By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Republican lawmaker who last year backed off a bill that would have allowed local officials to hold more closed-door meetings has renewed the effort, saying he’s asked county commissioners to bring him a proposal that has a chance of passing a key subcommittee.
Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin has a bill scheduled before the House State Government Subcommittee on Tuesday that could be amended to address local government officials’ call for a bill to allow them to meet privately as long as a quorum isn’t present.
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 such a measure.
Casada told The Associated Press on Thursday that he advised commissioners a bill in that form won’t pass the subcommittee. He didn’t specify what changes should be made, but said he’s “still negotiating.”
The House unanimously approved and sent to the governor Monday a bill that – if in effect last year — would have prevented former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner from getting “pre-trial diversion” for his crimes.
“We had an instance in Knox County where we had a judge who went out and committed crimes related to his office,” sponsor Rep.. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, told colleagues who questioned the need for SB2566. “He created a whole host of problems.”
The bill, which earlier passed the Senate unanimously under the sponsorship of Republican Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman, declares that any public official convicted of a crime related to his or her duties in office cannot receive pre-trial diversion.
Pre-trial diversion is now available to first-time offenders under some circumstances. In Baumgartner’s case, by receiving diversion on a charge of official misconduct rather than a normal conviction, he was able to receive his state pension.
Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, questioned Haynes at some length on the bill, wondering at one point if it would prevent a state trooper from giving legislators a break on a speeding ticket. Haynes said it would not.
The Senate has approved and sent to the House a bill that prohibits public officials from receiving pre-trial diversion for crimes committed while in office.
Such a law, had it been in effect at the time, would have apparently have prevented former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner from receiving pre-trial diversion, which allowed him to collect a state pension and will allow his criminal record to be expunged if he does not violate probation.
Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, referred to Baumgartner’s case during Senate floor debate on SB2566, sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman. McNally said the judge’s situation “points out the need for legislation like this.”
The bill passed unanimously during the Senate’s Monday evening session, though three senators abstained. One of them, Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, was the only lawmaker to voice any concern about the bill.
Haynes said that a crime by a public officials is bad, but that it is “just as horrible” for a trusted employee to embezzle money from his or her employer.
“Why are we going to set apart one group and treat them differently than anybody else on various crimes?,” Haynes asked Yager. “If it’s good for those of us who serve in public office, why wouldn’t we do the same for anyone else?”
“Because a public office is a public trust and, as public officials, we ask for these jobs,” said Yager, contending that a higher standard should apply to judges, legislators and others holding an elective position.
McNally, after citing the Baumgartner case, said that state law already declares some types of crimes ineligible for pre-trial diversion and the bill simply adds another category. Drawing such distinctions, McNally said, is an appropriate function for the Legislature.
The bill now goes to the House, where it is sponsored by Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville. It is scheduled for a subcommittee vote Wednesday, which could move the bill forward for final passage by next week.
Thursday afternoon, Doug Bataille, Knox County director of parks and recreation, and Dick Moran, Knox County director of information technology, were found golfing at Three Ridges Golf Course by a News Sentinel photographer.
Sometime that same afternoon, a county payroll employee confirmed Moran had his timecard corrected – from sick time to partial vacation time – to account for the time spent on the course.
The full News Sentinel story HERE.
In less than a year, at least one elected official or government employee has been charged criminally in four of the six counties that make up Tennessee’s 12th Judicial District, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “It does seem strange that you would have that many cases involving public officials come up at the same time,” said Mike Taylor, the district attorney general for nearly two decades in Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
“But to say that it’s indicative of a general failure of public officials, they’re not those kind of cases,” Taylor said.
In just the past month, Rhea County Executive George Thacker was charged with patronizing a prostitute in a Knoxville sting, and Winchester City Councilman Cheyne Stewart was arrested with another man on sexual assault charges detailed in a 16-count indictment.