Ashe, Haslam differ on museum donation disclosure

Though a recent state attorney general opinion says donors to a $40 million fundraising campaign for the Tennessee State Museum can be kept secret, Gov. Bill Haslam — who is leading the campaign — says the names should be made public, but not the exact amount of each contribution.

The governor’s position, relayed through spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals, is criticized as “a half-baked disclosure” and likened to “being a little bit pregnant” by Victor Ashe, a former Knoxville mayor and U.S. ambassador to Poland who is a member both of the board overseeing museum operations and the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, which advocates transparency in governmental operations.

It is the latest spinoff in a long-running series of clashes over museum management and tangential issues between Ashe and fellow members of the museum oversight board, officially known as the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission. It does appear to be a first in that Ashe is directly differing with the governor, who is also a former Knoxville mayor.

The clashes continue otherwise, though the initial objective of Ashe’s two-year crusade on museum matters — replacement of Lois Riggins-Ezzell as the museum’s executive director — was apparently achieved last week.

Haslam and the commission’s current chairman, Thomas S. Smith of Nashville, announced Thursday the retirement effective Dec. 31 of Riggins-Ezzell, 76, who has served 35 years in the position. Ashe had accused Riggins-Ezzell of mismanagement, favoritism toward friends in acquiring museum exhibits and other faults.

Haslam said last week that “Lois has given her heart and soul to telling Tennessee’s story and showcasing its rich history” during her tenure, which has seen the museum expand from basement housing with six employees to a 42-employee operation with a $3.8 million annual budget and housing on three floors of the James K. Polk State Office Building, located a block from the state capitol.

At Haslam’s request, the Legislature has authorized construction of a new $160 million museum in a stand-alone building, scheduled to open in December of 2018. The money will come from $120 million in taxpayer funds with the remaining $40 million to be raised in private donations, with the governor spearheading the fundraising efforts.

Fundraising fight

The continuing clashes may be divided into two broad categories — one involving the choosing a successor to Riggins-Ezzell and the other fundraising efforts.

On the fundraising front, Attorney General Herbert Slatery has issued a legal opinion declaring that donations are not covered by the state’s “open records” law. (Note: The full opinion is HERE.)

Basically, the opinion notes that the fundraising is being conducted by the Tennessee State Museum Foundation, which is set up as a separate nonprofit corporation and thus not directly attached to state government. Given that status, the opinion says the foundation could legally keep donations secret.

After the opinion was issued, Ashe declared that “I hope Gov. Haslam will insist on transparency” and see that donations are disclosed even without a legal requirement to do so. At this point, nothing has been publicly disclosed on the fundraising campaign results.

Donnals, in response to an inquiry, said in an email Friday that Haslam anticipates disclosing “later this fall” a preliminary report on the amount raised, coupled with disclosure of names of donors at that point.

“He also expects when the campaign is over that the names will be released along with an amount range,” Donnals said.

In disclosing “an amount range,” donors would be categorized in groups according to the size of their contributions. Though Donnals did not provide the groupings, examples could be “less than $1,000” or “more than $1 million.”

Ashe said that would be “woefully inadequate” and the specific amounts of each donation should be listed, just as with donations to political campaigns.

“Most of the corporations that will give are corporations that have done business with the state or that have an interest in state (regulatory) activity,” Ashe said in a telephone interview. In that situation, he said there should be full disclosure of precise amounts when taxpayer dollars are providing most of the funding for a public building. He conceded the “partial disclosure” would be “better than nothing.”

The attorney general’s opinion was requested by state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, who is also a member of the commission board. McDaniel proceeded Smith as chairman of the panel, finishing his term earlier this year. Ashe was chairman before McDaniel.

McDaniel said he asked for the attorney general’s opinion because Ashe had raised the issue during a past commission meeting he chaired. The veteran legislator said that, in his own opinion, disclosure of donor information should be at the option of the donor. While some donors may be eager to have their contribution made public, he said, there may be cases where a person does not wish to be named and, if that leads to more money available for a public cause, the public benefits, he said.

Smith, observing that the fundraising is solely under the control of the foundation, not the commission, said he has no opinion on the matter.

Ashe said “the truth is they (foundation board members) will do whatever the governor tells them to do.”

Bob Thomas, a Nashville lawyer who chairs the foundation board, was on an overseas vacation last week and unavailable for comment.

Change at the top

On Thursday, the same day Riggins-Ezzell’s retirement was announced, the state Department of Human Resource issued a formal “request for proposals,” inviting executive recruitment firms to seek a state contract for finding and recommending to the commission a successor to the longtime executive director.

That was a month after the initial Aug. 1 target date for issuing the RFP and almost a year after the commission first set up a board search committee to explore finding a new executive director. The department previously made an effort to sound out interest in firms conducting a search – called a “request for information” – but abandoned the move because of a lack of responses.

At the time the “request for information” was submitted, commission members — over Ashe’s objections — had raised the possibility of honoring Riggins-Ezzell’s wish to remain as executive director until the new museum is opened in 2018, perhaps with the title “executive director emeritus,” a salary, some unspecified duties and responsibilities; perhaps an office in the new museum as well.

Ashe said the situation meant that “anyone qualified” for the position would not apply because of the vagueness in lines of responsibility and potential conflicts with Riggins-Ezzell still in a supervisory role. The Nashville Post interviewed three “experts” in management recruitment who offered similar views.

Ashe praised Smith and Haslam for “arranging” the departure of Riggins-Ezell. Donnals says the governor had no personal meeting with the longtime museum leader prior to the announcement, though Smith acknowledges regular discussions with her.

The chairman, in an email to fellow board members responding to Ashe’s questions posed in an email to all members, said that Riggins-Ezzell will have the title of “executive director emeritus,” but that the designation will be “completely honorary.”

“She will have no management role or office, etc. at the museum after she retires. It is to recognize her invaluable past service as was stated,” said Smith. “The title would carry no duties or compensation.”

“What Lois does with her life after she leaves the museum is her personal business and does not come under the purveyance of the DHSMC,” he wrote.

Ashe, however, speculates that Riggins-Ezzell will wind up in some compensated role, perhaps through the foundation’s fundraising.

He notes Riggins-Ezzell, who has repeatedly refused comment to media in recent months, included this remark in a retirement statement:

“I look forward to supporting ongoing efforts to get the new museum up and running, particularly as it relates to the on-going fund raising effort which Governor Haslam is leading.”

Ashe said Riggins-Ezzell has so far had “absolutely no role” in fundraising and doubts she would be effective in soliciting donations. Still, he said the foundation board “has shown it is subject to political pressure” and may be inclined to provider her a compensated position.

The RFP sets Oct. 20 as the date for signing a contact with a firm that will find a new executive director of the museum. The proposed contract would run for up to four months, but Smith says that “ideally” a recommendation will be ready by early January, or soon thereafter.

“As has been repeatedly pointed out to me by others, the University of Tennessee, with an over $2 billion budget, can find a new president via a search in 4 months,” said Smith in an email responding to a report’s questions after declining a direct interview. “Surely with a professional search firm and the prospect of running a wonderful, brand new museum in Nashville, Tennessee, we can find someone qualified to do the job of running a $3+ million budget organization by then (referring to a previous reference to Jan. 1) or shortly — say 2/1/17 thereafter.”

Ashe has previously and repeatedly criticized the commission for “slow walking” efforts to find a successor to Riggins-Ezzell, often citing the UT leadership search as an example. But now he says the commission may be rushing things now that the executive director has set a Dec. 31 departure date and a startup date for the search beginning Oct. 20.

This raises the possibility of an “interim director” serving for some period of time, Ashe says, perhaps someone designated by Riggins-Ezzell.

Smith says discussion of an interim director is “pure speculation” at this point and suggests “trying to find a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” In the unlikely event it arises in the future, the matter will be dealt with in appropriate fashion by the board, he said.

Battle on the board

Ashe contends that questioning of commission policies has led to retaliation from Smith, who did not appoint the former mayor to any committees after becoming chairman. Robert Buchanan, president of the Tennessee Historical Society, was also excluded from committee assignments after raising questions, he said.

Smith said Buchanan is an “ex-officio” member of the commission, or one who can attend meetings and comment but cannot vote on issues before the panel, and “therefore I didn’t see the need to appoint him to any committees.”

Ashe notes that Riggins-Ezzell is also an ex-officio member, but was appointed to committees by Smith — including the one overseeing the search for her successor. Smith, however, says that Riggins-Ezzell’s assignment to committee membership is automatic under commission bylaws and he did not make the appointments.

“I am sorry if his feelings are hurt,” Smith wrote in an email. “As to Commissioner Ashe, he has demonstrated that he won’t hesitate to voice his opinions.”

And Smith added this comment on Ashe’s means of voicing his opinions:

“Seems like Comm(isioner) Ashe should just come to some of these commission or committee meetings and ask these questions instead of ‘pleading his case’ via the news media? Just a curious strategy to me.”