By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A renewed push is under way to get Tennessee lawmakers to allow local official to hold more closed-door meetings.
Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who also spearheaded a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Current law forbids members of a local legislative body from meeting privately to deliberate on public business. It does not ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters or from having other conversations.
But Barnwell notes in the letter that the law does not apply to the General Assembly.
“The goal of this legislation is to make the Open Meetings Laws as consistent as possible for all elected officials whether state and local,” he said.
Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, called the effort “misguided.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The House has unanimously approved a bill to do away with a leash law for dogs and cats while being transported in Tennessee.
Several members howled like dogs in jest as the chamber voted 96-0 on Thursday to pass the bill (HB440) sponsored by Republican Rep. Pat Marsh of Shelbyville.
The measure would whittle down the little-known law requiring a leash or restraint for any dog or cat in transport to only apply to animals that might have rabies.
The Senate had previously passed its version of the bill on 30-0 vote, meaning the bill now heads for the governor’s desk.
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — Two officers with the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office have resigned after separate DUI arrests.
According to The Daily News Journal (http://on.dnj.com/14OPnSY ), one of the officers was also charged with misdemeanor possession of a weapon while under the influence. He is 41-year-old Ronnie Pugh, who was a detention officer with the sheriff’s department. Pugh was arrested Saturday by a state trooper.
The arrest warrant on Sgt. Trent Thomas Givens states a Rutherford County deputy saw the 37-year-old Givens driving is vehicle through people’s yards early Monday. He performed poorly on field sobriety tests and smelled of alcohol.
Both men resigned from the department after their arrests on suspicion of DUI.
Pugh has also been suspended as a volunteer firefighter with the Rutherford County Fire and Rescue Department
Tennessee and 18 other states are already restricted in how they spend some federal highway funds because they haven’t complied with federal mandates to combat drunken driving – notably by not enacting an “open container” law statewide. The Tennessean reports that 14 more states are facing the prospect of having federal funds held in reserve while the Federal Highway Administration completes an assessment of their laws. A combined $539 million would have to be spent on anti-drunken-driving programs or highway safety improvements instead of on general road and bridge construction in those states.
…Jack Basso, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said it appears the federal government has tightened its application of the rules.
“Probably they are within their authority,” Basso said. “The question is, is it really achieving the spirit of the law?”
Federal officials say they had to review states’ drunken-driving laws after Congress updated federal highway programs last year, including changes to some compliance requirements.
Tennessee’s open container laws for years have fallen short of federal regulations, said Kendell Poole, director of the state’s Governor’s Highway Safety Office. In Tennessee, it is legal for vehicle passengers to possess open containers of alcohol — just not drivers.
“Tennessee is known as a pass-the-bottle state,” Poole said. “The short of it is, because we don’t have an open container law that complies, we’re penalized road construction dollars. … But it comes back to the state in terms of behavioral programs, like the Booze It and Lose It campaign, and also grant awards.”
He said the state has been “penalized” similarly for at least a decade. The penalty means Tennessee can’t use the federal money for road construction projects but can divert it to alcohol-related public information campaigns and state transportation efforts that involve the installation of rumble strips, cable wire barriers and other hazard elimination projects.
Poole said his office supports strengthening the state’s open container laws, but legislative efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
– Note: Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, has a bill to enact an “open container” law in Tennessee again this year as HB84. It’s not an administration bill, but there is a Haslam administration bill to rewrite the state’s DUI laws, as proposed by Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons. That bill is SB186.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state lawyers group is recommending changes in state law governing conservatorships.
Courts can appoint conservators to handle affairs of people a judge deems incapable of making their own decisions. Under a conservatorship, a person’s right to make health care, financial and other personal decisions can be stripped away.
The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/Uhuw6H) reported the Tennessee Bar Association met during the weekend and approved recommendations to the legislature. Among them is a provision for placing a person in a conservatorship on an emergency basis. The period of an emergency conservatorship would be no more than 60 days and a hearing would be held within five days.
The emergency plan is one of 16 recommendations approved by the bar.
The recommendations come after a series of hearings conducted by a panel of the bar association. At a Sept. 20 hearing in Nashville, several people testified all of their assets disappeared after conservatorships were established for them.
The bar group decided to make recommendations after the Legislature considered a series of changes to the law last session. Lawmakers passed two changes. One requires that a proposed conservator reveal whether he or she was a criminal record. The other requires disclosure of any relationship with the person being conserved.
The bar panel concluded there needs to be more public education about the conservatorship process.
Jackson attorney Pam Wright said the proposed changed would bring Tennessee statute into closer conformity with a national model law and include protecting rights of those being conserved.
“The existing law does not have enough specificity,” Wright said.
Among recommended changes are making it easier for a person being placed in a conservatorship to appeal the process and get separate legal representation.
Nashville resident Jewell Tinnon lost her home, her car and all her belongings in a contested conservatorship case.
She said she had not heard about the proposed changes, but had only one question about them.
“If they change it (the law), when will I get my stuff back?” she asked.
Tinnon lives in public housing not far from the house that was auctioned off to pay bills.
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — From Oregon to Mississippi, President Barack Obama’s proposed ban on new assault weapons and large-capacity magazines struck a nerve among rural lawmen and lawmakers, many of whom vowed to ignore any restrictions — and even try to stop federal officials from enforcing gun policy in their jurisdictions.
“A lot of sheriffs are now standing up and saying, ‘Follow the Constitution,'” said Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, whose territory covers the timbered mountains of southwestern Oregon.
But their actual powers to defy federal law are limited. And much of the impassioned rhetoric amounts to political posturing until — and if — Congress acts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said Wednesday it’s unlikely an assault weapons ban would actually pass the House of Representatives. Absent action by Congress, all that remains are 23 executive orders Obama announced that apply only to the federal government, not local or state law enforcement.
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — Republican state Rep. Joe Carr of Murfreesboro called a press conference Wednesday to announce he will pursue legislation to make it a crime in Tennessee for federal agents to enforce any effort to ban firearms or ammunition.
Carr said the measure would also require the state’s attorney general to defend any Tennessean prosecuted for violating the potential federal gun violations.
“We’re tired of political antics, cheap props of using children as bait to gin up emotional attachment for an issue that quite honestly doesn’t solve the problem,” Carr said.
(Gov. Bill Haslam’s office had not yet seen the legislation and had no immediate comment, a spokesman said.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester condemned the measure as “self-serving” for Carr, who is exploring a challenge to Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais next year.
“In Tennessee, we are facing real problems with gun violence, poverty and persistent joblessness,” he said. “We don’t need Carr’s extreme sideshow.”
New, tougher work search requirements haven’t resulted in many jobless Tennesseans being kicked off unemployment yet, reports The Tennessean. Fewer than 800 people have lost their benefits because they did not look for work or provided no evidence that they did so as required, according to figures from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. That’s just 6 percent of the more than 13,000 verification checks the agency has done in the past three months.
Supporters are calling the effort an early success despite the low violation rate, citing state estimates that it has saved taxpayers at least $185,000 so far.
“They’re changing their behavior because of the law, and that’s a good thing,” said Jim Brown, Tennessee director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “We’re making progress.”
It and other business groups pushed for the work search rule and other jobless-aid restrictions last year, saying changes were needed to improve accountability and combat fraud and abuse. Tennessee legislators and Gov. Bill Haslam agreed, enacting several measures that tightened eligibility criteria.
More than 100 Tennessee sheriffs and police chiefs, including Knoxville’s Chief David Rausch, have declared their opposition to legislation that would allow the sale of wine in grocery stores.
Raush and several other law enforcement officers, part of a “Tennessee Law Enforcement for Strong Alcohol Laws” coalition, declared at a Legislative Plaza news conference that they see wine sales in groceries and supermarkets as weakening control over alcohol sales and causing an expansion of underage drinking.
Rausch said the concept is a “no brainer.” Knoxville police often run “sting” operations with state Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents on liquor stores, currently the only place wine is sold in Tennessee, and “rarely do we find them doing anything wrong” by selling to underage youths.
He said convenience stores, which now can sell only beer, are much more likely to have clerks caught in “sting” operations. Other officers amplified the point with Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork saying grocery stores often hire underage clerks willing to “wink and nod” for beer sales to underage friends and the practice would be amplified if wine is sold.
News release from Senate Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE – State Sen. Jim Kyle pushed for greater transparency in the 108th General Assembly during the first day of session, by moving to apply the Open Meetings Act to the state Senate.
Sen. Kyle’s motion would have amended preliminary Senate rules to apply the act, applying the same standard to Senate caucuses that’s followed by local governments, Senate committees and the Senate itself. Sen. Kyle withdrew his motion when Rules Committee Chairman Mark Norris agreed to take up the issue.
“If Republicans want open government, they can join with us and support this proposal,” Sen. Kyle said. “By amending the rules, their deliberations will be subject to public scrutiny, as should be the standard in state government.”
Under former Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the majority caucus meetings were open to the public, but that has not been the case under Republican control.
“We seven Democratic Senators represent not only our constituents, but the 2.5 million Democrats in Tennessee,” Sen. Kyle said. “Fighting for their values means fighting for open government. It levels the playing field for ideas, where they can be judged on merit, not politics.”