Ethics Disclosure for Planning Commissions Draws Objections

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill seeking to require local and regional planning commissioners to file interest disclosures with the Tennessee Ethics Commission was met with last-minute resistance in the House on Thursday.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, would subject the state’s estimated 3,000 planning commissioners to the same disclosure requirements as elected officials. The companion bill unanimously passed the Senate last month.
“This is simply an attempt to try to have more transparency and more information available to the public about those unelected officials that have great control over what happens in their communities,” Gotto told the House Calendar Committee.
But House Finance Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, questioned if the change would present a significant cost increase to the state and tried to move the bill back to a subcommittee for fiscal analysis.

Sargent said the disclosure law currently only applies to 132 state lawmakers, though that claim was quickly dispelled by fellow Republican Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville. He said the law already applies to most state and local officials.
More than 7,500 officials have filed disclosure forms since the beginning of the year, according to the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance. A fiscal analysis for the Senate version of the bill showed that the measure would not increase costs for the agency.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said the proposal to refer the bill back to committee was a thinly veiled effort to defeat the measure for the year.
“This is an attempt to kill openness in government,” Turner said. “I just think that’s wrong, terribly wrong. And I’m appalled.”
Sargent insisted the move wasn’t meant to defeat the bill.
Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, argued that the budget subcommittee had already cleared the bill as having no major cost and questioned the motivation of those now seeking a repeated analysis.
“We’ve got experts popping up like Jiffy Pop popcorn saying that there’s a fiscal note on it,” Towns said. “And to me, I don’t like the way that smells.”
Towns said he agreed with the purpose of the bill.
“If you’re on the planning commission, you know where the growth is, you know what trajectory the city’s going to go in, in terms of all the economic opportunities,” he said. “And there could be — and I’m sure there are — conflicts of interest all across this state.”
But other lawmakers like Rep. Phillip Johnson questioned the need for the disclosure requirement.
“These are volunteer folks, and now we’re going to open up their whole lives and interests? They’re local people, most people already know who these folks are, their whole business and their condition,” said Johnson, R-Pegram. “We’re reaching just a little too far on this.”
The effort to send the bill back to committee was ultimately defeated, but Gotto later agreed to put off a final vote until next week.
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