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Lawmakers OK Legislation Allowing Ayes, Nays Via Video at School Board Meetings

Local school board members can attend meetings digitally, so long as there is a physical quorum, under a plan that has passed both chambers of the Legislature.

The House on Thursday passed HB2883, which allows local school districts to adopt a policy, outlined in the bill, allowing members to attend meetings and vote via video conferencing technology. The bill states that such a policy would only allow members to participate digitally if they are out of the county for work, a family emergency or military service.

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, passed two weeks ago by a vote of 26-6.

On the House floor Thursday, the bill provoked a lengthy debate between legislators, with several saying it started the state down a “slippery slope” when it comes to allowing elected officials to shirk their duties.

House sponsor and Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the bill’s intent is not to give officials a way to avoid their obligations, but rather to fulfill them.

“It’s sort of gotten to the negative sense that what we’re trying to do is give excuses to those that have been elected to school boards not to show up,” he said. “It is just the opposite. It is a situation where, for instance, some member of a school board has a sick mother in Chattanooga and is faced with being at her side rather than at the meeting of the school board. It gives them the opportunity to do their duty.”

Still, some legislators said the bill would allow officials to avoid controversial issues and difficult votes.

“There’s probably nothing more contentious on the local level than a school board meeting because we’re talking about issues that affect our children,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Germantown. “So, if an issue comes up, this could be construed or used in a way where a member doesn’t want to show and face his [constituents] and use this as an excuse.”

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, also raised a concern about the potentially slippery slope and asked Fitzhugh if he would favor allowing such a policy in the future for state legislators.

“I would not,” Fitzhugh responded. “But, you know, I think at one point, this video thing will be so refined that we may be able to have a session whereby we are in our home counties. I’m not advocating that. I won’t live that long. But, I think possibly, someday we might.”

While legislators are required to vote in person, it is not uncommon to see a member leave the chamber and ask his neighbor on the floor to vote for him. Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, rose to support the bill and suggested that members were contradicting themselves by engaging in such activity, while insisting that other elected officials should not be allowed to participate in meetings electronically.

“I think what we have to remember is, to some extent, we do this every day,” he said, admitting that he was guilty of the same. “When we’re not under the rule, we ask our voting partners to vote us while we step out and go get a Coke or whatever we do. In many cases we do the very same thing that we’re now saying we don’t want to allow [anybody] else to do.”

The bill eventually passed, 58-35, with Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, present but not voting.

After the measure passed, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, who opposed the bill, told TNReport he didn’t think Shaw’s criticism was accurate.

“Even if we get up and walk outside, I wear a hearing device, and so I’m always hearing what’s going on,” he said. “Sometimes a constituent will actually come and ask for us to step out and speak to them, and we’ll do that. That’s a whole lot different than me sitting at home, to where constituents can’t get to me.”

An amendment to the bill exempted Davidson County, in which Gotto serves. But still, he said, despite understanding Fitzhugh’s intentions, he was disappointed to see the bill pass.

“Everything the local governments do is under authority that’s given to them by the state,” said Gotto, who has also served as a member of Nashville’s Metro Council. “This is one of those cases where as a state legislator, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to give that kind of power to the locals to be able to do that, because quite frankly, I think their constituents need to have full and total access to them.”

The bill, which Fitzhugh said the state’s school board association requested and supports, leaves much of the details of such a policy up to local school districts, outlining only the circumstances in which a member would be allowed to participate digitally. An additional amendment added a requirement for the board’s chairperson to visually identify any members participating by way of video technology. The Senate now has to OK the amendment before the measure can head to the governor for approval.

At a media avail Thursday afternoon, Gov. Bill Haslam said he didn’t know about the bill, but that good government was about “the relational piece of being there in person to do it.”

“I participate in board meetings, sometimes, over video and you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of understanding the context of what’s happening.”

 

Schoolteacher Sex-Talk Dictates Debated

After delays earlier in the legislative session, the so-called “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill moved out of a House subcommittee Wednesday afternoon.

As amended Wednesday, the bill, House Bill 0229, states that “instruction or materials” given to public school students before the ninth grade “shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science.”

The amendment is identical to the one applied to legislation the Senate passed last year.

As has been the case every time the bill is scheduled to appear, the hearing room – which had to be changed to accommodate the crowd – was filled to capacity for the House Education Subcommittee’s afternoon meeting. Many in attendance wore purple shirts to signal their opposition to the bill.

Rep. Bill Dunn, the bill’s former House sponsor who brought the amendment Wednesday, said the new language is in line with current curriculum and state code. The amendment, he said, effectively makes it so that the state’s Board of Education will have to come to legislators before changing the curriculum in the future. He also tried to quell what he called the “hysteria” surrounding the bill.

“This bill [as] amended does not prohibit the use of the word ‘gay,’” he said. “It does not change the anti-bullying statute and it does not prohibit a school guidance counselor from discussing issues of sexuality with a student.”

Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, reiterated Rep. Dunn’s comments, saying that the bill requires teachers to follow the curriculum and does not ban them from answering questions brought by students about human sexuality.

Democratic House Leader Craig Fitzhugh spoke against the bill, saying he “[did] not know the purpose of bringing this legislation again at this time” and calling it a “solution looking for a problem.”

But Rep. John DeBerry Jr., D-Memphis, was the most vocal Democrat Wednesday afternoon.

In a passionate defense of the legislation, he chided those who he said were demonizing people with views different from their own. He also defended “the basic right[s] of an American,” which he said included the right to “run my home, raise my children as I see fit.”

Lawmakers’ Reactions to Haslam’s Handling of Occupy Nashville Mixed

While Gov. Bill Haslam was defending the state’s actions in the arrests of Occupy Nashville protesters, the feeling was not unanimous at Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Some lawmakers said the situation should have been handled differently. And then there were the protesters.

When protester Steven Pottinger of Nashville heard that Haslam had defended the arrests on the grounds of safety and the need to address unsanitary conditions, Pottinger replied, “If he doesn’t like the sanitary issues, provide us with Port-a-Johns.”

Pottinger and protester Elizabeth Johnson of Memphis said there were portable toilets at the site when the protest began but that they’re gone now.

In terms of safety, Occupy Nashville protesters are taking matters somewhat into their own hands. At their “General Assembly” meeting Tuesday night, protesters agreed to a code of conduct and vowed that people disruptive to the movement by starting fights or committing crimes would be compelled to leave by their own security team.

Legislators didn’t seem especially caught up in the issue, but the matter did stir some broad opinions.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, sided with the protesters.

“I think the protesters have every right, as I understand the judge ruled, to handle themselves as protesters with an understanding that it’s got to be peaceful, it’s got to be respectful. But if they’re not breaking any laws, then they certainly in my opinion have a right to peaceful protest on public property,” Hardaway said. “Of all things, we’re talking about the Capitol, where we make the laws.

“If we can’t stand to have a little inconvenience, a little noise with some extra people here at the people’s house, then I don’t know what we’re doing up here.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, said he hadn’t followed the events closely, but he said he was troubled about legal aspects of the issue.

“I’d have some legal problems with the way a new policy was initiated and enforced, and I think the judicial system obviously had the same problem,” Fitzhugh said.

“So I think it would behoove us all to make sure that we do things in due time and legally if there is a situation we want to avoid in the future. Make sure the appropriate policy is there.”

Haslam said Tuesday the goal was not to remove people from Legislative Plaza but to provide a safe environment, adding that the problem was that the protesters wanted to stay indefinitely, 24 hours a day.

Not everyone disagreed with the governor.

“I do believe you have the right to protest your government. Of course you do. I do wish more attention, though, would have been paid to what was going on down here leading up to this,” said Rep. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, the House Republican Caucus chair.

“We’ve had a lot of unhappy staff, and they should be, because unfortunately and sadly some of the folks that are out there protesting have been doing things during the day in broad daylight they shouldn’t be doing and causing a lot of concern.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit claiming the arrests were violations of free speech. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger granted a temporary restraining order against arrests, and the state did not contest the order.

State troopers arrested 29 protesters at Legislative Plaza on Friday morning and 26 on Saturday, enforcing a new curfew that had been put into effect in response to complaints.

The state, citing “criminal activity and deteriorating sanitary conditions,” imposed a curfew on Oct. 27, closing Legislative Plaza from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. When protesters, who had been on the scene for several days, did not leave, they were first arrested Friday at 3 a.m. A magistrate in Nashville, however, would not jail the protesters.

Haslam expressed no regret Tuesday about his decisions, although he did say Commissioner of Safety Bill Gibbons contacted an editor to express regrets about the arrest of reporter Jonathan Meador of the Nashville Scene in the roundup. Chris Ferrell, CEO of SouthComm Inc., which publishes the Nashville Scene, said Tuesday he did not consider Gibbons’ response an apology.

“It was more of a rationalization for their actions than an apology,” Ferrell said when contacted by phone.

Ferrell had publicly asked Haslam for an apology for Meador’s arrest. Ferrell talked to Gibbons on Monday, and Gibbons sent a follow-up e-mail. Ferrell said the conversation lasted two or three minutes.

But when asked if he was satisfied with the response he received, Ferrell said, “No. Because they still haven’t apologized for what seems to me a clear violation of the First Amendment, that when the officers grabbed Jonathan he clearly identified himself as a journalist.

“They should have verified that and then let him go. The fact that they did not, I think, is of concern to journalists everywhere.”

Ferrell said he had not talked to Haslam, although he had tried to contact the governor through his communications office as recently as Monday.

Gibbons’ statement to Ferrell said, in part: “Obviously, it was not our intention to take any member of the press doing his or her job into custody for trespassing. I regret any confusion regarding Mr. Meador’s role.”

The Middle Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists also issued a formal request for an apology. A journalist from Middle Tennessee State University was also reportedly among those arrested.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, was at a higher education event Haslam attended in Cool Springs Tuesday and said he felt action was necessary.

“Look, I’ve been up there, and it stinks,” Casada said. “They’re doing acts that aren’t appropriate in public.

“They are using the restroom, if you will, without facilities, just on the grounds. It’s just an unsafe environment, and the governor had to act. And he did the right thing.”

Affection for McWherter, Antipathy for Republicans at Dems’ Jackson Day Dinner

In praise of the late Gov. Ned McWherter’s record on education, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh reignited battles of this year’s legislative session Saturday night at the Tennessee Democratic Party Jackson Day Dinner.

“Ned wouldn’t have backed down when my colleagues across the aisle began to attack teachers in this state, and neither did we in the House and Senate Democratic Caucus,” Fitzhugh said to applause. “Ned would have stood for teachers when politicians decided to stop being partners with our teachers and wanted to be dictators to our teachers, and so did we in the House and Senate Democratic Caucus.

“We know what Ned would do. He would fight for teachers, not against them. He would work with teachers, not attack them.”

Those lines rekindled controversial fights this year when Republican Gov. Bill Haslam led the way on changing the teacher tenure system, and the GOP-dominated Legislature repealed a state law passed in 1978 that mandated collective bargaining between local school boards and teachers unions, replacing it with a “collective conferencing” system that many unionized teachers believe undermines their negotiating leverage.

Noting that signs saying “I Miss Ned” were on the tables inside the big tent that hosted the affair on the grounds of the Bicentennial Capitol Mall, Fitzhugh, from Ripley, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, education in our state misses Ned.

“He was a man who deeply cared about the children of our state, and he dedicated his life in public service to improving education.”

McWherter, who died April 4, was the focus of most of the speakers, including his son, Mike, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee last year. Mike McWherter, who lost to Haslam, announced the first Ned McWherter Legacy Award to veteran Democratic Rep. Lois DeBerry from Memphis, who had a conflict in schedule and did not attend the dinner.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland gave the keynote speech and stirred the crowd especially when going after Wall Street and the Republican presidential field for 2012.

“None of us get through this life on our own. We’re all interdependent and dependent upon each other, and I wish the folks on Wall Street understood that,” Strickland said. “These Republican presidential candidates, I wish they would just acknowledge that they attended schools that someone else provided. They benefited from roads and bridges that someone else built.

“I’m just getting a little sick and tired of the attitude that I associate with an economic and social Darwinism that says, ‘I got mine, and too bad if you don’t have yours.’ We are one country, one people, and we are dependent upon each other.”

Strickland said he was glad he is a Democrat because the Democratic Party created Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But most of the evening belonged to Ned.

Each of the tables had a box of vanilla wafers holding two American flags, a reminder of McWherter’s famous line just to give him a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and he was ready to go to work. The program featured several videos with clips from McWherter’s career, including interviews, campaign ads and televised debates.

The speakers in the tribute included Fitzhugh, former lawmaker and commissioner of economic development Matt Kisber of Jackson, and state Sens. Roy Herron of Dresden and Andy Berke of Chattanooga. The crowd gave a standing ovation to the tribute’s keynote speaker, John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and worker in the civil rights movement in the Department of Justice during the Kennedy administration.

Seigenthaler spoke as McWherter’s friend. He noted the videos showing McWherter speaking of Republicans like former Govs. Lamar Alexander and Winfield Dunn with humor and respect.

“It reminds us that there was a time when civility, a time when decency in public discourse, when friendliness in political rhetoric, brought people together for a common good,” Seigenthaler said. “How times have changed.

“How refreshing it is to hear Ned speak of Gov. Alexander and Gov. Dunn with respect, with high regard, with the acknowledgement of their achievements and accomplishments even as he stood across the aisle, a member of a party who stood more often than not for causes different from theirs. To Ned McWherter, civility was a way of political life. And how we miss that today.”

Seigenthaler said when he thinks of President Andrew Jackson and McWherter he thinks of “two great public servants, each of whom rejected flatly the idea that prevailed so widely in so many parts of the country, and even in this state today, the idea that government is the enemy of the people.

“Government is the friend and servant of the people. Jackson felt that. And Ned McWherter felt it in the depth of his soul and the core of his bones. Jackson and McWherter felt for the common man. Both stood for the working men and women of this state and of this country.”

The crowd went silent early in the program when state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester recalled the span of only a few days when Forrester’s 19-year-old son Wilson and McWherter died this year.

There were lighter moments. Kisber delighted the audience when he described the celebration in Spring Hill with the opening of the Saturn automobile plant and McWherter drove the first car off the assembly line.

“A person the size and stature of Governor McWherter was not Saturn’s target customer,” Kisber said.

Political Movement on Megasite

Gov. Bill Haslam presided over the first meeting of the governing body of the Haywood County megasite Monday in Jackson, but it was Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey who offered the most pointed advice to the new board.

He spoke from experience.

“You will have a lot of highs and lows,” said Ramsey, who was Hamilton County mayor as Chattanooga pursued the Volkswagen plant that ultimately brought a $1 billion investment to the megasite there.

“This is a very patient process that a lot of people will be impatient about. It’s hard work. There will be times people will say that nothing is happening. I’ve been called a lot of funny names. There will be those days when it’s a little bit slow.”

But the message was perseverance, and Ramsey encouraged West Tennessee leaders to weather the down times as the site seeks a client like Volkswagen or Hemlock Semiconductor, which made its own $1 billion investment at a megasite in Montgomery County and has already announced a substantial additional investment there.

After the meeting, Ramsey visited the Haywood County site, accompanied by Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, and Rep. Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, as well as other officials working on the project. The group included Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith, whom the board elected chairman at its meeting on Monday. Haslam did not visit the site Monday but has been to the location on more than one occasion.

Haywood County is the last of the state’s three TVA megasites, designed to attract major business relocations, an issue that not only plays a role in the state’s economic future but has become a political football in its own right.

Haslam recently announced that the state will move away from the emphasis on attracting huge business re-locations and concentrate on feeding the growth of existing businesses in the state. But Haslam told board members Monday that the significance of the West Tennessee site has not diminished.

“I can assure you there are few things we care as much about as the proper development of the megasite,” Haslam told the group at a conference room at the McKeller-Sipes Airport in Jackson.

“I said back when I was campaigning, and I’ll say it again now, I think it is one of the best assets we have for the state when we look at economic development. We do not have a lot of pieces of property like this that are available.”

The site sits near Stanton, north of exit 42 on Interstate 40. At this point, the project remains only a conceptual plan. The site was originally certified to meet the potential needs of an automotive manufacturer. There is no indication that an auto maker will move into the site, but state officials hope a business will locate there that can attract numerous suppliers, as an automotive manufacturer would.

“We’re not pinning all of our hopes for job development on the megasite. We have some prospects right now in this part of the state we’re working hard to hopefully bring here,” Haslam said after the meeting. “But this is a great long-term project.”

Board members were briefed on where progress on the site stands now. It is in a vastly rural area, which creates challenges for infrastructure. Authorities told the board Monday the location would need 3 million gallons of water a day and that three wells are being dug into the Memphis aquifer to meet that need. Each well would draw 1.5 million gallons, and the board was given assurances Monday the amount of water would be adequate to meet the need. Waste water services will also be necessary.

The site will need a water treatment system, which will be on the property, and Highway 222, which runs through the middle of the site, will need to be re-routed. The board was told that while no specific funds were put into the budget just passed by the Legislature that flexibility is in place to make funding available if a client is found for the site. The state already has $34.7 million set aside in the Department of Economic Development for use on the Haywood County project.

The site includes 3,800 acres, with the core site comprised of 1,700 acres.

Democrats had criticized Haslam and other Republicans during the legislative session that ended Saturday for not putting more funds into the megasite at a time when the state is desperate for jobs. Several lawmakers from West Tennessee, including Democrats from the House and Senate, attended the meeting Monday in Jackson. But there seemed to be agreement and optimism among lawmakers from both parties that the project is on the right track.

Nevertheless, it still figures to be at least two years before a big business could be up and running at the site, the board was told Monday.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, had been critical of Haslam’s lack of attention to the megasite in his budget earlier this year. But all three attended the board meeting Monday and appeared upbeat about the project.

Smith’s selection as chairman was noteworthy in that he has been an integral player in seeking support for the megasite and made a campaign ad for Haslam in last year’s gubernatorial race, although Smith is a Democrat.

“We’ve been patient. I’ve been working on this almost seven years,” Smith said after the board meeting in Jackson. “Patience is something we’ve got.

“What people need to understand is this is a state project. There is statewide support for this project. I want folks to understand this is not a Haywood County project. It will benefit everybody in West Tennessee.”

Odom Still Optimistic

Rep. Gary Odom says he doesn’t expect members of the House Democratic Caucus to hold him responsible for the party’s devastating losses in the midterm elections.

“I think the caucus members know what I did at the election. They know what happened,” said Odom, who is seeking re-election Wednesday to another term as his party’s floor leader.

He’s facing a challenge from Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, who chaired the powerful Finance, Ways and Means committee last session, and Memphis Rep. John DeBerry Jr., who leads the Black Caucus.

Last month, Democrats lost almost a third of their representation in the House, surrendering a 64-34-1 majority to the Tennessee GOP.

But as far as the campaign, how he would have comported himself or conducted the party’s political affairs over the past year, there’s not much Odom says he would have done differently.

“I racked my brain to come up with some notion, some idea. We failed at getting a good message out, but I think we had a good message, and we tried to get it out. I just don’t think anybody was listening,” he said.

National politics drove this election, Odom said. He added that he and other members were featured in campaign ads tying them to President Obama and then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The new breakdown in the House cripples the caucus’ ability to check Republican-backed initiatives on the floor. But despite his party’s waning influence as an agenda-setting force in Tennessee politics, Odom says Democrats will still energetically attempt to shape, influence and nudge policy at every opportunity.

“This is a time where yes, we suffered a lot of losses as far as our Democratic caucus. We lost 14 seats, but that doesn’t change the agenda,” he said.

Education, job growth and providing additional aid for flood victims top Odom’s list of issues on which Democrats can make their voices heard.

“We’re going to work on things that are good for Tennessee. If it’s a Republican idea, if it’s a Democratic idea, it shouldn’t matter,” he said.

And while he’s never been known to pass up opportunities to lock horns with Republicans on the House floor, Odom says he hasn’t ever made it a practice to go out of his way to pick partisan fights.

“I always want to be cooperative, but sometimes there are just fundamental differences that need to be demonstrated, that need to be explained,” he said.

Odom, a two-time caucus leader, expressed confidence going into Wednesday’s party leadership election: “I’m as optimistic as I am in entering any election. I have a record and just like any incumbent has a record, you are going to be judged on that.”