In a recent deposition, state lawyers refused to allow state geologist James Clark to answer questions about what happened in a closed-door meeting between officials of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and officials of Waste Management Inc.l, reports Anne Paine. Now a judge has ordered that the questions be answered.
The decision opens the way for the geologist to speak about topics that include who pressured him to find ways to allow the expansion of an almost-full landfill in Marshall County into an area with a sinkhole and creek to move forward.
…Clark was being quizzed as part of a lawsuit filed against Waste Management and its Cedar Ridge Landfill in Lewisburg by four neighbors and one local environmental group. They say pollution, including chlorides, ammonia, nitrates and silt, has harmed properties and continues to taint creeks and springs. Waste Management has denied that this is so. The state was pulled into the case as a third party.
….Clark “is ordered to attend his deposition scheduled on August 8, 2011,” wrote Joe B. Brown, U.S. magistrate judge for the Middle District Court of Tennessee. Clark may testify about discussions and meetings with representatives of Waste Management and state staff but not discussions where the state’s environment department general counsel or staff from the attorney general’s office were present, Brown wrote.
Questions to which state attorneys allowed no answers this summer included just who had been pressuring Clark to find a way to approve the permit. He had testified he had been pressed to do so.
He also was not allowed to say how the state, in the private meetings, decided that boring two holes into the proposed expansion site at the landfill “fully resolves the long-standing concerns of a collapse” there, according to a filing by attorney Elizabeth Murphy, representing the neighbors and the environmental group.
From Richard Locker of the Commercial Appeal (slightly edited and rewritten):
The chairwoman of the state Senate Education Committee refused to comment Wednesday on reports that she had demanded the resignation of one Regents board member in exchange for dropping an effort to have three board members removed from office.
Regent Agenia Clark, the president of the Nashville area Girl Scouts and the only black woman on the Board of Regents, resigned on Wednesday, less than a year into her second six year term on the board.
Hours later, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, shelved the bill she filed last month to remove Clark and two other longtime regents – retired Jackson businessman Jonas Kisber and Nashville lawyer Robert P. Thomas.
A Senate committee Tuesday took what Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called “a baby step” toward resolving a long-running dispute over whether the state’s top judges should be subject to popular election rather than “retention elections” as is the case now.
Hours after a meeting between Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark and Ramsey, a Senate committee approved, 5-4, a Ramsey-backed proposal (SJR183) to amend the state constitution to allow an retention election system, wherein voters simply vote yes or no on whether a judge should have a new term.
Ramsey and others contend the state constitution, as now written, requires popular election of Supreme Court and appeals court judges, even though a panel of specially-appointed judges ruled years ago that it does not in declaring the current system valid. Ramsey says he would support the current system in principle, but not with the current language of the constitution in place.
Separate legislation (SB127), which has cleared committees of both the House and Senate, calls for ending the present system and having the top judges elected by popular vote.
“The Supreme Court has not negotiated with Lt. Gov. Ramsey and did not agree with the language (incorporated into) the resolution passed here today,” said Libby Sykes, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts in response to a reporter’s question afterwards.
By Richard Locker of the Commercial Appeal
The state Senate began the process today of removing three members of the Tennessee Board of Regents who did not attend a two-day Senate committee hearing last summer which examined the board’s selection of a new chancellor.
Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, filed Senate Resolution 29 this week that would remove Regents Jonas Kisber of Jackson and Agenia Clark and Robert P. Thomas of Nashville. The Senate approved the resolution on the first of three required readings today, although first and second readings of bills occur routinely and only the third vote is decisive.
If it occurs, it will be the first time since the Board of Regents was created by the legislature in 1972 that a member has been removed by the legislature. Members of the regents who are not state officials serve without pay and are appointed by the governor for six-year terms.
The resolution is the latest flare-up in a political battle that erupted last August when the Board of Regents selected former state Comptroller John Morgan as chancellor of the state university and community college system that the board oversees. The system includes the University of Memphis and Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis and all state higher education institutions outside of the University of Tennessee system.
Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia “Connie” Clark has criticized efforts to have members of the court chosen through popular elections, but she acknowledged Friday that she has participated in the political process by making political campaign contributions.
From Mike Morrow’s TNRport (a video of Clark speaking to the Tennessee Press Association is posted along with the story):
“We are worried about these issues,” Clark said. “Partisan election of judges puts them in a very precarious position, even if we don’t want it to.
“There’s not enough money you could pay me, or pay on my behalf, to have me change my mind about an opinion in a case. But I can understand why, if somebody who had given enough money to my campaign, you might worry about that. You might question my sincerity.”
…Speaking to TNReport after her speech Friday, Chief Justice Clark said she could not recall contributing to anyone in the last year, but she said she has contributed to a number of legislative candidates in the past.
She listed Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, as those she has contributed to, as well as U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a former state senator, and former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon.
(Note: Clark is a Democrat, one of three currently sitting on the five-member Supreme Court.)
“I have contributed to political campaigns because our current ethics rules allow that,” Clark said. “Those rules have been changed off and on over the years, and I understand some concern has risen about that recently.
“So in the coming year as we are going to consider complete revisions to our rules of ethics, that’s going to be one of the topics we talk about significantly. Judges should not give up their rights. But if there is any concern that our giving to a campaign may suggest a certain outcome in a case then we need to look at that very closely.”
Clark said there has been dialogue between the court and legislature about the election of judges.
“We, and I personally, have had a number of conversations with legislators, and we’ll continue to do that,” Clark said. “We are engaging in a good dialogue, and there are some good-faith differences of opinion about what the right answer is.
“We also understand there are a number of business leaders and others who want to participate in that dialogue and to sort of give their perspective, so we expect that dialogue to continue.”
Clark said she had met just this week with 10 to 12 legislators on the issue and expects those discussions to continue.