By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge overseeing changes at the state Department of Children’s Services expressed cautious optimism Monday that the agency’s new leadership can resolve some of its problems.
The tone of the hearing marked a decided change from a January hearing where U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell expressed frustration that the agency seemed to be moving backward and concern for the safety of the children in its care.
That hearing took place during a public outcry over the agency’s inability to say how many of the children it had tried to help had died or nearly died over the past two years.
DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned a few days later and was replaced by Interim Commissioner Jim Henry, who was in the courtroom Monday.
Campbell said that Henry “seems to have developed a new tone at the agency, and that’s a good step.”
The agency was in federal court to report on its progress toward meeting the goals of a 2001 settlement with the child advocacy group Children’s Rights.
The latest bill to grant special tuition discounts at state colleges and universities appears headed for passage over protests that such measures are driving up costs to others.
In a Senate floor speech, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, ran through a list of tuition discounts that began in 1957, when dependents of military servicemen killed in action were given a discount.
The bill at hand (SB208, as amended) says that 25 members of the Tennessee State Guard, a volunteer organization that supplements the National Guard in Tennessee, can attend one college course per year without any tuition. It also says that military veterans moving into Tennessee after an honorable discharge can receive lower in-state tuition rates.
While all discount beneficiaries, including children of state employees and teachers, are “worthy recipients,” Gardenhire said, the cumulative effect over the years has been to eliminate tuition revenue from the higher education system and drive up costs for others.
His sentiments were somewhat endorsed by Sens. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Jim Summerville, R-Dickson.
“Before you can subsidize one group, you have to plunder another,” said Niceley, quoting a French author. “I guess it’s up to us to decide who we’re going to plunder.”
Summerville lamented acts of “fiscal piracy” within the state budget process.
But Summerville and Niceley both voted for the bill, which sponsor Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said was different from most tuition discount measures in that the State Guard free courses — estimated to involve about $37,300 per year after amendments — would be covered by general taxpayer dollars and not borne by higher education’s budget.
Gardenhire abstained. Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, cast the sole no vote, saying he did so because the bill didn’t go far enough. Those serving in the Tennessee State Guard, Henry said, should be entitled to just as big a tuition discount as those in “federal service.”
The House is expected to give final approval to the bill this week.
A bill from Sen. Todd Gardenhire that would let for-profit companies run and manage public charter schools failed to make the grade in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, reports the Chattanooga TFP. The bill failed, getting just two votes, including the Chattanooga Republican lawmaker’s own vote, while one colleague said no and three others abstained.
Gardenhire earlier told the panel the bill is intended to help charter schools, which are run by nonprofit groups but funded with tax dollars. Often, they are started by parents, teachers, churches or other groups.
“As you all know, when the charter school starts up, the hardest year is the first year and sometimes it’s not easy to get competent administrators or people who know how to do the mechanics of starting a school,” Gardenhire explained. “This would allow well-meaning people who set up a charter school to go outside and hire people to manage it. That’s not to say everybody’s not competent.”
While charter schools can contract out some services like cleaning or food service to for-profit vendors, they currently are not allowed to contract out management services to them.
State Rep. Curry Todd lived rent-free for an undisclosed amount of time in the expensive Nashville home of a prominent lobbyist in 2011, according to The Tennessean. State ethics law forbids lobbyists from providing gifts, including housing, to lawmakers. The lobbyist, Chuck Welch, regularly worked on legislative issues that passed through the House State and Local Government Committee, which Todd, R-Collierville, chaired until he was removed in late 2011.
That came after Todd, who had sponsored legislation allowing guns in places that serve alcohol, was arrested on DUI and gun charges in October 2011. He was pulled over by Metro police less than a mile from the lobbyist’s Green Hills home.
Todd acknowledged last week that he has stayed at Welch’s house on a number of occasions, but wouldn’t clarify how long he lived at 2004 Lombardy Ave. in 2011. The home sold last year for $460,000, and rent for a four-bedroom house would have been in the range of $2,000 per month.
Welch, who did not respond to a request for comment, is the managing director for the Nashville office of the influential lobbying firm Farris, Mathews and Bobango. Until his arrest, Todd wielded significant power at the capitol in his role as chairman of the House committee.
Thanks to a generous carve-out in the state ethics law, the free housing may not constitute a violation because Todd and Welch are long-time friends.
Both Welch and the firm regularly lobbied on bills considered by Todd’s committee, including the ongoing issue of how utility poles are regulated across the state. The lobbying firm’s clients include the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association. Welch’s other lobbying clients include tw telecom, the American Legal Finance Association and the Tennessee Development District Association.
Todd said his close personal friendship with Welch “has not affected my independent judgment as a lawmaker.”
Todd declined to answer questions regarding his living arrangement with Welch. His prepared statement referred to the carve-out in the state ethics law that allows for gifts to be exchanged between lobbyists and lawmakers in cases of close personal friendships. Such gifts are not required to be reported annually.
…Todd said he met Welch over 45 years ago when he was a student at Treadwell High School, where Welch’s dad coached Todd’s basketball team.
“To this day, I consider Chuck Welch a true and close friend,” Todd said in his statement to the newspaper. “In addition, I have interacted with Mr. Welch on a professional basis related to my duties as a state representative multiple times. Like any lobbyist in Nashville, Mr. Welch visits with all legislators on a regular basis.”
A private act restructuring Erlanger Health System’s governing board is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam for his consideration, reports the Chattanooga TFP. “I wish them well,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, which passed the legislation 29-0 without discussion. “We’re going to do all we can to support them and make that thing hum and be the jewel of the city that it ought to be.”
The House passed the bill earlier this month. Local lawmakers hope the legislation will help cure a variety of financial and other ills they see plaguing Erlanger in recent years and a way to allay concerns the University of Tennessee’s College of Medicine was engaged in a power play to control the hospital.
The bill whittles the existing 12-member board down to nine trustees. While the board will be self-perpetuating, it gives joint veto power to the seven-member Hamilton County legislative delegation and the Hamilton County Commission over appointments.
To get the new board in place, the bill provides that local legislators, “after consultation” with Hamilton County’s mayor, will recommend to the full General Assembly initial appointees to the reconstituted Erlanger board.
Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman William “Chink” Brown’s Senate confirmation vote for a new term on the panel may be dead in the water, according to the Chattanoga Times-Free Press.
Freshman Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, on Thursday “bumped” the confirmation of Brown, a Signal Mountain attorney and former judge, from a consent calendar. The consent calendar is a list of usually noncontroversial bills and resolutions that are passed en masse on any given day on the Senate floor.
Other nominees to the Fish and Wildlife Commission were confirmed. But Brown’s nomination was re-referred to the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Senators say at least five of the nine-member committee won’t vote to send Brown’s nomination back to the Senate floor.
…At least part of the opposition appears to come from residual resentment by some lawmakers over a two-year battle they fought with the TWRA and the-then Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission, which oversaw the agency.
Brown was chairman of the commission during the fight. The commission eventually was renamed and other changes made.
Gardenhire, elected to the Senate last fall after the flap, said Thursday evening he had warned a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency official, which the commission oversees, over a week ago that he wouldn’t be voting for Brown “but I wouldn’t do anything to cause attention to it.”
…Brown, a Democrat, was renominated by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Gardenhire said he warned an administration official last weekend that Brown’s confirmation was in danger but no one got back with him to discuss it.
Smuggling or possessing tobacco and tattoo-making equipment at a state prison or local jail would be a crime under legislation introduced by two Hamilton County lawmakers, reports the Chattanooga TFP. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, (HB1165) updates and adds to the list of items deemed contraband under state law. The legislation applies not only to prisoners but everyone coming into the facility.
Carter said Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, a member of the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association’s legislative committee, brought the bill to the lawmakers.
An attorney and former judge, Carter said he can see the need for the legislation and is happy to sponsor it.
“Cigarettes are the currency for corruption in jails,” said Carter, also a one-time top assistant to former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey.
Hammond said current law needs updating to cover emerging problems.
“We stopped smoking a long time ago,” Hammond said. Prisoners are prohibited from using tobacco products in prisons and jails. “But you still get it as contraband. This will not only assist us in dealing with the prisoners but in the event — and I’m not saying it has happened anytime lately — we had an officer who was slipping it into the jail.”
Hammond said the “biggest issue for us lately is the tattoo stuff, homemade tattoo equipment where you sit around and tattoo everybody from A to Z.”
Shelby County’s suburban Republican state legislators filed new bills Thursday that they hope will remove court barriers to the creation of new municipal school districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington, reports Richard Locker. The main bill would repeal the 1998 statewide ban on new municipal school districts. The suburban lawmakers said they believe that and three other bills will win legislative approval, including in the House of Representatives where reluctance to allow new school districts outside of Shelby County last year led to passage of a Shelby-only law that was later struck down as unconstitutional.
A federal court ruling last November halted the movement toward the creation of six new municipal districts in the suburbs, even after they were approved by voters in local referendums in August. Suburban voters also elected their first school board members in November, before the court ruling, and the boards would have worked to open the new municipal schools late this summer when the merger of the old Memphis City and Shelby County school systems will be complete.
“I expect the House to pass it,” said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, who is sponsoring the main bill with Senate Majority Leader Mark Morris, R-Collierville. All five suburban Republican House members from Shelby are co-sponsoring all four bills.
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said that from his conversations with lawmakers from elsewhere, “the rest of the state would really like for Shelby County to get its school situation settled.” White chairs the House Education Subcommittee, the bill’s first stop in the House.
State Rep. Curry Todd served his required sentence on a Davidson County DUI conviction in a Madison County jail, reports Jackson Baker (who initially thought Todd, R-Collierville, had been jailed on a new offense). Todd was incarcerated from Thursday, January 31, to Saturday, February 2, at the Madison County Penal Farm.
…His 48-hour stay at the Madison County Penal Farm was, in fact, the time he was obliged to serve as a result of last year’s conviction in Nashville — the one and only on his record.
The change of venue and place on the calendar were at Todd’s request, and it was all worked out between the court and law-enforcement authorities of Davidson and Madison counties, explained Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork.
“That sort of thing happens all the time,” said Woolfork, who described Todd’s time at the penal farm as uneventful. What did he do there? “Oh, he tore up uniforms,” said Woolfork, who went on to elucidate that the Sheriff’s Department was in the process of revamping the uniforms of its officers and that Todd labored away at the redesign of several.
That meant, among other things, removing the chevrons from one place on a sleeve and re-stitching them somewhere else.
And why did Rep. Todd choose Madison County as the place of his incarceration? “Oh, probably because he heard what a great sheriff I was,” Woolfork said.
Or it may have been because Jackson is a place on the map between Nashville and Memphis, both the latter places housing ample numbers of inquisitive media people.
In any case, Todd was quickly free to go.
A federal judge on Friday said he has become impatient with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ inability to accurately count child deaths and issued firm deadlines for officials to make improvements, according to The Tennessean. Judge Todd J. Campbell ordered DCS to give child fatality records to a child advocacy watchdog group within seven days and to overhaul the department’s child fatality review process within 90 days.
And the judge again questioned the reliability of department data and said time is running out for DCS to fix the computer system it uses to keep records.
“This is too important to keep pushing deadlines down the road,” Campbell said. The judge scheduled the hearing months ago to check in on DCS, which must improve its care of foster children, according to a federal court order. A class action lawsuit known as “Brian A.” prompted a settlement agreement in 2001 and set up a team of experts to monitor DCS.
The department made enough progress by 2010 that the judge agreed to an exit plan under which DCS would be released from court-ordered monitoring. But recent problems have concerned the judge and the New York-based child advocacy group Children’s Rights, which joined with Tennessee attorneys to sue in 2000.
Problems continue to surface. A day before the hearing, state officials disclosed that the deaths of nine children in state custody had gone unreported for months — raising the number of custodial deaths in the past two years to 25. The revelation spurred Gov. Bill Haslam to appoint special adviser Larry Martin to probe the department.