NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The commissioner and deputy commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development have resigned.
Gov. Bill Haslam announced the resignation of commissioner Karla Davis for family reasons in a news release on Monday. Haslam’s spokesman David Smith said the deputy commissioner, Alisa Malone, also resigned, although he did not provide a reason.
Haslam named Burns Phillips as acting commissioner. Phillips serves as a managing director in the Department of Finance and Administration.
Haslam said Davis has served as commissioner since the beginning of the Haslam administration. Prior to that she served as director of Urban Strategies Memphis HOPE, overseeing programs for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Haslam said he was grateful to Davis for her service.
— Note: The Haslam news release on Davis’ resignation is below.
News release from the governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Department of Children’s Services (DCS) Commissioner Kate O’Day has resigned from her post.
“Kate has informed me that she felt the time was right to step down,” Haslam said. “She was concerned that she had become more of a focus than the children the department serves.
“I appreciate Kate’s service to this administration and to our state. She has done a lot of good work in identifying longstanding problems that have hampered the department, and we will build on those efforts as we move forward.”
O’Day joined the Haslam administration in January 2011. Prior to that, she served as president and chief executive officer of Child & Family Tennessee in Knoxville. She began her career as a youth counselor with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida and later served as vice president of program development and evaluation for Children’s Home Society of Florida and director of program services for Covenant House of Florida.
The governor has named Commissioner Jim Henry, who currently heads up the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD), to serve as interim commissioner of DCS.
“I am grateful to Jim for agreeing to take on this interim role,” Haslam continued. “He has significant experience both in the private and public sectors and has devoted the better part of his life to caring for some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Henry is the first commissioner of DIDD, which was formerly a division of the Department of Finance and Administration before becoming a state department on January 15, 2011. Before joining the Haslam administration, Henry served as president and chief executive officer of Omni Visions, Inc, a company serving adults with developmental disabilities and children and families in crisis. A Vietnam veteran and former mayor of Kingston, Henry spent 12 years as a state representative and six of those years as minority leader.
Henry will continue to serve as commissioner of DIDD during his interim role of leading DCS. The governor will immediately begin a search for a new commissioner of DCS.
The case against a Knox County commissioner accused of engaging in sexual activity with another man in a public park is on hold after a judge Tuesday recused himself from the case, the News Sentinel reports. Commissioner Jeff Ownby was set Tuesday to appear in Knox County General Sessions Court on an indecent exposure charge filed after Knoxville Police Department officers arrested him late last month for allegedly engaging in a sex act with another man in the Sharps Ridge public park.
However, the case was put on hold after Sessions Judge Tony Stansberry recused himself, citing the commission’s budgetary authority over his court. Although sessions court judges are state employees, Knox County contributes money to the operation of the court.
Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols’ office also is expected to step aside for the same reason.
Knox County Commissioner Jeff Ownby and another man were arrested on charges of indecent exposure during an undercover sting Thursday, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Ownby, 45, was released from the Knox County Detention Facility later the same evening after posting $500 bond. He did not answer when asked by a reporter if he wanted to comment on his arrest.
The first-term commissioner, who represents the 4th District, was one of two men arrested during the surveillance operation, according to Knoxville Police Department Capt. Gary Holliday.
John McCracken, 53, of Powell also was arrested on charges of indecent exposure and criminal trespass. He remained in custody at the detention facility Thursday night in lieu of $1,000 bond.
The KPD sting was conducted in response to citizen complaints of illegal activity in at Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park in North Knoxville, police said.
A proposal by Rep. Art Swann to allow the state commissioner of education to waive enforcement of laws applying to public school systems has been attacked on a bipartisan basis by colleagues who say it probably violates the state constitution.
The bill (HB1970, as amended) is entitled “The Public School Achievement Flexibility Act”. It would empower the commissioner to grant high-achieving school systems a “waiver of any state board (of education) rule or statute that inhibits or hinders the desired flexibility for the school.”
The Maryville Republican said that state law already allows charter schools and achievement school districts, which are under state supervision because of low performance, to ignore regular rules and laws
“If it’s good for charters, why shouldn’t it be good for public schools?,” he said, describing the legislation as “leveling the playing field.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The House on Wednesday delayed a vote on a bill to give the state’s education commissioner the ability to waive state laws in order to grant public schools more flexibility after several members raised concerns that the measure could amount to a power grab by the executive branch.
Republican Rep. Art Swann of Maryville said his bill is designed to emulate the leeway granted to charter schools for high-performing public schools.
“We are trying to build an achievement level, and we’re trying to learn,” Swann said. “It is not that we’re doing a carte blanche for every school from top to bottom.”
“We have to turn those people loose to do their jobs,” he said.
But Swann agreed to put the measure on hold until at least Thursday after members of both parties raised concerns.
“That a commissioner — unelected, answering only to the governor — can overturn laws that we pass, that scares me to be honest with you,” said Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin. “That’s not prudent action on our part.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said he doesn’t believe it’s constitutional to grant anyone the power to ignore state laws. He also suggested Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman would welcome the power to overrule the Legislature.
“He wants to be a dictator over education, I understand that,” Turner said. “He’s got a real taste for that. This is wrong.”
A spokeswoman for Huffman said the commissioner was attending a series of meetings and did not have immediate comment.
Republican Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon said he wasn’t concerned about the prospect of education officials changing rules and regulations that they have control over. But he said he had a problem if “they can override something that we pass.”
“If they need to change it they need to come back here,” he said.
The Senate passed its version of the bill on a 32-0 vote on Monday.
CHATTANOOGA (AP) — Officials with the state Education Department and the Hamilton County School Board are pointing blame at each other for declaring a recent meeting closed to the public.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that public notice of Thursday’s meeting between the board and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was issued to the media last week. But when reporters tried to gain access to the meeting, they were denied (http://bit.ly/ygHHU4 ).
Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said local officials had decided to close the meeting because the panel was discussing a competitive grant. But school board chairman Mike Evatt and Superintendent Rick Smith said the meeting was closed at Huffman’s request.
Evatt said he saw no need for the panel to meet in executive session.
“It wasn’t my call,” Smith said. “It was the commissioner’s call.”
The meeting also included representatives of the local teachers’ union, the Public Education Foundation and school administrators.
Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that the state’s Sunshine Law operates on the presumption of openness, and makes only limited allowances for executive sessions.
Flanagan noted that the first line of the state’s open meetings act declares that Tennessee’s policy is “that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
The discussion at Thursday’s meeting focused on whether the county should apply for the state’s School Innovation Zone that would give them more flexibly to operate failing schools, such as offering longer school days.
Huffman said in an earlier speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club that he hoped the county would apply for the grant worth $30 million to $40 million.
“The idea is that districts would figure out what autonomy and flexibilities they would give to schools in the innovation zone,” Huffman said.
Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern acknowledges to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that he made this remark to three other white men with him in an elevator after the commission voted down a resolution calling for repeal of Tennessee voter photo ID law:
“Why don’t we go back to the Constitution when the only voters were white male property owners?”
Skillern, a Republican, says he was “just kidding” with the remark, addressed toward Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith. If so, the remark apparently didn’t inspire any laughter from Smith or the other men aboard the elevator.
(Local Democratic party activist Phil) Phillips said Skillern’s statement was “seemingly overstated” and took him aback.
“It was kind of like guys stand around locker rooms and tell dirty jokes,” he said. “It shocked me that he would say that in front of someone he just met 10 seconds ago.”
Skillern said Phillips and Smith took his statement out of context. Skillern supports voting rights for all law-abiding U.S. citizens, regardless of skin color or sex, he said.
“We just go back and forth with each other all the time,” Skillern said of Smith.
Skillern said he was making the point that the Constitution has been amended and voting rights laws have changed a number of times throughout U.S. history. “They’re acting like it’s never been changed before,” he said.
County commissioners don’t have the authority to change state law, and Skillern said he wouldn’t support a change even if they did.
By refusing to issue misdemeanor warrants sought by state officials against Occupy Nashville protesters, reports the Tennessean, Night Court Commissioner Tom Nelson “was transformed from one of Nashville’s least- known judicial officers to a folk hero.” And just like that, a man who has failed five times since 1990 to become a judge solidified himself as a star jurist within the small but passionate encampment on Legislative Plaza.
“His interpretation of the law was very even-handed,” Occupy protester Buck Gorrell said. “It probably took some courage to tell the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the governor that they didn’t hold water.” As protesters awaited a third straight night of arrests that never materialized, cheers erupted when it was announced that Nelson was on duty again that night.
…Signs declaring Nelson an “American hero” and “defender of theConstitution” are among those posted around Legislative Plaza. Protesters signed an oversized thank-you card and marched it to the Metro Courthouse. There’s even talk of creating T-shirts with Nelson’s face on them.
“It’s not really an endorsement thing, it’s just like a thank-you,” said Occupy protester Phillip Schlicher, 31. “You did your job with dignity, and we respect that.”
Just four years earlier, Nelson came to a very different conclusion when 16 homeless advocates were arrested for protesting too late into the night outside the Metro Courthouse. Nelson signed off on the arrests and set bail for each of the protesters at $2,000. The group included Charlie Strobel, a former Catholic priest and founding director of the Room in the Inn homeless shelter. General Sessions Judge Aaron Holt dismissed the charges the next morning, and the arrests, especially of Strobel, were widely panned.
Strobel said that the arrests of Occupy Nashville protesters reminded him of his own arrest, and that he was happy to see Nelson order the demonstrators released.
“Maybe the lesson learned from that was that we need to take these peaceful protests more seriously,” Strobel said.
Nelson declined to be interviewed for this story, so it’s not clear why hehandled the 2007 arrestsof protesters differently. However, Metro had an existing law that closed city parks such as Public Square at 11 p.m., while the state-imposed curfew on Legislative Plaza was created in the middle of the Occupy Nashville protest, after the protesters had been on the plaza for three weeks.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee General Services Commissioner Steven Cates said Friday that Occupy Nashville protesters on the Legislative Plaza near the state Capitol has cost the state thousands of dollars, but he didn’t give a specific figure.
Cates spoke to reporters following a budget hearing for his department. He said there are areas of the plaza that have required pressure washing because of a lack of sanitation facilities.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said unsanitary conditions were part of the reason he implemented a curfew and protesters were arrested. A federal judge has since temporarily struck down the curfew. At least two donated portable toilets have been placed near the plaza.
Cates didn’t address the arrests because of litigation. He said the protesters’ occupancy of the plaza for nearly a month has been costly.
“It’s very, very expensive to pressure wash and use solutions that don’t totally damage the surface,” Cates said.
He said there’s also costs associated with protesters running long cords from inside state buildings to power their laptops, as well as safety concerns if “plugs … don’t have the right rating.”