Jul 20 2013

U of M College Democrats address Gov. Haslam leadership crisis

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

The following is an editorial penned by the University of Memphis College Democrats. It is published here in its entirety.

BATTLING BILL’S BOONDOGGLE(S)

Tennesseans face a leadership crisis due to the self-serving mismanagement of our state by Governor Bill Haslam. So far, during his more than three years in office, Governor Haslam has abused the public trust in order to enrich him and his friends. As dogged investigative reporting offers more insights into the nature of this administration, the public is learning just how pervasive and damaging Governor Haslam’s “leadership” has been for the middle class Tennessean, and why it is imperative that we consider House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh for election as our next governor:

• Governor Haslam awarded a $330 million contract for the management of state buildings to Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a company with which the Governor has over $10,000 invested. The Governor maintains a close relationship with JLL executives, inviting them to an “intimate dinner” at the Governor’s Residence during the contract bidding process in April 2012.
• Governor Haslam’s family company, Pilot Flying J, is currently under investigation by the FBI for knowingly withholding fuel rebates from trucking companies with which they do business. The investigation calls into question the Governor’s business integrity and is indicative of a culture of blatant disregard for middle class workers within the Haslam Empire.
• Bill Haslam failed to disclose that he paid lobbyist Tom Ingram for political advice while Ingram lobbied on behalf of a coal company hoping to mine beneath state parks.
• The Haslam Administration outsourced a million dollar contract for maintenance of the state’s fleet of vehicles to Bridgestone/Firestone, a company once headed by Mark Emkes, Haslam’s former finance chair. The bloated deal includes massive markups that waste taxpayer dollars. For instance, a $1.74 headlight bulb cost Tennesseans $12.
• Haslam outsourced the state’s motor pool to Enterprise for the price of $739,000, despite the fact that state employees used only $450,000 worth of services. General Services Commissioner Steve Cates began pushing for the deal around the time that he hired former Enterprise executive Kathleen Hansen to head General Services’ motor vehicle management division.
• Governor Haslam appointed Brad Martin interim President of the University of Memphis. Martin was the CEO of Saks Inc., and hired Haslam as an executive, when the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the company on charges of fraud for withholding millions owed to clothing retailers. Martin is also conducting Pilot’s internal investigation regarding the withholding of fuel rebates.
• Haslam appointee Kate O’Day, head of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), resigned amid an investigation into the deaths of 31 children in DCS care.
• Under Haslam’s guidance, the State of Tennessee awarded a $200 million-plus contract to provide health services for our state’s inmates to Centurion, which employs the wife of the head of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, despite concerns about the company’s qualifications and the fact that Centurion’s bid came in almost $20 million higher than its competitor’s bid.

This laundry list of scandals, mismanagement, and disregard for the livelihood of Tennesseans is emblematic of the leadership crisis facing our state. Haslam’s passion for political patronage endangers the welfare of ordinary Tennesseans and threatens to cause serious long-term damage to the state we all love. For the good of the state, Tennesseans need a candidate for governor whose leadership offers a clear contrast with Gov. Haslam and his self-serving Capitol Hill cronies.

Leader Craig Fitzhugh ran the Bank of Ripley in a clean and honest manner; Governor Haslam has been an executive at two companies that federal authorities have investigated. Leader Fitzhugh has given nearly 20 years of his life to a career in public service aimed at increasing the well-being of all Tennesseans; Governor Haslam has spent his ten years in public office focused on the financial fate of his inner circle. Leader Fitzhugh has been a champion of bipartisanship during his years in Tennessee politics; Haslam has spinelessly rubber-stamped the agenda of the most radical state legislature in Tennessee history. For these reasons, we urge Craig Fitzhugh to enter the 2014 Governor’s race.

At the end of Don Sundquist’s tenure as Governor, it was revealed that Sundquist gave no-bid state contracts to his business associates, and then the FBI raided the business offices of a close friend of his. The parallels with Bill Haslam are striking. Tennesseans had the good sense to elect Phil Bredesen after the mismanagement of the Sundquist years; and, after four years of Haslam’s underhanded governance, we are confident that the sensible citizens of our state will have the wherewithal to elect another serious leader who is committed to serving all Tennesseans. We are confident that Craig Fitzhugh is that leader.

Charles Uffelman–University of Memphis
President of University of Memphis College Democrats
Matt Strauser–Princeton University

Jul 09 2013

Is Haslam running government like a business?

Posted by Steve Ross in corruption, State Politics

TN Gov’t Contracts 101: Question 1. Are you a friend, friend of a friend, or paying a friend for counsel?

Back in 2010, when Gov. Haslam used millions of his personal wealth to win both the GOP primary and eventually the general election, a constant theme was that he would “run government like a business”.

Now, anyone with half a brain in their head should have looked at this promise pretty skeptically. Its just like any other promise a politician makes, subject to change based on future events.

And while the notion of “running government like a business” may seem like a good idea, 2010 was just two years after businesses…really big businesses…essentially tanked the economy by screwing over people who just wanted to own a home.

So, maybe we didn’t ask the right question at the time. Maybe we should have asked, “What kind of business?”

Of course, a fawning media, ready to crown a victor well before the election, didn’t help with the questions. They were falling all over themselves to use every adjective they could to make Haslam seem inevitable.

30 months into this term, the shine is starting to wear off with the media, and problems both inside and out of his administration have more than a few observers wondering about the Governor’s decision-making and the patronage system that has emerged.

Lead by the Legislature

Riding a wave of Republican victories across the state, Gov. Haslam was inaugurated with a newly ensconced GOP led House and Senate. While the Governor was just getting settled in, the legislature went to work, removing collective bargaining for teachers, instituted a photo ID bill for voting, and passed a bill allowing corporate contributions to political campaigns, among other things.

By the end of the 2011 session, many on both sides of the aisle rightly asked who was in charge of the state…the Governor or the Legislature? By 2012 the Governor started getting his sea legs, even if the legislature continued dragging him further to the right than most thought possible.

A post-mortem of the Gov.’s second year in office, noted that Haslam had a hard time reigning in the far right elements in the legislature. In the days following the end of the 2012 session, a slew of articles noting both the secrecy of the legislature and the Executive Branch intent on keeping information about the workings of government from the people, under the guise of “privacy”. One such effort sought to shield the owners of companies from public disclosure of their receipt of cash grants from the state.

All of these things led to the state being saddled with the dubious distinction of having the worst State Legislature in the US in 2012, and led to many questions, including those wondering if Gov. Haslam would ever live up to his “moderate” public image?

Apparently, the Gov. had other things in mind…like fulfilling the worst fears of what “running Government like a business” can be.

Patronage and personal interest

With the passage of the TEAM Act, a bill that radically changed the way Civil Service jobs are awarded, and which led to the hiring of what one writer called his patronage chief, Larry Martin, the nature of that “business climate in government” began to emerge.

Martin, who retired from First Tennessee Bank in 2006, also served as Chief of Staff for the Haslam Administration in Knoxville. While its not unusual for a political appointee to follow an executive from one place to another, Martin’s connections to the Haslam family are deeply rooted.

Both Jimmy Haslam and R. Brad Martin (U of Memphis interim president and chief Pilot internal investigator) served on the First Tennessee board while Larry Martin was COO of First Tennessee’s Financial Services division.

Another Haslam staffer, Mark Emkes, a Director at First Horizon (Parent Co. of First TN) became Director of Finance and Administration until he retired recently and was replaced by Larry Martin.

While the tangled web of business friends of the Haslam family that litters the upper echelon of the Haslam Administration is interesting, I’ll leave that for a future post to deal directly with the personal interests that have been rearing their ugly head for months now.

In June, a committee tasked with oversight of state contracts deferred the review of a contract for the Dept. of Corrections, that was awarded to a company employing the wife of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield…and cost the state $15m more.

This same group was also exploring looking into contracts offered to Enterprise Rent-a-car and Bridgestone, the latter formerly headed by recently retired Director of Finance and Administration, Mark Emkes.

But it doesn’t end there.

The Governor recently awarded a $330 million contract to a company he listed on his disclosures as an investment, one of the scant few I might add. He also signed a law that benefitted a business buddy in Gatlinburg and says he’s unconcerned about a coal company that has ties to his family business.

All of this leads us to a report from NC5 yesterday that alleges inside dealings on contracts by Tom Ingram, who, until recently was paid privately by the Governor.

This after several administrative problems involving child deaths at DCS, and the rewards totaling $1m that went to the TN Dept. of Labor after misspending $73m of unemployment money, which ultimately led to the Governor seeking cover behind newly appointed State Chief Operating Officer Greg Adams.

Apparently, “running government like a business” in part, at least, means placing layers of folks between you and government so you don’t really have to take responsibility for governing.

Cloudy skies ahead?

Of course, this is going on while the FBI and IRS are investigating the family business. An investigation that, while not directly connected to the Governor yet, certainly puts a pall on the overall outlook for Tennessee’s first family.

Which brings me back to something I said at the beginning…just what kind of business did candidate Haslam intend to model Tennessee government after?

While the jury may be out on that question as a whole, the evidence is pointing to the same kind of crony capitalism that brought down the banks in 2007-08 and is causing his family business all kinds of trouble right now. The kind that works with its friends at the expense of everyone else.

And while the Governor has enjoyed a certain measure of teflon like “unstainable” status in public opinion, one has to wonder how many scratches that surface can withstand before the public turns their back on the Governor.

What should be even more troubling for the Governor is that while he’s taken some dings to his image, the investigations into poor management and potential misdeeds in his administration are just beginning.

And just like most things, the bandwagoneers in the media will eventually jump on this en masse to do the thing they like doing more than building someone up…taking them down.

Jun 14 2012

A Little Resolution, A Lot of Cold Comfort – #voteshelby

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

You'll see fewer of these signs this August

As I’ve noted in my last two posts, the business of the Shelby County Election Commission has been about as easy to pick through as high density, double reinforced concrete. There’s so little information available, and the information that is available is plain useless. So I decided to spend 3 hours of my day sitting through a public meeting at the election operations center near the Penal Farm.

What an eye opener. Not because so many questions were answered, but because I got to really see the problem…which is multi-fasceted.

A Little Resolution

Precincts Impacted by Consolidation or Voting Location Changes

The actual business of the Election Commission was fairly dry, except for one issue that may be of interest to about 77,500 voters.

A resolution, which saw no disclosure prior to the meeting, and was not publicly available for comment, was passed that consolidates precincts, and portions of precincts for the August election. A rough map of the impacted precincts is included to the right. I’ve scanned the resolution and made it available here (PDF).

The rationale for these consolidations and voting location changes was to comply with ADA standards and address closed voting locations.

These things happen, and I’m sympathetic with the Commission’s efforts to ensure people have access to the voting location. However, it was mentioned that the resolution was drafted just hours before the committee meetings began, which leaves effectively zero time for the Commissioners themselves, much less the public, to inspect the proposed changes.

With just 51 days to election day, and no prior public disclosure, as many as 77,500 voters will have a new voting location in August. Based on the number of active voters the Election Commission reports, that means about 18% of all voters in the County will have to be notified of changes (numbers based on those reported in the resolution).

That’s an awful lot of people impacted even though the total number or precincts only changed from 236 to 219.

Ed. Note: I am told that the Election Commission is required to give prior notice of resolutions that impact precincts and/or voting locations. Failing to do so may be a violation of open meetings/open records laws. I’ll be checking into this over the coming days and report my findings in a future post.

Cold Comfort

There was a discussion at the meeting about public access to information and the business of the Commission. Below are some of the issues discussed. Nothing, by the way was resolved.

1. The public disclosure of what is to be discussed at the actual meeting has been lackluster for some time. Before the January 27, 2011 meeting, bullet points of discussion were included in the agenda. After that time, those discussion points became fewer and fewer. This is further hampered by the fact that the committees meet earlier in the day, on the same day as the Commission, and that the Commission only meets once a month. So items for discussion that come up in committee either have to be dealt with on that evening’s agenda, or put off for a month. I want to thank Commissioner Lester for bringing this issue up, and hope that the Commission endeavors to increase advance disclosure of the topics for discussion in their July meeting.

2. The one month lag between the meeting and the publishing of minutes, as I have noted before, is somewhat understandable. Minutes must be approved before they can be published…I get that. But in observing the meeting, I saw that it was being recorded…albiet on a less than ideal device. The presence of that recording makes me wonder why they haven’t been publishing the audio…even in its raw form, until the minutes are approved. When I asked members of the commission (from both sides of the aisle), I was told that they didn’t know enough about it to know what was possible. The solution is not just shrugging your shoulders…its asking if its possible, and if not…why. It would resolve a truism of life: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you might not like the story they tell.

3. There’s a lot of tension in the room. Some of the questions asked got answered with a terseness that I felt was unnecessarily defensive, dismissive, and disrespectful. I observed this on several occasions. The message in the answers and the delivery of those answers is effectively that the questions themselves have no merit. This is compounded by what seemed to be softness in the lingo (names of reports, functions, and job descriptions) that can create unnecessary confusion. I’ve experienced this myself when asking for specific reports from the Commission, often with mixed results.

No Comfort At All

After the meeting, I and a few other interested individuals at the meeting spoke with several of the Commissioners about the problems relating to gaining information about the upcoming election in August…particularly as it relates to the Unified School Board.

Some of this discussion was broached in the meeting…particularly the precinct locator function that Administrator Holden reports is the single most popular feature of the website.

Its wrong, and there’s no ETA for it being right.

So, considering the changes made to nearly every district up for a vote this August, and the addition of a whole new class of districts (the Unified School Board), the Election Commission has no way of informing voters about what districts they will be voting in this August.

Even the most recent Ward and Precinct Stat File is incorrect. It not only doesn’t list the new Congressional, State House and Senate seats…it doesn’t even have a field for Unified School Board.

I was told there is no way to find this information out, even though the new districts we will be voting on in 51 days have been known since January 23.

The rationale for the delay is still the lack of a County Commission district plan. Considering the County Commission isn’t up for election for another two years, this excuse is bunk.

That there is no way to gain this information is simply negligent. While I understand that the workers at the Election Commission are working as hard as they can, it seems evident that they have been directed to wait for the elusive decision by the County Commission.

That’s just a poor administrative decision that will negatively impact the outcome of the August election.

I guess what surprised me most was that there was no outrage or even surprise at this revelation, which, more than anything else describes the problem.

Inconclusive Conclusion

The paternalistic nature of the entire meeting, the tension, the willingness to shrug and move on, all point to a culture of acquiescence from the Commissioners themselves. I understand that serving on the Commission is a huge time commitment, and that everyone has busy lives, but the issue at hand here is the security (both real and perceived) of the voting franchise.

Some of the muted, but present defensiveness from staff members and Commissioners leads one to believe there is more interest in protecting the honor of the Election Commission itself rather than performing the necessary due diligence to inform the public, and thereby, protect both the voting franchise and the Commission. This is the kind of perspective that results from a bunker mentality that is all too pervasive in Boards and Commissions throughout Shelby County.

Transparency isn’t difficult. It just has to be intentional. It doesn’t happen by accident or happenstance. It has to be in the forefront of the minds of those who are making the and enacting decisions. While there were assurances that the upcoming precinct consolidations (which will likely be taken up later this year) will be transparent, based on what I observed, this would constitute a massive change in philosophy that is little more than an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve heard, and been told directly in other public meetings that “the process will be transparent” before. In almost every instance these assurances have been fool’s gold. You’ll excuse me if I’m more than a little skeptical about his one.

I said earlier, and it bears repeating: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will and you may not like the story they tell.

I’m pretty sure that none of the Commissioners (on either side of the aisle) will like what I’ve said. They probably think I’m being too hard on them or inflexible.

This isn’t personal.

If the Commissioners/Commission want less grief, they have the power to reduce it by looking for solutions and working to be more open. Back in 2009 I wrote a very positive post about changes and greater openness at the Commission. I would prefer to be able to do so again rather than point out the failings of the body.

Commissioners, the power is in your hands, but you have to make it a priority rather than an afterthought. You don’t have to have the know how yourselves…that’s what staff is for. You do have to have the will to start and continue the discussion.

Further, I and other interested individuals are always available for suggestions. But at the end of the day, its on the Commissioners and administrative staff to enact the changes.

No one else can do it but you. I hope you will resolve to restore the trust of the people rather than hunker down and ultimately, make the problem worse.

Jun 12 2012

More on the Election Commission’s Inaction

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

How Big Will Your Precinct Get?

Yesterday I detailed some of the changes coming down the pike at the Election Commission, as well as the barriers to getting information regarding new Congressional, State House, Senate and School Board districts to voters.

With 52 days until the election, there are…or at least should be, concerns about voters ability to navigate these new districts since the Election Commission has not yet updated its voter database, nor mailed out new voter cards reflecting the new information.

As I noted yesterday, the Election Commission blames the County Commission…and they have a point…to a point.

But as I also noted, the Election Commission is considering a plan that would consolidate precincts…which would change voting locations for people residing in those consolidated precincts.

The plan, which is loosely detailed in this document found on the Shelby county Website (pdf), seeks to consolidate between 56 and 86 precincts a reduction of 24% to 36%.

As of this writing, no public disclosure of any kind regarding proposals to consolidate precincts has come from the Election Commission.

An Emergency Without Urgency

Yesterday’s emergency alert hasn’t come with any emergency response in the wake of the County Commission’s deferral of its redistricting ordinance. In fact, as of this writing the Election Commission has issued no statement whatsoever regarding anything.

Now, with a minimum of two weeks before the County Commission takes the issue up again, its starting to look like the Election Commission is more interested in having someone else to blame than informing the public about an election that will be just 38 days away when the County Commission takes the issue back up. Apparently, the Election Commission is banking on the 9 votes required by County Charter. We’ve seen just how certain those 9 votes can be (two weeks ago it received only 8).

What’s most ridiculous about the Election Commission’s claim is that County Commission elections aren’t until 2014. The election this year for County Commission is to fill out the term of Mike Carpenter…meaning the old lines still apply. They don’t need these new districts for this election…they just want them.

Its time for the Election Commission to stop redirecting blame and either start acting, or be willing to take the heat for their inaction. It is patently irresponsible for a body tasked with administering elections to not have basic information available to the public less than 60 days out from an election.

The public’s right to know about the races before them right now trumps any work efficiencies that they would like to take advantage of.

They could fix this right now if they wanted to. Apparently, they don’t want to.

Jun 11 2012

Redistricting, Precinct Consolidation, and All Before August?

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

I think its well past emergency time, but thanks for noticing.

Earlier today, the Shelby County Commission voted to delay a vote on a redistricting proposal that was up for 3rd and final consideration.

In my last post, I detailed some of the problems the Shelby County Election Commission is experiencing regarding new US House, State Senate and House, and Unified School Board districts. This morning they released an advisory about the issue.

Now that the County Commission, which the Election Commission blames for the delay, has decided to delay a vote, one has to wonder what will happen and how the voting public will navigate the mangled mess the State House and Senate left in their wake when they decided to redistrict based on Census blocks rather than existing precincts.

With just 53 days to the August election, there are several important issues on the ballot, including the candidates for the new Unified School Board. Time is short to get this information out to the public.

Precinct Consolidation

But there are other things on the Election Commission’s agenda that are likely to also play a role in voter confusion…precinct consolidation.

Currently, there are 236 precincts in Shelby County. That’s down from a high of 272 in 2006. There is a draft plan before the Commission to combine as many as 56 precincts, leaving just 180 precincts in the County. Under the plan, the average area covered by a precinct would go from 3.3 sq/mi to 4.4 sq/mi.

However, the plan has not been publicly released. I only know about it because I happened to see a map generated by the Election Commission.

As I noted in my last post, the minutes of the April meeting have still not been released (apparently they weren’t approved in May). What’s more, the agenda of the meeting to take place on Wednesday mentions nothing about precinct changes or any other alterations that would impact the August election.

Because of the lack of information, rumors have started to spread that the Election Commission intends to make these changes before the August election. That means 56 precincts of people could be voting in a new location, with little time for notification before election day.

Stop the Blame Storming

I’ll give the Election Commission one thing: Yes, the County Commission should have approved new districts for itself before now.

That fact is not and never has been in question.

However, the silence from the body regarding informing the public about the problems, and their lack of overall willingness to really talk about anything has shifted the focus from the failings of the County Commission, to the the Election Commission.

Add to that, the lack of disclosure, or even recent minutes of meetings, and you’ve got the recipe for rumblings about the bumblings of an appointed body that, for whatever reason, just can’t seem to get it together for the public good.

That doesn’t bode well for an institution charged with protecting the most important trust of our Republic…the voting franchise.

The Election Commission meets Wednesday. A quick search of local media outlets nets nothing of substance regarding the lack of minutes, or the bulk of the business of the Commission since April with the exception of the coverage of the ongoing voter purge and the reports of the lost history fiasco.

Wednesday could be a critical day for voting in Shelby Co. It’ll be interesting if anyone pays it any notice.