Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips has fired Fiscal Services Administrator Ron Jones effective Wednesday, reports The Tennessean. Jones had been in charge of the department’s operating budget of more than $250 million, while overseeing facilities, procurement and telecommunications, according to a biography on the state government website.
Former commissioner Karla Davis chose Jones for the role in July 2011.
Davis, and two other top officials she hired, resigned in mid-March, just days before publication of auditors’ sharp criticisms of the department, which failed to monitor fraud and delayed sending checks to thousands of out-of-work Tennesseans.
Hiring in Davis’s administration has led to two lawsuits charging that leaders discriminated against white employees by forcing them out and hiring black replacements. Davis and three hand-picked officials who have since resigned are black.
The Tennessean continues its reporting on the troubled Department of Labor and Workforce Development with a trio of Sunday stories, led by Chas Sisk’s review of the recruiting of now-departed commissioner Karla Davis and questions about her credentials. How Davis, a little-known nonprofit administrator, could be named to lead a major state agency says much about how Gov. Bill Haslam has structured his administration. His twin emphases — bringing in fresh blood and building a diverse cabinet — have helped him shake up state government.
But in a couple of cases, the governor has put people in charge who critics say lacked the experience or skills to run state departments. Davis, who resigned in March, citing family reasons, left shortly before the release of a scathing audit of her department. In addition, the department is facing at least three wrongful-termination lawsuits, including two that allege racial discrimination.
Race and gender appear to have been factors in Davis’ hiring. But she also convinced the governor himself that she was the right person for the job, shining in interviews and enduring a lengthy vetting process.
“Karla was bright,” Haslam said, “and she had been working with enough folks in situations like the people our Labor and Workforce Development Department serves that I thought she could add some value.”
…Tom Ingram, the head of Haslam’s transition team, said the governor was looking to assemble a diverse group for his administration but added Davis had to clear several rounds of interviews, including one with Haslam directly.
“She was highly recommended or she wouldn’t have been in it,” Ingram said. “Did she meet our diversity criteria? Absolutely. Was that the reason that she was appointed? Not unless we thought she was qualified.”
…While not disputing the criticisms of Davis and O’Day, Haslam defended how he had assembled his cabinet.
“We have 23 commissioners, and of those, 18 or 19 are from outside state government,” he said. “We’ve had some commissioners that were incredibly successful.”
But the governor added that the task of naming senior leaders was harder than many might think. He said there is little time for an incoming governor to find the right people for every position, contrasting it to the deliberate way in which people are chosen by private businesses.
“You basically have 30 really critical positions to fill and you have a very tight window to do that,” he said. “If I’m hiring somebody for a business, I know what that existing department that I’m hiring them to run is like. … You don’t have that advantage when you’re coming into state government.”
One sidebar focuses on lawsuits claiming race discrimination during Davis’ tenure: Filed by two former employees, one suit in local court and another in federal court allege that leaders in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development forced out employees based on race — that white staffers were replaced by blacks.
The complaints, which cite the labor department and former Commissioner Karla Davis, stem from the two years Davis ran the agency. Davis, along with Deputy Commissioner Alisa Malone and former Assistant Administrator Turner Nashe, resigned in March, days before a stinging audit exposed the department’s mismanagement of millions of dollars.
The other sidebar begins: If you’re unemployed in Tennessee, you are less likely than most jobless in other states to get a benefit check. And if you do get one, it will be for less money, according to federal data.
In the past year, Tennessee’s average weekly unemployment check paid $235 — sixth-lowest in the nation — and just 17 percent of the state’s unemployed actually got benefits, ranking fourth.
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.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s July unemployment rate of 9.8 percent remained unchanged from the previous month.
State Labor Commissioner Karla Davis says “statistics behind the unchanged unemployment rate show a slight drop in employment numbers along with an overall decline in the labor force.”
The national unemployment rate for July was 9.1 percent, down from 9.2 percent the month before.
According to a survey of businesses, monthly employment increases came in mining, logging and construction, up 1,900 jobs; local government educational services, up 1,400; hospitals, up 900 jobs; and durable goods manufacturing, up 900.
Food services and drinking places decreased by 1,600 jobs, and state government also declined by 1,600.