Saturday, September 22, 2007

Grist from the rumor mill

Coverage of The Knoxville News-Sentinel v. The Knox County Commission will resume on Monday.

Meanwhile, here is some grist to chew on from the Nashville rumor mill. Last week, an anonymous commenter on my posts on the Rob Briley and Mary Littleton situation wrote this:

Here is an insider scoop on Mary Littleton - she has been known to have had a few flings with Bruce Pearl in the past year. Mary seems to go for the married powerful types. Wonder if she will be Bruce's attorney as well?

Now Coach Pearl is not a political figure, and this weblog is not the National Enquirer. I have little interest in Coach Pearl's personal affairs, and as a basketball coach, there are few better in the land...but this is a very interesting rumor considering Ms. Littleton's history. I had dismissed it at very made-up gossip-but then yesterday I got a call from someone privy to the daily rumor mill up on the Hill in Nashville, and that person heard the same story from someone with influence at the Capitol-the call was to bring it to my attention.

If Ms. Littleton was (or is) carrying on an affair with Bruce Pearl, a man who has become a public figure in Tennessee by virtue of his success on the basketball court, then there is some proof that Ms. Littleton targets the high and the mighty for her own personal glory. She was seeing the Chairman of the Tennessee House Judiciary Committee, a man of tremendous power until his abrupt fall. When he begins his downward spiral, she then goes after a nationally renowned basketball coach with a current level of popularity in this State not far removed from the Trinity.

There are good reasons Coach Pearl is so popular-as far as programs go, his is play-by-the-rules squeaky clean, and he still manages to win. He has a lot going for him, and it is for that reason that if there is any truth to any of this, I'd watch where I tread were I Coach Pearl. It seems the men in Ms. Littleton's life don't all turn out very well.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

The sensational motive

Throughout my weblog posts and "coverage of the coverage" of the Knoxville News-Sentinel's lawsuit of the Knox County Commission, I have held up the possibility that the paper has other motives aside from public transparency. The KNS editorial board all but admits that it supports metropolitan government in Knox County, and since the paper does wield more political power in East Tennessee than its Editor-in-Chief and Scripps would care to admit, Knox Countians had better dust off those voting machines, because a referendum is probably coming (for the fifth time).

The notion that News-Sentinel editor Jack McElroy has some other motives came up in court yesterday:

The exchange between Stackhouse, McElroy and his attorney, Richard Hollow, was much more brief but far more fiery.

It began when Stackhouse accused McElroy of filing the lawsuit to drive up readership and, thereby, push up advertising rates.

You mean the paper's lead editor might want to do something sensational to drive up the profit margin of the paper? No! Really?

McElroy denied the claim.

“I think a newspaper should step up and stand up for public access,” McElroy testified.

And a newspaper should not only create the news, but might as well create the lead story by bringing about what may be the most senational and precedent-setting civil trials in Tennessee history.

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Public officials and constitutional rights

I have long believed that if one party is somehow "more guilty" than others of violating the Open Meetings Act in relation to the now-infamous appointments of eight Knox County Commissioners, it was Knox County Commission Chairman Scott Moore, not Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, as most people familiar with these proceedings seem to believe. If mobile phone records are an indication of conduct that could be construed as violating the Sunshine Law, than Scott Moore's phone records are utterly damning:

Those records showed that Moore called Chuck Bolus, his campaign treasurer, hours before the state Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding term limits.

The court already had announced that it would release its opinion later that same day — Jan. 12.

His phone records showed calls to Hutchison in the days after the ruling and also calls to an employee of Hutchison’s, Lee Tramel, who also won a seat on commission in a hotly-contested battle between Tramel and Scott Davis, long linked to Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale.

Moore made a total of 23 phone calls to Bolus from Jan. 12 to Jan. 31 lasting a total of three hours and seven minutes. He also made 23 calls to Tramel, lasting a total of one hour and 45 minutes.

The News-Sentinel has its obvious biases in covering this court case (it is the Plaintiff) so I would not expect it to be the media which brings to light the key Constitutional question that arises as a result of examining Moore's phone records:

Even if the Commission meeting on January 31 were conducted with greater public input and been in full compliance with the Sunshine Law on that day, if Moore was going to move to nominate Bolus, does not Bolus have the right to know this in advance? If he does, than unless the News-Sentinel or the Chancery Court managed to get a warrant to listen in on Moore's phone conversations, it is a matter of raw speculation that Moore broke the Sunshine Law as it relates to Bolus' appointment. If Moore planned to nominate his friend Bolus, does the law not give him the right to alert Bolus to this reality in advance? If not, it could be argued that the Open Meetings Act as it is presently written infringes on private free speech and violates the right to privacy that is more explicitly found in the Tennessee Constitution.

In the rush to insure that justice is done, it must be remembered that Knox County Commissioners are also citizens, and that means that as surely as they must abide by the laws that they pass and are not above the law, they also enjoy the same rights and liberties provided by the Tennessee Constitution and the Constitution of the United States as does any other citizen. In plain English, that means that Scott Moore has the right to a telephone conversation with his friend Charles Bolus, and whether or not the Sunshine Law was broken in that conversation is a matter of legal speculation.

In no way does this dismiss the conduct of Knox County Commissioners on January 31 as somehow legitimate in the truest sense-it does not. What this situation does illustrate is our propensity to want the rights that we take for granted as citizens to apply to us, but not to the people that we elect to represent us. If we expect (and rightly so) that our elected officials are not above the laws they pass for us, the protections of our rights and liberties within the Constitution apply as much to those sworn to uphold that Constitution as it does to those who must live under it.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mark Harmon's double standard

Knox County Commissioner Mark Harmon, who I would likely have challenged for the 2A seat had my write-in candidacy (spurred by the original Tennessee Supreme Court decision) continued and gone to a District Republican Convention, testified in Court yesterday in the News-Sentinel's suit over whether the Knox County Commission violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act on January 31. Harmon has always struck me as the well-meaning but misguided liberal sort, but as a person who entered the entire process of appointing the term-limited Commissioners definately having his own agenda.

Since January 31, Mark Harmon has attempted to play the saint-the guardian of the people's will and the champion of open government:

Harmon said he believed commission Chairman Scott Moore engineered the Jan. 31 meeting by using his fellow pro-Hutchison commissioners and a private polling process. Moore was motivated, Harmon said, to craft a process with little public input to make sure that the pro-Hutchison group maintained its power on commission by seating in term-limited positions those similarly loyal to the sheriff.

“I believe it was done with speed and secrecy to make it less likely that other options would get a fair shake, that we would be locked into this procedure,” Harmon testified.

“It was necessary to make certain at least most of the new appointees … were sympathetic to the sheriff.”

What little debate was conducted in public was “window dressing,” Harmon said.

How awful! Commissioners loyal to one side or the other in the perpetual feud between former Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison and Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale were angling to stack the Commission with people who supported their ideas and aspirations. Mark Harmon would never stoop to the level of trying to force those who supported his agenda on to the County Commission.

Or would he?:

Stackhouse and Harmon sparred this afternoon for nearly an hour. Harmon conceded that he made a deal with Commissioner Greg “Lumpy” Lambert in secret in which Lambert would back one of Harmon’s nominees, and Harmon would in turn back one of Lambert’s picks.

That deal fell through when Moore decided to nominate his campaign treasurer, Chuck Bolus, a choice Harmon said Lambert told him was a done deal before the meeting started.

I understand it much more clearly now, and I see Harmon's point. He believes that the sunshine law applies to other Commissioners but not to him, and somehow it was alright for him to enter into negotiations with Lumpy Lambert out of the public eye, but the same practice ought not be utilized by Lambert and any other Commissioners. In other words, other Commissioners should do as Mark Harmon says but not as Mark Harmon does.

I have heard from multiple sources that Mark Harmon did have his own agenda that day, and that he made it clear to others that he intended to do whatever he could to see liberals appointed that day. If true, it was apparently just fine for him to use whatever tactics that he deemed necessary to accomplish this goal, but those same rules should not apply to other Commissioners-perhaps because that would mean that Harmon would be both out-maneuvered and out-voted.

Oatney On the Air-September 19/20 2007


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What shall be gained by the suit?

Both before and since the News-Sentinel's lawsuit against the Knox County Commission began, the public mood has been one of justifiable anger at how the appointments of the term-limited County Commissioners were made. Few disagree that the entire process wreaked of back room dealing, especially since at least one Commissioner has already admitted that negotiations took place during recesses while the Commission was meeting to make these decisions.

The larger problem is not that the Commission may have broken the law, but that the law that Knox County Commissioners are accused of breaking has utterly no teeth. The Tennessee Open Meetings Act is worded grandly in demanding openness of public meetings and government business, but its wording is broad in definition. It does not make a distinction between freedom of speech and thought (two officials sharing an opinion with one another, for example), and a convened meeting. Perhaps worst of all (as I pointed out on yesterday's Halerin Hilton Hill Show), the Act does not provide any real penalties for its violation. What all of this really means is that the State of Tennessee has a Sunshine Law that can be broken on paper, but in a de facto sense, it is hard to determine what constitutes breaking a law that is broadly defined and clearly unenforceable. By the legal definitions provided in the Open Meetings Act, the General Assembly broke the law about once an hour during the two days that I was in Nashville this past March.

Knowing that the Open Meetings Act is not technically enforceable, the question should then be begged: What does the News-Sentinel hope to accomplish in its suit against the Knox County Commission? Does it seek a do-over of the appointment process? While a re-appointment meeting may go smother than the original one did in January, there is nothing to prevent Commissioners from appointing the same eight people that they did before. There is no provision in Tennessee law that would allow for a special election to fill the eight Commission seats before November 2008. Had there been such a provision, none of the issues which brought about this court case would likely exist.

How do the Plaintiffs propose that we punish the guilty? The law certainly gives no guidance on this point whatsoever. Shall Chancellor Fansler call the Defendants to the bench and slap them on the hands ("Bad Commissioners!" "Unruly children!" "Naughty boys and girls!")? Shall he take a paddle to their rears?

Had this kind of mess occurred when any State House or Senate seats or with any key State offices, I have no doubt that Governor Bredesen would have wasted no time in calling a special session of the General Assembly to more clearly define what it is to violate the Open Meetings Act and to give the law teeth by adding real punitive costs for breaking the law. In the next session of the Legislature, the House and Senate need to amend the Open Meetings Act to clear up any confusion as to what is and is not breaking the law, and stiff penalties need to be added so that judges in future cases can punish derelict public officials who ignore the legal perameters under which they are supposed to operate.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Triple H

If you didn't catch my appearance on the Halerin Hilton Hill Morning Show this morning, I will have more on it tomorrow: Chiefly, I'll discuss what the most we can expect from the News-Sentinel's Sunshine Law trial.

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In the view of history

In Friday's post, I detailed just how disappointed I was in the conduct and attitude of Knox County Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert. Yesterday, Richard Hollow, the attorney for the News-Sentinel, and Herbert Moncier, the attorney for nine suing citizens who have joined the paper's lawsuit alleging that the Knox County Commission broke the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, asked Chancellor Daryl Fansler to enter a default judgment of guilt against Lambert for failing to turn over his mobile phone records as requested by the Chancery Court.

Lambert's current reason for failing to turn over the requisite documents is that Crickett is his mobile telephone provider, and that company only keeps back records for six months. Problem number one makes itself apparent immediately when one considers that phone records were first requested by the Court in March, and had the Commissioner obtained the records and submitted them at that time, the submitted records would have included the January period the Court was most interested in.

However, Fansler noted, that Lambert had been asked in March to turn over the phone records. All other commissioners faced with similar requests complied. Lambert, Fansler noted, simply responded: “I do not have the records” and later added that he did not intend to get them.

Despite Crickett's policy of only maintaining records for six months, phone records are stored somewhere precisely in case they are needed for a legal proceeding, so if the records were subpoenaed, Crickett could provide them so long as Lambert were willing to cooperate. It has been clear throughout these proceedings that he does not.

For some reason that only God and Lumpy Lambert understand, the Commissioner seems to think himself above the law. It is not a matter of choice to comply with a Chancery Court order, you either comply or you face the consequences of not complying. If a person really believes that they are being persecuted unfairly by the justice system, it is their right and their prerogative to refuse to obey those orders-the crux is that they must face the consequences that come with disobeying the orders of the Court.

In Lambert's case, viewpoint-based persecution was not the object of the Chancellor's request, but to obtain the needed evidence to render a fair and sound judgment in what may become one of the most controversial trials in the two hundred and eleven year history of the State of Tennessee. When the history books are written long after The Knoxville News-Sentinel v. The Knox County Commission is decided, I believe that it may be determined to be a landmark case not just in Tennessee history, but in American history for determining the extent of how open the proceedings of our government are supposed to be. Somehow, I believe that Chancellor Fansler understands all too well the weight of his duties in this case and his responsibility to history.

With each passing hour that these proceedings drag on, I question whether Lumpy Lambert considers how history will view him...or does he even care?


Monday, September 17, 2007

The Sentinel's other agenda?

Although I have admitted here that I strongly believe the Knoxville News-Sentinel's suit against the Knox County Commission for violating the Open Meetings Act has merit because, regardless of the outcome of the court case, it could force county government to clean up its act. The KNS has all but admitted in its editorial this past Friday that it has another agenda:

While unification of Knoxville and Knox County is a worthy goal, the county has too much else to deal with right now.

The issue has arisen with the results of a University of Tennessee poll that shows a majority of Knox County residents living outside the city limits favors consolidating city and county governments.

Some observers consider that a stunning development, since residents who live outside the city defeated similar proposals in 1959, 1978, 1983 and 1996.

The poll was commissioned by the News Sentinel and WBIR-TV to gauge public opinion on county government in general. The results show that 58.6 percent of residents outside the city limits support or strongly support metro government.

I have always felt that the News-Sentinel has an editorial bent that tends to be left-of-center (something that is in keeping with other Scripps newspapers), and that if the Democratic Party were more viable in East Tennessee, that the KNS would likely support the Democrats in a much more open fashion. Since I strongly believe in a newspaper's right to take whatever editorial line it chooses, I can't disparage the News-Sentinel editorial board for doing just that (no matter how out-of-step with East Tennessee that position happens to be). The problem arises when those editorial views seep in to how the paper reports the news and the manner in which the paper chooses to serve the public.

In launching the suit over the sunshine law against Knox County, few would argue that the News-Sentinel is fulfilling one of the primary duties of a community newspaper in acting in the service of the voters. After Friday's editorial, however, one has to ask whether the News-Sentinel is doing this solely in the public interest. Does the News-Sentinel have a larger agenda than merely cleaning up county government in Knox County? Are the lawsuit and the Friday editorial really opening shots in a campaign for consolidated metropolitan government with the paper as the primary print voice for the Yes campaign?

Unfortunately, Knoxville and large portions of East Tennessee are now a one newspaper region. Since I now live in Jefferson County, I read the Standard Banner-but it is only published twice a week. The Morristown Citizen-Tribune is not only editorially suspect, it simply lacks quality news gathering. The Kingsport Times-News is quite good as far as local newspapers go, but there is little coverage of Knoxville news for those of us who live close enough to Tennessee's first capital. The Knoxville Journal is the obvious choice to fulfill the role of balancer to the News-Sentinel, but the former Whig is now a non-viable weekly.

The News-Sentinel ought to know that Knox Countians are undergoing a period of rightful anger and are prone to knee-jerk reactions when dealing with a crisis in government such as they now face. It is not in the public service at all to begin yet another campaign for metro government during a period when voter anger can be so manipulated.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Earlmont's last hurrah

The horse known as Earlmont Coup D'etat is an American Saddlebred and has had a long career and many a ribbon and trophy to her credit. She is a direct descendant of Wing Commander, one of the greatest Saddlebred showhorses of all time and the preeminent sire of the breed. Her bloodlines showed in the ring where she was most at home. She is 20 years old now, and has shown for at least the last 15.

In the life of every horse who works, whether it is a racing thoroughbred, a drafthorse, or a Saddlebred showhorse that they send the unmistakable signal to their owner and rider: "I'm tired. You are welcome to ride me and love me, but I can't do this show thing anymore." Last night was the night that Earlmont Coup D'etat-we call her "Baby"-sent that signal. She just made it clear by her behavior in the ring that she didn't want to be shown anymore. She had won far more than her share of blue ribbons and first place trophies, and she did her bit, and said to the human world "I did a lot of good, now its time to retire."

That doesn't mean we aren't disappointed to lose her as a show horse. She has a spunk and a verve about her that she hasn't lost over the years, and it is because of her unique ability to communicate her wishes to people through the way she acts that Nicole could tell she wasn't up to showing. Nicole was nearly in tears when she told me "I knew this day would come, but it doesn't make it any easier." I told Nicole that considering the number of shows Baby has been in over the years, that it was only fair that she be the one to tell us when she didn't want to show anymore-she always seemed to enjoy showing as much as her human handlers did.

She did manage to wait and let everyone know she wanted to retire until the last regular-season show. Although she didn't perform terribly well in her final show, she did very well overall in her final season. Her last accomplishment in the ring is that she won Riverdale Saddle Club's high points trophy-her fifth such award, and a pretty good retirement present

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