Because of Milwaukee's loss Thursday night, the number of games that either the Cubs must win to clinch the National League Central Division title or that Milwaukee must lose for the Cubs to clinch the title fell to two. Any combination of two Cubs wins or two Milwaukee losses will guarantee a trip to the playoffs. The Cubs need prayer, my friends. The magic number is two, but there are three games remaining.
For those interested, I am slated to appear on Inside Tennessee along with Susan Williams, Knoxville attorney Don Bosch, Jamie Satterfield of The Knoxville News-Sentinel to discuss the Knox County Sunshine law trial. The program will air on Sunday September 30th at 9 AM.
"Everything that happened that day was just a part of the meeting. The press was there, the sunshine was shining."
When asked if he takes his Constitutional oath seriously, Lambert replied:
"I take it fairly seriously."
When Abraham made his covenant with God, God promised his end of the bargain via an oath. When members of Fraternal societies swear to keep the ceremonials of those societies secret, they do so by swearing an oath. When the President of the United States pledges to uphold the Constitution, he does so by swearing an oath.
We can try and dumb down the meaning of taking an oath if we like, but an oath is serious business. In the case of a public official, it is an oath between God, that official, and the official's constituents that they will uphold and defend the Constitution of the State, and of the United States.
There is no room for "fairly seriously" or "pretty seriously-" there is only room for taking that oath deadly seriously or not at all.
Whether a person buys former Knox County Commissioner Phil Guthe's story about having his Commission seat "stolen" from him because in his view the "Gentlemen's Agreement" (that said that in matters affecting an individual Commissioner's district, the wishes of the Commissioner is question would be respected) was not honored, his testimony did bring to light the harsh legal reality of the situation: There could be no special election to fill the eight Commission seats about to be vacated.
“I think the only way to get accurate public participation is having an election,” Guthe said. “Outside of that, if you allow public forums, candidates’ stump speeches, you are pandering to the public, trying to make the public feel good.
“For the public to think their voice is going to be heard in that appointment process — it wasn’t going to happen,” Guthe testified. “Ultimately, the decision (on an appointee) was mine as to who I would vote for. As unsavory as that is, that’s just the way it was.”
Vacancies in county offices shall be filled by the county legislative body, and any person so appointed shall serve until a successor is elected at the next election occurring after the vacancy and is qualified.
The State Constitution is clear when it says that the county legislative body-the County Commission-is charged with appointing members to fill vacancies that occur in the midst of a term, which is the situation as it was on January 31. Hence, Commissioners had the Constitutional right to appoint whoever they chose to these seats. Whether the Open Meetings Act was violated may be an issue, but the manner in which these Commissioners were appointed was completely legal. Even if the jury in Knox County Chancery Court were to rule that the Sunshine Law was violated, the most that can be done is a "re-do" at which the same eight people will likely be appointed again.
This is the harsh reality that the News-Sentinel hasn't even touched in its coverage of its lawsuit against the County Commission. Regardless of whether the Sunshine Law was violated, the way the Commission made the appointments is legal. It can be argued that justice compels us to amend the Constitution to allow for special elections in these circumstances, and if the events of the last 18 months or so have taught East Tennesseans anything, it is that such an amendment may be necessary.
There is no such provision presently in force, however-and there was not on January 31. Hence, it can be argued that the Sunshine Law was violated-maybe-but the method the Commission used to appoint members to vacant seats was (perhaps unfortunately) Constitutionally sound.
Knox County political agendas and the sunshine trial
Knox County Commissioner Paul Pinkston on Tuesday used his time on the witness stand to state something (or at least part of something) that a lot of us have been saying for months-and in some cases years-on end. Like the Energizer Bunny keeps going and going, so does the charge that Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has an agenda of his own. I have pointed out all along that Ragsdale's primary goal up until recently was not to govern solely in the best interest of the people of Knox County, but to be elected Governor. Since it has become clear that Ragsdale can't keep his county house in order, few can likely imagine that he would survive ten minutes without corrupting himself in the cesspool that is the Capitol-hence, his ambitions of inheriting the mantle of John Sevier, Willie Blount, and William Carroll are all but dashed.
Nonetheless, Ragsdale has certainly demonstrated a "my way or the highway" style of governance, and has been said to threaten to cut people off and attempt to ruin their careers if-God forbid-they should threaten to expose or oppose him. We already know that he thinks that concerned citizens who bring his administration's malfeasance to light for the world to see are "showboats." If Paul Pinkston is to be believed, Jack McElroy and all of the resorces at the disposal of the News-Sentinel are a part of Ragsdale's machine:
“Sir, I’ve read in the newspaper about the Hutchison faction,” Pinkston told attorney Richard Hollow, adding that it doesn’t exist. “I think one side is the people’s side, and I think the other side is M and R. McElroy and Ragsdale have an agenda.”
I can't be nearly as quick as Pinkston to accuse McElroy of being part of some sort of tandem-type arrangement with Mike Ragsdale. However, considering that the News-Sentinel has always gone out of its way to praise Ragsdale, and that from the beginning the paper paid less attention to the mideeds within the Ragsdale regime as it did the seemingly underhanded doings of the Knox County Commission, I have always been inclined to place Jack McElroy firmly in the "Ragsdale is Messiah and Lord" camp. By its editorial positions, the News-Sentinel has never done anything to correct that impression.
Asked if commission rules barred public debate at the Jan. 31 meeting, Pinkston responded, “It sure did, and I believe the (state) constitution says that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Pinkston is right that the Constitution gives the Commission the right to fill vacancies, even (it would seem) in a unique case such as this (see the Constitution of the State of Tennessee, Article 7, Section 2). I am not an attorney, but I have poured over the State Constitution and have yet to find anything in that document that would specifically prohibit public input at any meeting where such appointments were made. The fact that no public input was allowed in Knoxville on January 31 was likely the one factor that caused the News-Sentinel and the Moncier Nine to believe they had a decent case.
If Knox County Commissioner Larry Smith is to be believed, both Commission Chairman Scott Moore and County Commissioner Charles Bolus perjured themselves on the witness stand when they both said that Commissioner Bolus' early swearing in was of his own initiative and that it was not part of a larger plan by Commissioner Moore to insure that the final vote of the day on January 31 went his way.
“As I was walking to my seat, Commissioner Moore said, ‘We have this taken care of now,’ ” Smith said. “I looked over and saw Bolus seated next to me.”
After both Moore and Bolus swore up and down that Bolus' early swearing-in was entirely of Bolus' initiative, and that Chairman Moore did not even know about Bolus' swearing in until it occurred, it is quite clear that between Moore, Bolus, or Smith, one or more of the three men is lying.
Up to this point in the trial, I have attempted to keep an extremely open mind, willing to concede that Commissioners were giving as good as they got. In our hurry to see justice done, perhaps East Tennesseans were too quickly levying judgment upon the Commission because there are provisions of the Open Meetings Act that raise a series of constitutional questions as they relate to both free speech and privacy rights. However, Smith's testimony makes it very hard to keep one's mind open toward Moore and Bolus when it is becomes increasingly more difficult to disprove that they were not involved in a larger conspiracy to appoint who they pleased without public input and that the submission of resumes by the larger public was a facade that gave the appearance of openness.
“I was disappointed in commissioners at that meeting.,” he said. “They knew what they wanted to do. They didn’t make any notes. They walked off when candidates walked onto the stage. I thought it was disrespectful.”
“I strongly did not like that,” Smith said. “I was disappointed in the way this was handled. It was like they were in a hurry to get out. I was like, ‘We need to take the time.’ ”
Some of the Commissioners who were at the January 31 meeting have accused the local press, and especially the News-Sentinel of such a strong bias and slant that they are simply incapable of seeing the Commissioners' side. Testimony over the last three days is beginning to present that side, and there isn't much the News-Sentinel could have ever done to make that side look terribly good at this point.
When asked, for instance, if he was aware that ex-commissioner Bee DeSelm had sued years ago to have term limits enforced in Knox County, Moore answered it this way:
“That’s great, but the citizens of Knox County continued to elect the people they chose to elect.”
They also voted in 1994 for term limits on county officials in a referendum. The county did not enforce the law based on an opinion (not a court decision) from the State Attorney General. As we have since learned from the Tennessee Supreme Court, they think that legal advice was a heaping pile of crap.
As a disclaimer, I ought to point out that I am no great proponent of term limits (as some conservatives are). For the most part, I think they cause vastly more problems than they solve-a subject I may broach in a future discussion. However, the people of Knox County voted for term limits, and the refusal of county officials to voluntarily enforce the referendum result is the root cause of all of the problems Knox County is presently facing-The News-Sentinel would do well to remind readers of this on a regular basis throughout this trial.
Moore was later asked if attorney John Valliant, who regularly lobbies the commission on behalf of developers, also represented commissioners who waged a legal battle to have the county’s charter and, therefore, term limits struck down. Moore did not answer directly, instead offering a critique of the state Supreme Court ruling that backed term limits, leading to a controversial Jan. 31 meeting at issue in the sunshine law case.
“How do we know they’re right?” Moore asked about the high-court justices. “We abide by their rulings. That doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s their opinion.”
While Moore is quite right that Tennessee Supreme Court Justices are not infallible and (in the past) have been known to issue rulings that seem to have a basis straight from the psych ward at Vanderbilt Hospital, when it comes to a matter such as whether a County Charter squares with the State Constitution-especially since there are only two such active documents in the State of Tennessee, I am inclined to think the Court's legal opinion is going to be a bit more well-informed than my own.
On refusing to allow commissioners or residents to speak during the Jan. 31 meeting, Moore said, “I go to church. I don’t talk during the service.”
Attending a meeting of the Knox County Commission is akin to visiting the Lord's House and attending Divine Service? Someone call a choir and an organist! Apparently, we all need to head down to the City-County Building in Knoxville so Preacher Moore can make sure we get blessed. Make sure and don't talk during the service, you hear?
On January 31, I believe some citizens and candidates wanted to stand up and testify. Can I get a witness from the congregation?
I will happily defend Chairman Moore's right to private telephone conversations with whomever he may choose. However, when it comes to denying citizens the right to speak at a public meeting while making decisions about who will represent them, his attitude wreaks of arrogance. That reality is very hard for the News-Sentinel to slant.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the river of controversy that was the "meeting that shall live in infamy" on January 31 was the early swearing-in of newly-appointed Knox County Commissioner Charles Bolus. Bolus is a friend of Commission Chairman Scott Moore, and so it is widely reputed that Bolus was sworn in in order to cast the deciding vote for Lee Tramel in a process that appears to have been fixed:
Although the appointees named at the Jan. 31 meeting to replace term-limited officeholders were supposed to be sworn in as a group after the meeting, Bolus took his oath mid-meeting.
He then would be key to breaking a tie on a hotly contested 4th District seat in favor of sheriff’s employee Lee Tramel.
Moore talked on his cell phone to attorney John Valliant around the time that Bolus would have headed down a hallway to be sworn in.
Valliant met Bolus at the end of the hallway.
Bolus testified in Knox County Chancery Court [Friday] that he just decided on his own to be sworn in early.
In reporting these facts, the News-Sentinel ought to be clear with the reader as to the legal implications here, because those who are perusing the paper may not be aware of the fact that since he was appointed to fill a vacancy, Commissioner Bolus had the right to be sworn in immediately upon his appointment if he so chose. According to Bolus' testimony, this was the choice that he made.
The problem lies not with the fact that Bolus chose to be "sworn in early," but with the reality that others who were appointed did not opt to take their oaths of office with the same immediacy. To Lumpy Lambert's credit, he pointed out within that meeting that any other persons who had been given appointments to the Commission also had the right to be sworn in right away and to take their seats as Bolus had done. Just how clear was that made to the other appointees? Since they were all doubtless aware that Bolus would have the tie-breaking vote in the most contentious remaining vacancy that day, what was it that caused the other new appointees to eschew their duties until after that fateful meeting?
That is one question that absolutely needs to be answered.
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