem but rather thought the sheriff had a problem. Since that time, the mayor is on board 100 percent and called the sheriff the previous day and told the sheriff that one million dollars had been escrowed and earmarked for a new jail and plan to do the same thing next year. The sheriff said they are making great strides and progress with cooperation between the jail and the mayor’s office. He added that they also have a commission that does not believe there is a problem.”

Well gee mayor, did that conversation happen or not?  A state record says it did.

Fact #2: Mayor called a special commission meeting with a resolution to authorize a request for qualifications (RFQ) pertaining to the jail

Mayor Ed Mitchell called a special session meeting of the Board of County Commissioners of Blount County, Tennessee in April of this year.  The agenda contained one item: a resolution to authorize the purchasing agent to solicit a request for qualifications for architectural planning and/or design services and/or programing services for Blount County, Tennessee.

Well gee mayor, did you call a meeting to put the RFQ resolution before the commission without talking to anyone, including the sponsors of the resolution?

Fact #3: The RFQ project overview says county is seeking services to plan and design a jail expansion

The project overview in the RFQ says, “Blount County Government is soliciting Requests for Qualifications from licensed Architectural and/or Engineering firms for professional services necessary to plan and design a jail expansion for Blount County, Tennessee.”  See page 9 for the quote.  Under Proposal Award it says, “Once an agreement is reached, the Purchasing Agent will then request that the full Blount County Commission approve a multi-year contract.”  See page 16 for that quote.

Well gee mayor, did you call a meeting to have the commission vote on an RFQ to seek services to plan and design a jail expansion without talking to anyone about it?

What kind of leader would assign $1 million of fund balance and call a meeting to seek commission approval for issuing a document that says the county is requesting qualifications for services to plan and design a jail expansion without talking about it?  Were there no conversations or is someone not telling the truth?

Tennessee Comptroller’s Office says it can find no specific statutory authority for a sheriff to sign a contract to house federal inmates without commission approval

Dear Blount County Citizens,

For several months, I have been trying to find a state law that authorizes a sheriff to sign a contract to house federal inmates in the local jail without county commission approval.  Several that I have spoken with have told me that a sheriff does not have the authority but nothing was put in writing until today.

The response from Jim Arnette, the Director of Local Government Audit, in the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury is below.

Most commissioners may have tacitly approved housing federal inmates, according to the Comptroller’s Office, by voting for an annual budget which includes revenue from this contract.  Karen Miller and I voted no on the budget this year.  Commissioner Mike Akard voted no on the budget at the Agenda Committee but was absent for the final vote at the June Commission meeting.  The rest have voted for a budget that appropriates revenue received from the federal inmates contract.

Let freedom ring!
Tona Monroe
Blount County Commissioner
District 7 Seat B

—–Original Message—–
From: “Jim Arnette” <Jim.Arnette@cot.tn.gov>
Sent: Monday, July 25, 2016 9:32am
To: “tona@breezeair.net” <tona@breezeair.net>
Cc: “Justin Wilson” <Justin.Wilson@cot.tn.gov>
Subject: RE: Does a sheriff have authority to sign a contract without commission approval?

Ms. Monroe,

We have discussed your inquiry with our legal staff…

We can find no specific statutory authority for the Sheriff to enter into the contract for housing Federal detainees.  Generally, the board of county commissioners holds the contracting authority in Tennessee county governments.

Section 41-8-106, Tennessee Code Annotated, contains guidance on contracting to house state prisoners, and provides for the county “through the authority of its county legislative body”, “to contract with the department of correction for the purpose of housing certain felons.” Although there is no reference to federal prisoners in this statute, the Commission’s general power to enter into/authorize contracts, would seem to allow them to approve a contract to house federal prisoners.

If the revenues generated from housing federal prisoners has been included in the general fund budget which was approved by the Blount County Commission, it seems reasonable that the Commission was aware of the boarding of federal prisoners. If this is in fact the case, it could be construed as tacit approval of the contract.

Jim Arnette, CGFM, CISA
Director
Comptroller of the Treasury
Division of Local Government Audit
1500 James K. Polk Building
Nashville, Tennessee  37243-1402
615.401.7841

 

From: tona@breezeair.net [mailto:tona@breezeair.net]
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2016 5:34 PM
To: Justin Wilson <Justin.Wilson@cot.tn.gov>; Jim Arnette <Jim.Arnette@cot.tn.gov>
Subject: Does a sheriff have authority to sign a contract without commission approval?

Dear Comptroller Wilson and Mr. Arnette,

Does a sheriff have the authority under state law to sign a contract without commission approval?  Blount County Sheriff James Lee Berrong signed a contract with the US Marshals Service to house inmates in the Blount County Adult Detention Facility.  This contract was not approved by the Blount County Commission.  It is attached for your review.

Sincerely,

Tona Monroe

Claiborne County voters to determine jail expansion bond issue

ClaiborneCoNoJailExpansion

Sign in Claiborne County

Voters in Claiborne County will determine whether the county should issue bonds for jail expansion in this August 4th election.  A Circuit judge, acting in his private capacity as a citizen, is opposing jail expansion saying the county losses money on its inmates, just as I (Tona Monroe) have been saying here in Blount County.

There has been confusion about the role of the Tennessee Correction Institute (TCI) and the TCI Board of Control.  The TCI inspects local jails.  The TCI Board of Control votes to certify a jail as being in compliance or not in compliance with jail standards.  The TCI and its Board of Control can not shut down a jail for not being in compliance with state standards.

The Blount County Purchasing Agent finally issued the RFQ for jail expansion last week, 12 weeks after the commission authorized it.  With the state inmates being removed, the only thing the county should look at expanding is programs.  If the Blount County Commission pushes for an unnecessary jail expansion, then the citizens of Blount County should be able to weigh in on the issue through a referendum.

Pay supplements aren’t required

At the June Blount County Board of Commissioners meeting, I (Tona Monroe) tried to cut the salaries of Mayor Ed Mitchell, Sheriff James Berrong, Highway Superintended Jeff Headrick and Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher to the minimum salaries required by state law.  Only Commissioner Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted to cut the salaries to the state minimum.  Commissioner Mike Akard was absent.  Last year, it was just the 3 ladies and Mike Akard who voted to cut the salaries to the state minimum.  All the rest supported these 4 being paid substantially more than we are required to pay them.

At the meeting, Chairman Jerome Moon lead the commission to believe that we had to pay the sheriff an additional pay supplement.  This pay supplement would trigger the mayor being paid more because the mayor is required to be paid 5% above the next highest paid official, which is the sheriff.  I had read the laws governing salaries and didn’t think we were required to pay more.  However, I could of missed something and inquired which law.  Moon didn’t know what law required us to give a pay supplement.  Neither did the sheriff or Commissioner Steve Samples, the longest serving commissioner.

I asked the County Technical Assistance Service for clarification on salary laws because minimum and maximum salaries are referenced.  CTAS failed to respond.  Thus, I sent the same questions to the Tennessee County Commissioners Association and received a response.  We (the county) are not required to pay these additional supplements.  Cutting these discretionary pay supplements would save the taxpayers $91,713 this budget year.

Below is his response and the attachment received is available here.

—–Original Message—–
From: Charlie Curtiss
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2016 11:27am
To: Tona
Subject: RE: Minimum and maximum salaries for elected officials

Tona,

There is not a maximum salary listed in the Tennessee Code, there are a few references but the law they reference was deleted in 1990. The legislature sets the minimum salary based upon a county’s classification. If the county commission wants to pay above the minimum salary that is their choice.

Tennessee code allows that a county commission can pay a sheriff additional salary to administer a workhouse. The law does not require a the county to provide an additional amount, it just allows a county commission to pay more if they chose to do so.

The fact that Tennessee law at one time set a maximum  salary, there is language in several parts of the law that give authority to go above the maximum salary. As I mentioned above, that language in not in the law today but there references are still there and it becomes confusing.

The state law says the county legislative body may pay additional compensation to a sheriff to administer a workhouse but it is not required.

I have attached a word document that has some support information.

Thanks,

Charlie

 

From: Tona
Sent: Sunday, July 17, 2016 5:32 PM
To: Charlie Curtiss
Subject: Minimum and maximum salaries for elected officials

Dear Charlie,

Wesley at CTAS has failed to respond to this email, like so many.
Do you know the answer to these questions?

Thanks,

Tona

 

—–Original Message—–
From: Tona

Sent: Thursday, June 30, 2016 11:06pm
To: “Robertson, Wesley Ross” <
wrober25@mail.tennessee.edu>, “Robertson, Wesley Ross” <wrober25@utk.edu>
Cc: “Roberts, Robin A” <
robin.roberts@tennessee.edu>
Subject: Minimum and maximum salaries for elected officials

Hi Wesley,

State statute 8-24-102 governs minimum salaries for elected officials.  CTAS publishes those minimum salaries, which I have a copy of. 

 

State statute 8-24-103 references a maximum salary for the sheriff. 

 

(3) No sheriff shall claim, hold, or have any interest in such funds for services performed under § 8-24-102, fees paid the sheriff as a witness for appearing in court, the boarding of prisoners at the county jail, ex officio services, or fees from any other source whatsoever, except that this provision and the provisions of subdivision (a)(2) are not intended to prevent the county legislative body from paying the sheriff in such county an amount in addition to the maximum salary allowed by § 8-24-102 for ex officio services as superintendent of the workhouse, if the workhouse in such county is combined with the jail as provided for by title 41, chapter 2.

 

Questions:

1) What is the maximum salary in 103 that references 102?

2) Can a supplement be given for a workhouse if the county does not have a workhouse?

3) For purposes of 8-24-11 and/or any other statute, is the jail considered an ex officio service?

4) Is the commission required to give the sheriff any pay supplement above the minimum (excluding the Court Clerk supplement that requires an additional 10%)?

 

Sincerely,

Tona