Posts

Local Governments Going After Saggy Pants-Wearers

Municipalities across the South, most recently in Tennessee, have cited concerns for the health of their residents — among other reasons — in expansions of local public indecency laws to include people whose pants droop well below their waist.

However, although some chiropractors and “posture experts” have warned the public of health issues associated with sagging, there doesn’t appear to be much conclusive evidence in support of that claim.

An ordinance approved June 30 by the City Council of Pikeville suggests evidence exists “that indicates that wearing sagging pants is injurious to the health of the wearer as it causes improper gait.”

According to language in the ordinance, the state public indecency law “allows for some behavior that is considered indecent.” Sagging pants fit the definition, Mayor Phil Cagle told TNReport Monday, although he said the ordinance is meant to give cops authority to arrest people for wearing “anything that’s considered indecent.”

“It wasn’t passed just for saggy britches, we just added that to it because we were getting — some of that looked like it was getting started here, and all you could do is just ask them to pull their pants up,” Cagle said.

He added that the city just wanted to pass a stiffer rule than what the state already has on the books. The only significant difference between the Tennessee Code language and the Pikeville ordinance, which resembles several other laws passed in towns throughout Alabama, Louisiana, FloridaGeorgia and Mississippi, is the inclusion of  an express declaration that  “the exposure of a person’s buttocks, and genital area or undergarments is offensive and indecent.”

Cagle said that they used an ordinance “almost word for word” brought to him by the Pikeville City Attorney from a law previously passed by a Georgia city.

The definition for indecent exposure of undergarments is provided as anyone “wearing pants or skirts more than three inches below the top of the hips.” The ordinance requires a fine of at least $25 for an initial offense, and up to $50 for each subsequent offense.

Cagle said that in the month since the law went into effect, the Pikeville police haven’t had to write a single citation for public indecency. “We haven’t even had to give a warning yet,” he said. The initial passage of the law by Pikeville garnered widespread media attention, including from  The Daily Mail, The Independent, and Huffington Post.

South Pittsburgh’s city council also recently indicated an interest in passing their own legal requirement for higher waistlines when City Commissioner Jimmy Wigfall suggested at a meeting that they could use “some type of ordinance where you can only sag just so low or something.” The City Attorney told commission members that he would review other towns’ ordinances and have something for them at the next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 12.

Although laws targeting sagging have been around since at least 2007, the wording related to “the health of the wearer,” seems to have first appeared in an ordinance passed by the city council of Dublin, Ga., in late 2010.

No source is given in the law for the claim that drooping waistlines can cause injury to the wearer, but Cagle told TNReport that there were studies and articles on the internet that offered the same evidence.

In 2012, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill — sponsored in the Senate by Ophelia Ford and in the House by Joe Towns Jr., both Memphis Democrats — that prohibited students from exposing undergarments through sagging, as well as requiring that sports bras be covered if “deemed inappropriate by school officials.” However, specific punishments were not included in the final bill that passed the legislature in 2012. Instead, individual school districts were given the authority to determine punishment for the infraction.

Towns told the Associated Press at the time that he hoped the law would encourage kids to dress better.

Additionally, in April of 2012, an Alabama judge sentenced a man to serve three days in jail for contempt of court for sagging in the courtroom where he was entering a plea on charges of receiving stolen property.

However, there is some question to the constitutionality of laws requiring that a person’s bottoms be a certain distance from their hips. According to Neil Richards, a professor of law at Washington University, these laws don’t fare well when challenged on First Amendment grounds. And the ACLU has been known to challenge similar laws on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Challenges to the laws go back several years, including a similar law in Florida that was ruled unconstitutional by a Florida Circuit Court judge in 2008 because of the case’s “limited facts,” after a 17-year-old Riviera Beach boy spent a night in jail on accusations of exposing too much underwear.

Senate Aide Fired, Caught Doing Political Work on State Time

An aide to Sen. Ophelia Ford was fired Tuesday in the wake of a TNReport story that showed him apparently conducting political work while collecting his state paycheck.

“As of today, Derek Hummel’s employment with the Tennessee General Assembly has been terminated,” Office of Legislative Administration official Tammy Rather told TNReport via email.

Hummel had been executive secretary for Ford, D-Memphis, since April, drawing a $30,468 annual salary. He’s also been working for the Phillip North campaign, a Democrat locked in a tight race against Republican Steve Dickerson for a Davidson County state Senate seat.

Over the past three months, Hummel had apparently been conducting political activities during state business hours on his state-issued computer, according to phone records, Facebook postings and documents reviewed by TNReport.

Hummel had identified himself as field director for the Phillip North for State Senate campaign. Hummel was paid $625 in September by the North campaign, according to campaign finance filings released last week.

Attempts to reach Ford have been unsuccessful. A call and an email to the Phillip North campaign have now gone unreturned for more than 48 hours.

Hummel abruptly hung up on TNReport on Monday.

TNReport will update this story if we hear back from any of those we have contacted.

According to a state law called the “Little Hatch Act,” state employees are prohibited from “engaging in political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any period when the person should be conducting business of the state.” The law mirrors the federal Hatch Act.

Examples that suggest Hummel may have been conducting political activities while collecting a state paycheck include:

+ Under a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post, Hummel on July 25 at 10:07 a.m. urged readers to sign a political petition. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

+ Under an ‘Americans Against the Tea Party’ Facebook post, Hummel on July 26 discussed a Tennessee Democratic Party petition at 11:15 a.m., 11:19 a.m. and 12:51 p.m. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day, again 8 to 4:30. On one of those posts he made during business hours Hummel mentioned how an intern for the Democratic Party had drafted the petition dictated by him “because, by state law, we can’t meddle in politics during business hours.”

+ During a phone call taken by Hummel on a non-state cell phone — a recording was provided to TNReport from someone who said they made the call on Sept. 24 during work hours — he talked about working throughout the week on ‘get out the vote’ efforts in his role as field director for the North campaign. State records show he was paid by the state for working that day.

+ On a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post that links to North’s views on a Nashville school issue, Hummel commented on Sept. 18 at 3:48 p.m. State records show Hummel was paid by the state for working that day.

+ On a ‘North for Senate’ Facebook post on Sept. 21 at 4:21 p.m., Hummel’s cell phone number was posted with a message asking volunteers to call. State records show that Hummel was paid for working that day.

+ On Hummel’s desk and on web browser tabs on his state desktop computer, TNReport last week observed campaign documents connected to the North campaign and campaigning in general. (TNReport did not open any desk drawers or search the computer other than to look at the tabs that were open on the computer screen.)

It is not uncommon for staffers in the Tennessee General Assembly to participate in political work, but it is common practice for those staffers to provide notice to the Senate’s chief of staff or to Legislative Administration officials saying they are taking hours off, days off, or a leave of absence for that political work.

’Tis the Season: Campaign Time on Taxpayer Dime

A Tennessee Senate staffer appears to have been doing political work while collecting a full-time state paycheck, an apparent violation of state law, public records and documents reviewed by TNReport show.

Derek Hummel has been executive secretary for Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, since April of this year, drawing a $30,468 annual salary. Over the past three months, he has also been conducting political activities during state business hours on his state-issued computer, according to phone records and Facebook postings.

Hummel has identified himself as field director for the Phillip North for State Senate campaign. Hummel was paid $625 in September by the North campaign, according to campaign finance filings released last week.

When TNReport visited Ford’s office at the Capitol last week to interview Hummel, no one was present, but Hummel’s desk was strewn with what appeared to be campaign material, and political documents were visible on his taxpayer-funded desktop computer.

During an attempt to interview Hummel today, he accused TNReport of violating state law by calling him on his government-office phone.

“You’re an idiot,” Hummel told TNReport. “I’m calling Bill Fletcher,” he added, before abruptly hanging up. Fletcher is a prominent Tennessee Democratic campaign advertising specialist and political strategist.

A call and an email to the Phillip North campaign have gone unreturned. Attempts to leave a message with Sen. Ford at her Memphis office were unsuccessful because her voicemail box was full.

According to a state law call the “Little Hatch Act,” state employees are prohibited from “engaging in political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any period when the person should be conducting business of the state.” The law mirrors the federal Hatch Act.

Examples that suggest Hummel may have been conducting political activities while collecting a state paycheck include:

+Under a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post, Hummel on July 25 at 10:07 a.m. urged readers to sign a political petition. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

+Under an ‘Americans Against the Tea Party’ Facebook post, Hummel on July 26 discussed a Tennessee Democratic Party petition at 11:15 a.m., 11:19 a.m. and 12:51 p.m. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day, again 8 to 4:30. On one of those posts he makes during business hours Hummel mentioned how an intern for the Democratic Party had drafted the petition dictated by him “because, by state law, we can’t meddle in politics during business hours.”

+During a phone call taken by Hummel on a non-state cell phone — a recording was provided to TNReport from someone who said they made the call on Sept. 24 during work hours — he talked about working throughout the week on ‘get out the vote’ efforts in his role as field director for the North campaign. State records show he was paid by the state that day.

+On a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post that links to North’s views on a Nashville school issue, Hummel commented on Sept. 18 at 3:48 p.m. State records show Hummel was paid by the state for working that day.

+On a ‘North for Senate’ Facebook post on Sept. 21 at 4:21 p.m., Hummel’s cell phone number is posted with a message asking volunteers to call. State records show that Hummel was paid for working that day.

+On Hummel’s desk and on web browser tabs on his state desktop computer, TNReport last week observed campaign documents connected to the North campaign and campaigning in general. (TNReport did not open any desk drawers or search the computer other than to look at the tabs that were open on the computer screen.)

It is not uncommon for staffers in the Tennessee General Assembly to participate in political work, but it is common practice for those staffers to provide notice to the Senate’s chief of staff or to Legislative Administration officials saying they are taking hours off, days off, or a leave of absence for that political work.

In the case of Hummel, it appears he did no such thing: The Senate “does not have any correspondence from Mr. Derek Hummel concerning leave of absences,” Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, said via email in response to a records request from TNReport.

A spokesman for the lieutenant governor’s office, to whom all Senate staff officially report, declined comment.

Charges of elected officials and their staff using taxpayer dollars to boost political activities are heard occasionally throughout Tennessee.

For example, earlier this year, a reception sponsored by East Ridge city officials for a congressional candidate drew questions about how local taxpayer money was used.

The reception, for Scottie Mayfield, a Republican running for Tennessee’s 3rd District seat, took place while employees were on the clock, and about $80 in city funds were spent on snacks for the employees, according to the Chattanooga Times Free-Press.

City Manager Tim Gobble insisted that the reception was not meant to be an endorsement and was an attempt to be “hospitable,” but other city leaders have said it was an inappropriate use of city funds, according to the paper’s report.

And last year, Democrats accused Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, of violating the Little Hatch Act, saying it was illegal for Ramsey to use his publicly funded office to promote his “Red Tape” initiative because it is funded by his political action committee, RAAMPAC.

Ramsey denied doing anything wrong, and soon after, Drew Rawlins, the executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he saw no evidence of ethical wrongdoing.

But Rawlins also said his office does not handle alleged Little Hatch Act violations. Because the Little Hatch Act is a criminal statute, that task would fall to Tennessee’s district attorneys, as it did two years ago in Bradley County.

An investigation was launched after Bradley County’s Board of Education chairman and vice chairman sent an e-mail to 800 county school employees endorsing a county mayoral candidate in the Republican Primary, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner.

No charges were filed in that case.

Retiring, Defeated Lawmakers on Taxpayer-Funded Getaway

Updated Aug. 7, 2012: Sen. Roy Herron called and said he had planned to attend the conference but decided against it due to a family emergency.

Six Tennessee legislators leaving the General Assembly this year are expected in Chicago this week on what could amount to a taxpayer-funded junket.

Four retiring legislators and two state reps who lost their bids for re-election in last week’s primary have given the state notice they plan to get reimbursed for attending the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in the Windy City that began Monday, a trip that could cost as much as than $2,500 in registration, airfare, hotel stay, per diem and cab rides.

They are Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

One of the General Assembly’s highest-ranking Republicans says he trusts that the departing lawmakers have good reasons behind their decisions to make the trip.

“I know it will be beneficial to the others who attend to get the benefit of their wisdom and their years of service,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “I think discretion is the better part of valor with these things, and obviously they’ve exercised their discretion and think it’s fine to go. I’m not passing judgment on it.”

Legislators are permitted to let taxpayers foot the bill for out-of-state legislative trips, complete with a per diem, travel and lodging expenses. Even outgoing lawmakers are entitled, said Connie Ridley, director of Tennessee’s office of Legislative Affairs.

“Members of the General Assembly serve as a legislator until the general election in November,” Ridley said in an email. “They are no longer eligible for compensation of any form the evening before the November general election.”

Richardson says she may have lost her primary election, but she still has legislative responsibilities to handle at the conference.

“I signed up because I am one of the representatives, there’s just a couple of us, who represent Tennessee on the Health Committee,” she said. “These are working committees where we share what we’ve done, and find out what other states have done and make policy recommendations for states. So, because I represent Tennessee on the health committee, I still need to come to the meeting.”

Attempts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.

A handful of retiring lawmakers are also on the trip, including Naifeh and Faulk, according to their offices. Herron and Harmon’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Legislators can collect a $173 per diem each of the four days of the conference, for $692 total. Registration to the NCSL event ranges from $549 to $690, depending on when lawmakers registered for the conference online. Guests were encouraged to reserve rooms in downtown Chicago with rates ranging from $199 to $227 a night if locked in prior to Aug. 1. Lawmakers can also be reimbursed for airfare, which runs about $300 roundtrip, and cab rides, which average between $25 to $42 from the airport to the convention site.

If lawmakers decide against splitting hotels and cab fare, the cost to taxpayers could approach almost $2,500 for the four-day, three-night trip.

But no money has left the taxpayers’ pocket yet, Ridley said. Lawmakers will have to submit receipts to have their travel expenses paid for once they return, although the conference’s registration will be billed directly to the state.

While the practice is legal and learning how other state legislatures are tackling difficult policy issues is valuable, sending outgoing lawmakers on an out-of-town trip is still “questionable,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a government accountability advocacy group.

“I have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of those going who will not be coming back, whether by the election or their own choice,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to do something in public life, they could make good public use of that.”

Here are the other 22 lawmakers slated to attend, according to the office of Legislative Administration:

House of Representatives

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory

Senate

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville

Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis

Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis

Sen. Steve Sutherland, R-Morristown

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

Diverse Views Among Lawmakers on Judicial Selection

After Tennessee’s top three elected officials put the issue front-and-center last week, opinions about the state’s judicial selection process are still shaking out on Capitol Hill.

And while the issue has divided state legislators, it has not necessarily done so along partisan lines. Opposition to a constitutional amendment has cropped up, in one form or another, from Democrats and Republicans alike, casting some doubt on the likelihood that such a resolution could get the two-thirds vote it would need to make it on the ballot in 2014.

In a joint press conference last Wednesday, Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell announced they will be pushing for a resolution that would give voters the chance to weigh in on a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the state’s current process.

A selection commission provides the governor with a list of candidates from which to appoint judges. Once appointed, those judges, who serve eight-year terms, face a yes-or-no “retention” election after their first term.

Ramsey has flatly said he believes the current method works well but that it is not constitutional. While Haslam and Harwell have stopped short of labelling the current process “unconstitutional,” their proposal aims to clear up any public uncertainty.

The issue has forced some Republican supporters of direct judicial elections between a rock and a political hard place. Several Republicans told TNReport last week that they won’t oppose the governor’s efforts to put an amendment to the people. But they also expressed doubts that the current method is the right one or that a majority of Tennesseans will vote to validate it constitutionally.

Last session, Rep. Bill Dunn co-sponsored a bill – HB0958 – that would have required popular elections for judges. That bill’s lead sponsor, Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, has said he has doubts that a majority of Tennesseans would vote yes on the governor’s amendment, but that he won’t stand in Haslam’s way.

Dunn, R-Knoxville, said he thinks the Constitution clearly calls for direct elections and that it’s “wrong for us to ignore the Constitution.” If voters were to agree with him, he said, then supporters of the amendment should be open to changing the process.

“The big question is, if the voters reject what they ask to do, then they’re really saying, ‘No, we want to keep the Constitution the way it is,’” he said. “I think to a certain degree we need to go into this whole process saying that if it is rejected then we will start following the Constitution. I think we should start following it right now, but those who have been dragging their feet need to put that on the table.”

Dunn also pushed back against the idea that elections would politicize the judiciary in a way the current system does not, asserting that it would be far easier to corrupt two or three people on a committee than to influence a judge accountable to more than 6 million people in a statewide election. Because of those concerns, and his feeling that the governor’s proposal is the most likely to separate itself from the crowd, he said he’ll be focusing his time and energy on the language of the possible amendment as opposed to alternative legislation.

Other Republicans, though, are fully on board with Haslam, Harwell and Ramsey.

“I am very glad to see the gov and the speakers take the position that they have to amend the constitution, really to conform the current process to the Constitution,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman. “I’m going to support that, and I think that’s a good solution to the problem.”

On the other side of the aisle, opinions are no more aligned. Memphis Sen. Ophelia Ford has filed a bill that would require state Supreme Court justices to be popularly elected by voters in various supreme court districts across the state. The bill, SB3714, would require the same of appellate court judges. The accompanying districts for both would be created by the General Assembly.

Ford told TNReport that breaking the state up into supreme court districts for popular elections would allow voters to elect judges they’re better acquainted with and keep candidates from being forced to campaign across the state. She also said she would be pushing for a constitutional amendment, which would mirror the bill.

Leading Democrats said they’re fine with the current process – which has been held up in court – but aren’t so fond of their counterparts’ amendment streak.

“It’s a change of position from some in the majority party to all of a sudden get on this constitutional amendment track,” House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh told TNReport. “So I don’t really understand why all of a sudden we decide to change the Constitution when it’s been something that worked OK. So, I’m sort of scratching my head on that. But we certainly are for the Tennessee Plan as it is now to continue.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said costly statewide elections would be the “worst thing we could do” and that the current process is the best one. As a result, he said Democrats could support the proposed amendment, but that he believes the larger trend is a problem.

“It appears to me that it could be something we could support,” he said. “I just have a problem with having all these constitutional amendments on the ballot. I think it’s confusing to the people.”