Monday, February 28, 2011

Burchett: Severances still a no-go

A little over a month ago, the Knox County Commission officially backed the mayor’s plan to eliminate severance packages for employees, agreeing to insert the policy into the county’s code.

That, however, changed tonight.

On the second reading of the ordinance (they need to approve these things twice), the commission balked.

Last time it was 10-1, with only Commissioner Amy Broyles dissenting. Tonight, though, it was shot down in a 6-4 vote, with commissioners Ed Shouse, Dave Wright, Tony Norman, Sam McKenzie and Chairman Mike Hammond jumping ship.

(Commissioner Mike Brown wasn’t on the dais during the vote.)

So, what happened? Apparently, some commissioners felt that the move would tie the hands of the next mayor. Or that’s what they said.

As Hammond put it: “I just think the mayor – whoever he is – needs to decide what their policies are going to be.”

Well, that’s cool, but the commission's decision really doesn’t change a thing for right now. County Mayor Tim Burchett doesn’t need their support. He never did. He was being polite.

The policy has been set. For at least the next four years.

Because if the mayor says that he’s going to ban severance packages for employees who fall under the executive office’s purview (about 900 of them), then it happens.

And that’s just what he said tonight after the vote.

“We really just wanted buy-in from the commission, but it’s OK,” he said. “It’s not a beach to die on. It’s old news. We’re not going to be paying (severance packages) out, anyway.”

On a side note, Burchett might not have gained full commissioner support tonight, but support is coming from other places throughout the Deathstar.

In recent weeks, for example, county Trustee John Duncan III said he banned severance packages from his office. Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones, County Clerk Foster Arnett and Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey also sent letters to the administration, saying they support the mayor’s request.

Officials with the Public Building Authority, which has long handed out the packages, also sent a note to the mayor, but didn’t take a side. In the letter, officials said they were hiring a new lawyer and wanted to wait before making a decision.

Knox County Register of Deeds Sherry Witt told commissioners awhile back that she is not on board.

Mayor: Do as I say, not as I do

Apparently, the administration – even in the face of proposed layoffs – can hire (or sign off on) any new employees. And it has.

You know, a few folks in risk management. Maybe a guy who knows the chief of staff for a nice Community Outreach manager position. Some people over in the engineering department.

But, it didn’t want to sign off on some pay raises for three workers in the Retirement and Pension Board (department). You see, awhile back, the board – which doesn’t answer to the administration by the way – agreed to let Executive Director Kim Bennett hire a new employee.

Instead, she gave three current workers more responsibilities and raises – including “one sizeable raise.”

But, the pay-bumps were under what it would have cost to hire a new worker. And, she is still going to come under her overall budget for this year.

However, the county's finance director (and mayor's representative on the pension board) John Troyer – apparently at the mayor’s orders – told the board this morning that sBennett probably shouldn’t give the salary increases. He said other “regular employees” haven’t received raises in years and with layoffs pending it wouldn’t send a good message to the rest of the workforce.

“I’m not trying to challenge the authority of this but (rather) the wisdom of the move at this time,” said Troyer, more than likely realizing the mayor had just thrown him under the bus on this one.

The good doctor and Commissioner Richard Briggs, also a pension board member, pointed out that “there’s a difference between a pay raise and a promotion.”

In a 8-1 vote the board agreed, signing off on the promotions and salary increases.
Troyer was the dissenting vote.

This probably would have been a good time for county Mayor Tim Burchett to not miss a meeting for a board on which he serves. He says that Troyer is his stand-in for him on the pension board because because Troyer “understands finances better than anyone I know.”

That might be true.

But this wasn’t a case of understanding finances.

And Burchett argues better than Troyer.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Attendance: Not a friendly interview

Some thoughts about today’s story about the mayor dodging the scheduled meetings for the dozen boards he serves on.

This was far was the most contentious interview I’ve had with the administration. The skin wasn’t so thick Thursday afternoon.

I met with county Mayor Tim Burchett, above left, Chief of Staff Dean Rice, below and to the right, and Communications Manager Michael Grider, below and to the left.

I don’t really care comes to an interview. But I do care that the mayor answers the questions.

Not Grider. Not Rice.

The interview should have taken 30 to 40 minutes. It lasted 90.

That’s because the others tried to answer for the mayor. When that happened, I typically put my pen down and quit writing. However, there were a few things I jotted down that the others said.

I’m not going to rehash the story here. But rather include some of the stuff that was cut from the original story or that I didn’t put in because I didn’t the space for it on the printed page.

I asked a lot of questions. And I jumped around a bit. That was intentional. I felt the three had a smug attitude when I went in there that afternoon. It was like: This is a stupid story and we have all the answers.

No, they didn’t.

The mayor said he’s up-to-date about what goes on during the meetings. He said he’s informed, he said he talks to all the players, he said he knows what happened when they met.

So, I asked him an easy question.

What happened during the Development Corporation of Knox County meeting in December?

He didn’t know. (For the record, the group talked about the Midway Business Park proposal that the mayor long-champion for transparency. The commission was set to vote on the proposal a few days after the Dev. Corp. meeting the mayor skipped out on was held.)

An obviously frustrated Dean Rice asked: “Is this a pop quiz?”

No, but this stuff was making headlines. So does the mayor know the answer? If he was plugged in like he said, or had a representative there (he didn’t) like he said, or talked to the board members, then he would know.

He didn’t. He stumbled. Then finally said: “I don’t know what was talked about.”
Dean immediately replied: “Good answer, since we weren’t there.”

Dean also snapped at me: “Has anything happened that’s been critical?”

(He regretted asking that the second he did.)

“You tell me,” I said. Then I looked at the mayor and turned the question around. “Has there,” I asked.

Long pause. Finally, Burchett said: “A lot of day-to-day policies of government.”

Now I’m thinking, apparently that must not be important. Or at least to them.

But, to give him the benefit of the doub, no, government did not stop running because Burchett wasn’t there. So it depends on how you define “critical.”

I also pushed him about whether the meetings were important. My general take is that he doesn’t believe they are.

He continued to talk about how he is briefed on them.

I asked the mayor if that was the same as getting second-hand information, kind of like the telephone game in which one person tells a story and passes it around to another person until, eventually, the story is not the same.

He had a bizarre response. He said: “The truth is, is that in the final analysis Tim Burchett is going to have to make the final call.”


I do agree, however, that his finance director, John Troyer, should go to the pension board meetings (and he does). That’s some hard stuff to understand sometimes. And Troyer can translate the information to Burchett, just like the mayor said.

But, I also agree with Commissioner Ed Shouse, who serves as the pension board’s vice chairman and as the chairman of the county's investment committee - both panels that hold meetings that the mayor has never attended. It wouldn’t kill Burchett to walk down the hall – it’s 80 steps from his office to the room where they hold the pension meetings (yes, I measured it as I walked Thursday to meet the administration for the interview), and sit in one for 45 minutes.

Now, I’m not letting Grider off the hook, either.

During our 90-minutes, the mayor talked about the importance of constituent service. He said that’s how he got elected over the years – first as a state representative, then a state senator and finally county mayor. He’s right. Constituent service is crucial to political survival. And Burchett does serve his voters.

He told me that people might not agree with his issues but they will never disagree that he won’t try to help. That is absolutely true. Look at the Carter Elementary issue. Burchett isn’t making a lot of friend in the school administration with his efforts to build the community a new elementary school. But, so what? He’s doing it because the community wants him to.

OK, now back to what I was getting at. Burchett talked about how he toured the schools, the libraries, the blah, blah, blah.

Yes, that’s great. He didn’t do that, however, when the meetings were held.

Grider, however, decided to announce that constituent service doesn’t happen in meetings.
Uh, yeah it does. Not always. But it can. In fact, a lot of times that’s where you find out about the problems. They’re brought to your attention, right there in a meeting.

I told him that. The room was silent. For a few moments. The mayor cleared his throat. We moved on.

Another time I asked the mayor who Jason Lay, a senior accountant in his finance office, is. (This is right after he said that his board representatives meet with him.)

He didn’t know.

Grider did know the answer, however, so at least someone was batting .500. (Not bad is you’re a baseball player.)

Another time, the group told me that the finance director was at an investment committee meeting last Wednesday.

I told them he wasn’t. I went to that meeting. They didn’t.

They didn’t believe me. Upset, Dean Rice left the room to talk to John Troyer – to see if he was there.

He wasn’t. But, they did send someone else. And yes, the person they sent was competent.

But, again, this is another case of not knowing your representative and obviously not being briefed on what happened during the meeting.

I don’t doubt that the mayor’s representatives tell him what happens in the meetings. But, they don’t do it as often as he’d like to believe or as often as he attempted to claim.

That said, I don’t think the mayor is clueless, either.

As he pointed out, people pick on him because he’s not that polished and he doesn’t have the slick lines.

But, he’s not stupid.

And I have found that for the most part his administration so far has been pretty transparent.

Update: Tim’s wife, Allison, wrote on the KNS Facebook Page. I feel it bears repeating:

"I have never been more proud than I am today of my husband. He is a man of character, and works harder than anyone I know. He has been in office 6 months, has saved taxpayers over 8 million dollars, stood up for our schools, our libraries, our land rights. As a wife, every morning the phone rings before 7am and rings after 11pm every night. We attend meetings from Corryton to Concord and everywhere in between. Most wives would be upset they have to 'share' their husband with half a million other people, but I know he truly loves what he does. And through all the long days and meetings, Tim Burchett has still been an amazing husband and foster dad. A true member of his community, not just some polished suit you only see on TV. He loves his job and is dang good at it, just ask the taxpayers. God has blessed us and I'm proud to call him my husband...and my Mayor."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mayor to Sheriff: Slow down for now

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, left, said the sheriff can forget about getting new cars.

And if the county commission decides on Monday to pay for them anyway, the mayor says he’ll veto the move.

Of course, if the commission wants to pay for them, then it will probably have enough votes – six – to simply override the mayor.

Still, Burchett told me this afternoon that “I don’t think it’s good practice in (the middle of a budget cycle) to make a proposal that, in effect, is a 3 cent tax increase, or equivalent to one, when we’re trying to be fiscally sound.”

This morning, Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones, below right, said he wants to take roughly $3.2 million from the county’s reserves to buy 100 new cars for his deputies. The county commission will decide during its regular meeting, which starts at 1:45 p.m. Monday and is held at the Deathstar.

The mayor, though, says the proposal is “ill-advised” and “not the right time to do something like that.”

“If it’s such a great idea, then why wasn’t it done at the beginning of the budget process,” the mayor asked in what I assume was a rhetorical question, since I’m not the one making the proposal.

(If I had to guess, I'd say – and this is based on what “JJ” said earlier – that he's asking because he can get a pretty good deal right now. But if he doesn’t act fast someone else will move in on the new Crown Vic’s.)

“The reserves are there for a crisis, and I don’t see a crisis,” the mayor said. “With all the cuts we’re making right now, to put $3 million back in the debt column? I think this is the wrong move, and I think the public would agree.”

He may be right. Until someone in the public needs help and one of those older cars breaks down.

Then again, it’s really not surprising that the mayor doesn’t want to pay for new cars. Heck, he put his own staff-appointed mayor-mobile on the auction block when he took office. Then he sold Chief of Staff Dean Rice’s appointed Ford Explorer out from under him.

(Of course, once Rice got paid, he promptly bought himself a new one. Used. Or previously-owned one. Whatever.)

Update: County Communications Manager Mike Grider called just now if the commission approves the funding, the mayor might not veto it. The mayor, he said, isn't sure right now.

Election office mess coming soon

The general public really doesn't care who runs the county's election office.

Until someone screws up.

But, word once again is going around the Knox County Deathstar that Elections Administrator Greg Mackay, left, is on his way out.

That's because politicians do care who runs the office.

And Mackay messed up. He's a Democrat.

(And before anyone starts with that “liberal-media” crap, I'm on the record as saying “both sides annoy me.” But I digress.)

Here's the gist:

Members of the State Election Commission appoint their local-level counterparts. The selections, however, are based upon recommendations from the state Legislative delegation for that respective county. The Republican caucus makes the Republican selections, and the Democratic caucus picks the Democrats.

Then the state rubber stamps the recommendations. (Because it's too time-consuming for anyone in the state to actually do real work.)

The delegations make the picks during the off-election year, meaning it's going to happen probably in late march. The new commission (it's still new even if all the same members are reappointed) then reorganizes. It's five members pick a peer from the majority party (Republicans) to serve as chairman, and the minority party (Democrats) select the secretary.

A little history:

A few years ago, local officials urged the county's state lawmakers to see to it that a Republican was appointed to Mackay's job, in light of the then-new GOP-majority county Election Commission.

After a lot of publicity, bickering, headlines, crying, blah, blah, blah, the commission in a 3-2 vote kept Mackay.

That was only because one Republican – Paul Crilly – crossed over. People haven't forgotten. So, Crilly is probably out, too.

Back to the present:

This morning, I asked state Rep. and Chairman of the local Legislative delegation Ryan Haynes, above right, about his thoughts.

He didn't offer much. The usual political rhetoric.

But, he did say: “I don't think it's any secret that a lot of people were upset about (Crilly crossing over).”

He also said the delegation probably in the next few weeks will send out a "press release," seeking applications.

As it stands, he said, the two Democrats – state Rep. Harry Tindell and state Rep. Joe Armstrong – plan to keep the same Democrat members on the commission.

The Republicans get three picks, and since there's eight of them in the delegation, they'll have to do a little haggling amongst themselves to figure out just who they want. Or don't want.

“I think it's important to wait and see who puts their name in a hat and give them an opportunity to speak with us before making any decisions,” Haynes told me when I asked about his checks.

So, what about Mackay? You going to keep him?

“That's up to the election commissioners to decide.”

Yeah, but you have some stroke, right?

No, not at all.”

Yeah, right.

“No, really, it's truly up to the election commissioners. I think it's important that we appoint them because we feel confident that they have the expertise and knowledge – they're in the system day-in and day-out. They get it. We don't.”

So, what do you think about Mackay?

“I think he serves his community well.”

The reality:

Heh. Yes, but he also serves at the pleasure of the election commission. And they can meet and fire the administrator pretty much any time.

I suppose we'll all see what happens. Last time it was a mess.

I'm sure things won't be much different this time.

I figure most people are happy with the way the elections are run and how the office is run.

But the Democrats were in charge for so long in running the election commission in a Republican County that there's a lot of resentment between the old guard and the new one.

Mackay has done a good job. But a lot of people feel there should be a Republican administrator.


I don't care.

I don't vote, anyway.

$3 million for life in the fast lane

Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones, left, needs about 200 cars to get “back online.”

Unfortunately for the administration that means about $3.2 million (and that's just for this year) – at a time when they, themselves, are trying to find at least $3 million to balance the upcoming budget.

Still, there's always the county's $50 million reserve fund, the sheriff says.

“It just makes great business sense and it's also fiscally sound because that what the rainy-day fund is for - non-recurring capital expenses,” he said. “This is not a luxury item. For law enforcement to be effective, we have to have vehicles. They're one of the most essential tools we have. The ones we have now are in pretty bad shape – we're driving thousands of miles a month on them and in all kinds of conditions and at all kinds of speeds.”

Here's the deal:

The sheriff on Monday will ask the county commission to dip into the rainy day fund, so he can buy 100 patrol cars. The vehicles cost about $2.2 million, but he needs another $1.1 million for emergency equipment, like lights, sirens, radios, cages and cameras, to update them.

However, if "JJ" wants those Crown Victoria's, he has to act now. The check needs to be sent – and quickly – to the Murfreesboro dealership (that's where the company that won the state bid to supply police cars resides) by March 1.

Or the company will sell them to another agency. ("JJ" had them put on hold early. Smart guy.)

The sheriff said he currently has 278 marked cars. Of those, 125 have more than 100,000 miles on them. But, he needs about 205 new ones. The sheriff says the plan – he hopes – is to get 100 of them now. Then wait a year, and get the other 105.

Why wait, I asked.

Apparently, this is the last year for the Crown Vic's current model. Next year, Ford will come out with the Police Interceptor.

“We don't want to be saddled with them because in the first year there are always recalls,” Jones said. “We want to wait a year and do some research.”

Meanwhile, it looks like the administration is about to get saddled with another request for money.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pinkston: Show me the money

Former Knox County Commissioner Paul Pinkston, left, may finally get his money.

Years after he won an ouster suit filed by local attorney Herbert S. Moncier (a world-record setter for suing local government), Pinkston in January asked county officials to pay his legal bills.

No one seemed to have a problem, but Pinkston apparently needed to have the request placed on the commission’s agenda. That finally happened.

During Tuesday’s work session, officials indicated that they were ready to pay the tab: roughly $23,000.

“I’m all in favor of paying it,” commission Chairman Mike Hammond said.

The others agreed.

When asked about the amount county Law Director Joe Jarret said “the quote seems more than reasonable because he went through a trial and an appeal.”

Under state law, apparently, the county couldn’t front Pinkston the money to defend himself.

However, officials are allowed to reimburse him, so long as he won.

More than likely, Pinkston will be $23,000 richer in about a month, officials said tonight.

Added the former commissioner: “I did nothing wrong.”

Amy Broyles: Sever the plan, Dean

Amy Broyles, left, often votes against the Knox County Commission grain on some hot-button items. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just an observation.

(I get paid by the cliche by the way.)

But, she’s certainly passionate. Take tonight, for example. Just the briefest mention of “severances for county employees,” and she made a long meeting even longer.

“This is not something that’s being abused and this is not something that’s being offered to every employee going out the door,” she said, taking a stand against county Mayor Tim Burchett’s plan to eliminate severance packages entirely for employees who work under the executive branch.

She said previous payouts were “never given routinely” and should be “used judiciously as a good tool to use in our human resources tool box.”

(I’m not sure why someone would use a severance package as a recruiting tool, but I digress.)

She said that since 2005, some 41 county workers received severances packages for a combined $200,000 in payouts. She also said the proposal to cut them (which the commission already has approved on a first reading) would affect only 8 percent of its employees – only those directly under the mayor’s purview.

“This is something that looks good in the paper,” she added. “We’re not saving the taxpayers any money. This is a morale-killer. This is a huge mistake.”

However, the commissioner wasn’t done.

Broyles continued, saying (and she was very clear that any overheard conversations occurred during public meetings and not during illegal backroom ones) that other commissioners agreed with her, but wouldn’t publicly side with her because “they wanted to support the new mayor.”

Still on a roll, Broyles also took the time to publicly announce that she’s heard (also in open meetings) other commissioners say they want to raise their own salaries “since we’re now doing the job of two commissioners.” (This all goes back to voters changing the board from the unwieldy 19 members down to a more manageable and less-time-spent-showboating-on-the-dais 11 members.)

And, Broyles said she’s heard that commissioners also don’t want to do away with their travel allowances. (This all goes back to the awesome story I wrote on auto allowances.)

“This is something I’ve really gotten myself worked up about and I apologize,” Broyles said.

(Hey, don’t apologize to me. Entertainment at the expense of others is always fun to watch.)

Now, for some reason that I no longer recall – perhaps because at this point I was surfing the Internet – the county administration’s chief of staff, Dean Rice (pictured below), went to the podium to address the commission. Or to answer questions. Or to just hang out. Like I said, I don’t remember.

Rice explained – again – that under the mayor’s proposal, no employee, whether they’re laid off, fired or resign, will get a deal.

But, he said if the county needs to reduce its work force, then the administration might offer early, across-the-board voluntary retirement incentives.

They would apply to those who are at least 55 years old and worked for the county for at least five years.

Rice told Broyles that “I appreciate your thoughts and understand where you’re coming from,” but that the mayor can control only policies that apply to the executive branch. That means Burchett can’t force the sheriff, the fee offices and everyone else people think he has control over but really doesn’t to follow his lead.

Rice continued, saying the county already has a great recruiting tool: “generous retirement packages.”

(No, by the way, that is not the same as a severance package. Heh.)

Broyles looked sharply at Rice. Then said: “Yes, he is setting a policy, Dean, and it’s a bad one.”

With nothing left to do, the administration’s chief of staff stepped back, adding: “Well, I appreciate that.”

It's not the end, though.

After the meeting, the two began a semi-heated exchange (that Broyles appeared to initiate) outside the City County Building’s “small assembly room” that lasted from the time I took the elevator up to the sixth floor to copy some public records and then back down to the main level (and actually about five minutes longer).

I caught bits and pieces of it, but nothing I’ll attempt to put into context. Still, it was not good-natured (although I didn't hear any good cuss words). But, it did end with a friendly handshake and a nice “goodbye” between the two.

I figure Broyles and Rice do like each other, but politically, they’re not always going to see eye-to-eye.

And like I said, Broyles doesn’t always take the popular route.

And I get paid by the cliche.

East Sector Plan coming back

It appears that commissioners again are finally set to vote – for what seems like the thousandth time but probably isn’t – on the East Knox County Sector Plan, a long-term guide for economic development.

But, area residents who want to keep the land pristine and rural shouldn’t worry. Because the nefarious, divisive, controversial (blah, blah, blah) Midway Business Park proposal is still off the table.

However, Commissioners during their monthly work session agreed 9-2 (Sam McKenzie and Vice Chairman Brad Anders cast the dissenting votes) to put the rest of the proposal on Monday’s agenda.

In the meantime, county Mayor Tim Burchett said a “visionary” committee he put together in January to brainstorm ideas for the remaining land where the park was planned will report back to him in about 60 days.

“We haven’t really set any parameters,” Burchett said, talking about the marching orders sent to the committee. “We’re just looking for (new) ideas and solutions.”

(On a side note, the good doctor and Commissioner Richard Briggs pointed out that the committee – comprised of business park opponents and supporters – doesn’t own the land. So, the group making the proposals really doesn’t have any control of the outcome. It will be up to the Development Corporation of Knox County – the owners – to act on the recommendations.)

The land in question? About 380 acres off the Midway Road exit from Interstate 40. The Development Corp. bought it for almost $10 million and set aside roughly $17 million to develop it. (Its nerd-name by the way is “E.C.O. 7”.)

As it stands right now, according to Metropolitan Planning Commission Executive Director Mark Donaldson, developers could currently build five units per acre (either houses, complexes, duplexes, whatever), on the land.

However, as pointed out by one of the coolest-named community activists around, Lisa Starbuck: Nothing is getting built on the land right now because there isn’t any sewer out there.

As far as the rest of the East County Sector Plan goes?

Commissioner Dave Wright (whose district includes the area) said: “It’s been worked on for three years. It’s current, it’s up-to-date and people like it.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Commissioners plan to talk. A lot.

The Knox County Commission hosts its monthly work session 2 p.m. tomorrow at the City County Building (that's 400 West Main St. for those who wants to take advantage of Mapquest, which I don't recommend)

The agenda is nine pages long and - on first glance - it looks like the 11 members could quickly run through it. Until you get down to those discussion items.

  • Commission Chairman Mike Hammond told me last week that some folks want to talk about the Karns Volunteer Fire Department and its subscription-based service plans. Apparently, the department, which serves Northwest Knox County, is hurting for money. Much of its funding in the past has come from donations and grants, but the well is running dry (so to speak).
  • Commissioner Amy Broyles wants to talk about the structure, function and funding of the Knox County Drug Court. This is a discussion item that the commission had planned to talk about previously but - for reasons I no longer remember - tabled it. I say this because the discussions started before the TBI investigation in Judge Richard Baumgartner, although I'm sure his name will come up tomorrow.
  • Commissioner Mike Brown plans to ask his peers for input into the "scope of authority and oversight" of the Public Building Authority. The word I'm hearing around the county is that folks aren't quite so sure we need the PBA anymore. Officials there, of course, will tell you otherwise.
  • Commissioner Richard Briggs tomorrow will continue his efforts to shake-up the county's Ethics Committee. Briggs, who also serves on the panel, wants it to consist solely of county residents to avoid conflicts of interest among elected leaders. He also wants to more clearly define just want the panel is supposed to preside over. The committee's chairwoman, Elaine Davis, however, says the panel should include at least one commissioner with institutional knowledge to serve as a liaison between the panel and the commission.
  • Commissioner Briggs also wants to talk about whether to pay former Commissioner Paul Pinkston's legal fees he incurred while defending himself in a 2008 ouster lawsuit. That's a lawsuit he won, by the way. Pinkston told us in January that former Law Director John Owings told him that the county would pay the fees if he won the case. I talked to Paul last week and he told me it was about $20,000.
  • Chairman Hammond also wants to talk about the area's Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Officials earlier this month decided they wanted to "restart" it, whatever that means. About the only thing that really happened is that TYP Director Jon Lawler and his right-hand-man, Robert Finley, said they would step down. Officials also put on hold off on any efforts (which there weren't any at this point) to pursue additional permanent supportive housing under the plan. In the meantime, a committee is looking into how to tweak the program's efforts. It's hard to say what will happen. My guess? It will probably be taken out from under the auspices of the city and county.

The county commission at 4 p.m. tomorrow (or following the work session) will host a workshop to go over the Knoxville Knox County Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan. I've written all I plan to on that today. Here's a copy of the MPC's plan.

Until tomorrow . . . .

Hillside plan and steep concerns

I really don't like explaining myself, but I don't like to be rude, either. I got an email this morning about I story I wrote today. I'll share it here, although I won't include the MPC commissioner's name. I will, however, say this person did in fact post a similar note on the KNS message board, so I feel that it's note unfair to republish the email here. On a side not, the county commission will hold a workshop tomorrow at 4 p.m. At the City County Building to further discuss the plan designed to protect the area's hillsides and ridgetops.

Here is the email (my response follows):

Mr. Donila,

As an MPC Commissioner and a supporter of the Hillside/Ridgetop Plan, I have been following the KNS coverage of this closely. And I’ve been VERY disappointed. There have been story after story about the opposition (including the new story in today’s edition), but still no story explaining just what the plan IS. How do you expect your readers to evaluate the positions of either the opponents or the supporters if you don’t explain what the plan is and is not, and identify which objections are completely bogus (as in, not in the plan) versus those that have merit?

I talked to (editorial writer) Scott Barker about this six weeks ago and he talked to (Metro Editor) John North about it, but nothing ever happened. Two weeks ago I called John North myself and left a voice mail.He never called me back, but after the 2/10 MPC meeting (KNS business writer) Ed Marcum came up to me and told me he would be working on a story about plan content. However, as of Friday 2/18 neither Joe Hultquist nor Tony Norman had been interviewed by Mr. Marcum, so I’m assuming that story isn’t happening.

I’ve lost count of how many stories on the opposition to this plan you guys have published, yet you failed to even print a story about the MPC passage of the plan by a vote of 11-2 in Dec. But another story focusing on opposition the day before the Commission workshop - THAT you’ll print.

I’m not big on conspiracy theories, but I’m beginning to think the KNS wants the plan to fail and that’s bleeding over into the news coverage. At the very least, reporters are letting the opponents shape the coverage.

I’m not asking for a story focusing on all the people and organizations that support the plan, although that would be nice.All I want is a story simply explaining what the plan does and does not, is and is not. It might not be as easy as getting developers to whine to you, but it would do your readers a big service.

Here is my response:

Good morning.

I can speak only on the story I wrote today, but I hope we can agree to disagree.

I'll try to address each of your points as best I can.

I feel we explained what the plan is. In addition to running a box with the story in today's paper that had some “details,” we also ran a resignation letter AND we linked to the MPC plan. Further, I included the following graphs in the story:

The proposed guidelines are designed to protect the aesthetics and deal with water quality, erosion and flooding. A joint 23-member city-county task force began developing them in March 2008 after the Knoxville Utilities Board built a water tower across Fort Loudoun Lake from downtown.

The plan, which could have an impact on a third of the county, restricts development on slopes beginning at 15 degrees and gets more restrictive as slopes get steeper.”

I feel by including the information (the plan, the box, the resignation letter and touching on the plan and why it exists) we have done a good job at explaining the plan.

Regarding Mr. Barker and Mr. North. I would try calling them again. Both take a ton of calls every day, so it's possible you were overlooked. Also, two weeks ago John was out of town.

Regarding Ed Marcum. I can't speak to that. I don't know what Ed is working on.

On a side note, it has bean reported that the MPC passed the plan. Regardless, it's not an issue because I was reporting that it's now headed to the commission and the council, which therefore means the plan was passed.

As far as focusing on the opposition. My first phone call was to Tony Norman (a plan supporter). He started focusing on the opposition. Not me. With that said, I quoted three supporters – Tony, Lisa and Carberrry. I quoted two opponents. I also quoted Mike Hammond and Dean Rice, but neither had an opinion.

Additionally, the focus of this story is not to explain the plan detail by detail, but rather to let people know that there is a commission workshop to discuss it, and to let the residents get engaged in these discussion. Also, a big part of this – whether you agree or not – it the request by some to have letters mailed to the property owners. That is an issue that will be debated in the upcoming weeks, possibly months. The commissioners are weighing in on this proposal as is the mayor's office.

Again, I hope this helps and we can agree to disagree. There's no conspiracy in the news coverage. I do not own property that would be affected under the plan. I don't have a dog in this fight.

Please feel free to call me.


Mike Donila

I am not sure what more the letter writer wanted. I hope I answered the person's questions. If not, perhaps the county commission will. This is a hot issue right now, so public discussion is always encouraged.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Michael Grider: Hanging with Tim

As part of my blog I’m going to interview people who work behind the scenes of Knox County government, but usually don’t make the paper. Today’s interview is with Michael Grider, on left, the county’s communication manager who works directly out of Mayor Tim Burchett’s office. It was conducted by phone Friday night. I forgot to ask him about a rumor I heard that he once wanted to run for a county commission seat. Oh well. Next time, I supposed.

Me: Hey, man, what’s up?
Grider: Nothing. Just taking care of chores. And by “chores” I mean feeding the dog.
Me: You should make your wife do those chores.
Grider: (Laughing) That wouldn’t fly around here.
Me: OK, OK, let’s start. What’s your title?
Grider: Communications manager
Me: How many people do you manage?
Grider: I manage myself. I have zero staff.
Me: They why are you called a manager?
Grider: Well, actually I manage communications. I don’t manage people. I would say something but we’re on the record. I don’t want it on your blog no matter how fun it’s supposed to be. Actually, I’m a pretty boring individual. You can put that in there.
Me: Uhhh. OK. I think they put “manager” in your title to avoid paying you overtime.
Grider: No, I don’t think so. (Grider then explains that he doesn’t get overtime pay but works about 50 hours a week.)
Me: So, what do you do exactly?
Grider: For the most part I answer media calls. I go to a lot of meetings which is odd. But I’m the guy who helps communicate the message the mayor has to the media who I hope get it out.
Me: Why are you in a bunch of meetings?
Grider: Sometimes we’re talking about different that might be coming down the pike. We’re talking about budgets and things that might be part of the communications process. There’s a lot of different thing going on that are in the media. So we want to know how that might have an effect on our office or what sort of things we need to get out there. When the mayor mentioned the layoffs (last week), for example, a lot of folks in the media started calling. I had to talk to the finance director (John Troyer). I needed to know what the budget was looking like. Did we know how many people were going to be laid off? Things like that. I’m in meetings to answer the same questions reporters have.
Me: That makes sense. You’re in there kind of like a reporter. But not really. Ha ha.
Grider: Yes, the meetings aren’t about me. Sometimes it’s stuff I need to know and other times I just absorb the information but more so as a member of the public. When I was a reporter, I wanted to ask questions – I would try to think like the public. And I would try to ask the questions that the public wanted to know. We also have to anticipate the needs of the media, so we’re not spending 30 minutes on an interview that could take 15.
Me: You said you worked in the media. Can you talk about your background.
Grider: Sure. I spent three years with Channel 8. I did my time there as a news manager but spent a lot of time focusing on the website, and also did a lot of work on broadcast. I wrote a lot of broadcast stuff and helped producers write them. I also helped support a lot of reporters in the field. The day-to-day stuff often fell to me and the folks in the newsroom as opposed to the reporters. Before that, I spent a couple of years as a radio news anchor and as a reporter (with what is now) News Talk 98-7 (but was News Talk 100).
Me: So when you left, the station got weaker?
Grider: I was just a powerful force. No, really they have a lot of good people who work there. (Knox County Commission) Chairman (Mike) Hammond runs it.
Me: No I meant it dropped from 100 to 98.
Grider: The frequency has nothing to do with the radio station. (Grider then proceeds to ramble about wattage or something like that.) That doesn’t have anything to do with the frequency – that’s the location on the dial.
Me: What makes you qualified for this job?
Grider: I spent several years in this market, covering local politics and also covering the community in general, but I have a substantial amount of broadcast experience and managerial experience, and I also understand journalism and have experience in the web. It’s great to have a web presence. It all goes back to restoring the public trust.
Me: What do you like about the job and don’t like?
Grider: I love my job – everything about it. One, I’m a bit of a political junkie – that’s one of the things I liked about working in the new business. I really have always enjoyed seeing how the process of government works and I like being on this side. Let me compare the two, though. I’m the kind of guy that when it storms outside, I like to be inside, listening to the thunder. I love that. But in news, I had to be at work. If there was a car crash I had to be at work, helping to cover it. It was tough being married and trying to meet all those obligations. In this (current) job, if something comes up on the weekend, it doesn’t necessarily have to be taken care of right then. If I’m at my in-laws’ house and I don’t have high-speed Internet then I can probably deal with it when I get home. It’s a lot of work and lot more work than when I was in the news, but I enjoy it more and it doesn’t encroach on my personal time as much which is nice.
Me: Why did you apply for the job?
Grider: I saw the posting online and in the Sunday paper and I thought this would be a good thing for me. My wife and I had been talking for some time. I thought about getting out of the news business when I was in radio but then the opportunity in TV came up and I thought I would give that a shot. But I’d been talking about it for awhile. My wife and I were again talking about it when we found out about the job opening and I thought I’m going to go for it. Then one day I got a call and the mayor (Tim Burchett) and (the administration’s chief of staff) Dean Rice had an interview a week or two later, and then I got a call and they offered me the job. There were a lot of qualified people who applied that could have gotten it, so I feel really fortunate to have gotten it.
Me: I was talking to one of your former TV colleagues and he was complaining that Dean asked him about his political background. Or rather what his politics were. Were you asked? Did it offend you?
Grider: That someone else was asked?
Me: No. Were you asked?
Grider: No, but I’ve never kept it a secret. But, traditionally – honestly I have always been a Democrat and was in the Anderson County Democratic Executive Committee when I was 18 and had just gotten out of high school and going into college. But as time went by I became more of an independent. But I’m definitely conservative when it comes to fiscal (issues) and issues of the Constitution, but not definitely conservative where government encroaches on personal lives. I cannot call myself a Republican (like the mayor or Rice) and I cannot call myself a Democrat. The titles don’t fit me. But I think people say “yeah right” when I tell them that I’m an independent. But it doesn’t matter really. It’s not my job to have a direction on the administration from a political viewpoint. If the mayor has a policy or takes a stance on an issue that I don’t agree with, well, it’s not my job to make that an issue. It’s my job to make it a message. It’s not Michael’s message. But fortunately I haven’t had to do that. The mayor is a really good mayor. He’s someone I respect – even in news – because he was always open and accessible. There’s this story I always tell –
Me: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Grider: I know you’ve heard it. Can I at least include it by reference?
Me: I don’t know.
Grider: (He tells the story anyway. He had to call Burchett about a breaking news event. At the time Burchett was a senator and he took the call from the Senate floor just as he was about to cast a vote. The mayor told him to hold on a second, he cast the vote, then did the interview.) I was really impressed that he would answer. He said “hang tight” and cast his vote. Not a lot of people would do that.
Me: That is a cool story. How about telling me a good embarrassing story about the mayor?
Grider: Oh man, man. The thing about the mayor is that there’s not really anything embarrassing about him. He’s a down-to-Earth kind of guy. What you see is what you get. There’s not an air about him. There’s no pretensions. Really, there’s not anything that would be embarrassing.
Me: Then give me an embarrassing story about Dean.
Grider: I don’t think I have one. Dean is all business. It’s hard to find an embarrassing story about Dean.
Me: What’s it like hanging out in the mayor’s entourage?
Grider: We don’t have an entourage. Sometimes I go with the mayor somewhere, especially if the media is involved but I don’t know if that constitutes an entourage.
Me: Then what’s it like hanging out in Dean’s entourage?
Grider: Dean definitely doesn’t have an entourage.
Me: So you’re saying no one likes Dean?
Grider: No, no. I didn’t say that.
Me: Heh. OK, I’ll leave you alone now. You were the first person interviewed for the blog. What do you think?
Grider: It’s pretty good. I like the blog. It’s right up my alley.
Me: Good answer. Heh.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are they for real or blowing smoke?

Some thoughts about today’s story, and the county’s upcoming budget.

If you believe everything – and I’m not saying it isn’t true – but if you believe everything top officials are saying right now, then you believe that the county is borderline broke.

The magic money-making printing press that once resided under a secret City County Building staircase? It’s long gone.

The last guy must have taken it with him.


So that means changes. Lots of them. Cuts. Layoffs. Whatever.


I’ve seen this all before. (But we’ll get to that in a minute).

Last Friday semi-new Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett held a “Come to Jesus” meeting with a number of his top aides. He told them to make cuts in their budgets or he would do it for them. They had until Wednesday to give him their preliminary drafts. Most did. The others are on their way. (The school system won’t turn one in until the School Board has gone through it, so that’s way later and a way different story.)

“The mayor made it clear what he wanted, but he’s not going to give them a magic number,” Burchett’s right-hand-man, Dean Rice, told me. “He wants to see what they’ll come up with and we’ll go from there.”

I wondered: Does Burchett have a specific number in mind?

No, he doesn’t, Rice said.

The mayor, though, does still plan to lay off employees. He has roughly 910 who work under him, earning a combined $34.5 million annually. He isn’t, however, expected to lay off anyone in his actual office. (He and Rice say they made enough cuts when the two came in last September.)

Now then, I suppose, it’s up to your to decide whether the mayor is serious. Or whether this all a ploy, smoke and mirrors.

Will the administration make the threatened cuts and use the money to pay off debt (as Rice has said), or is it all a game? Will the administration make a lot of noise and then – somehow, somewhere – find the printing press, save the jobs and look good?

I don’t know.

But I’ll tell you: Nothing so far appears new to me.

The setup looks like every other government I’ve covered, in every other town, every other time I’ve done it.

Still, we have some months before May 1 when Burchett turns the annual spending plan over to the 11 commissioners. And no doubt between now and then those folks will throw out a few well-heard catch phrases like: “We have to trim the fat” or “We’re going to cut it to the bone” or (my favorite) “I’m going to go line by line and find more savings.”

You see, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve head the proposals. I’ve read the language. Threats, promises, whatever. They’re always made. But then nothing usually changes. Or if it does, you won’t really notice.

Take last year for example. At the time, then-Mayor Mike Ragsdale asked his department heads to give him several different budget proposals, including one that sliced as much as 8 percent off each plan.

But in the end, Ragsdale’s overall budget was reduced from the previous year by about $600,000. He balanced the general operating plan with $3 million from reserves.

Commissioners, before they got it, threatened to cut travel allowances, positions, expenses, blah, blah, blah.

Commissioners, after they got it, barely blinked.

I don’t know if things will be different this time around, with a new mayor.

But, I do believe the county’s $620 million debt frightens the administration (or Burchett and Rice pictured above). Actually, I think it terrifies them.

Unfortunately for the mayor, however, he doesn’t have a lot of places to cut.
Right now, 62 percent of the county’s overall current $647.1 million annual spending plan goes to schools. You think those officials are going to make serious reductions? Me neither.

Another 10 percent of the budget is for the sheriff’s office. I doubt “JJ” is making any cuts, either. And as a public safety policy, I’m not sure I want him to. But that’s not for me to decide.

Another 10 percent of the budget goes to paying off the aforementioned debt.

Really, the mayor doesn’t have a lot to play with. (Relatively speaking of course. There’s still tens of millions out there.) So – and if the mayor isn’t blowing smoke – it’s the executive branch that hits the chopping block.

That means, possibly, reductions in services, like engineering, recreation, libraries, etc. That means jobs. That means fewer projects. That means whatever.

Or, it means nothing.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens during the next few months.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Burchett and his buddies, or not

I've been hearing some rumors in the wake of Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett's plans to lay off employees.

In recent weeks a number of folks have called or emailed, telling me that he's hired his own family members, he's hired his wife's family members, and he's hired his old fraternity running mates.

OK, I'm pretty sure the first two aren't true, based on checking recent human resource department records.

Now for the third category.

Here's exactly how the tip was worded:

"Burchett hired two people for the Risk Management office who don't really do anything.”

The caller then said “he's hiring old fraternity connections.”

It can be tough to substantiate these type of claims. But I called the mayor. Twice. (If he did something wrong he's not going to tell me, but it was worth making a call.)

Burchett (pictured above) said all county employees under the executive branch purview go “through the normal hiring process,” which means submitting an application to the human resources department.

“I don't get in on the hirings,” he said, adding that he knocked on 6,000 doors during his campaign, and grew up – the son of two well-known local educators – in Knoxville his entire life. “Out of 900 employees, chances are I'm going to know more than one.”

Do these guys work, I asked, or are they hiding away in a cubby hole and pulling in free money.

“If they aren't working, then they're going to find themselves on the unemployment line,” Burchett said.

He said if the two new hires are not working, then “they're going to find themselves on the unemployment line.”

At least one of the new hires is, however, a member of the mayor's old fraternity, Sigma Chi. But, so are our two US Senators, the governor and John Wayne were members, Burchett pointed out, insinuating that there was no connection.

I'm not defending the mayor. I'm just laying out what I've learned.

So, what about the two new workers?

The so-called fraternity member applied for an “assistant risk officer” position. The duties include a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that I'm too lazy to translate for you. Minimum training includes a bachelor's degree in any number of subjects. The person who got this job listed $85,000 as an expected salary. He was hired Dec. 6 and makes $52,139.41.

(He did not include a resume with his application, which says he graduated from the University of Tennessee, but doesn't list a degree earned. His past jobs are in sales and management, according to the application. I hope his interview was more spectacular than what's available publicly.)

The other new hire got paid more in the ballpark he requested. Risk Management hired a new “OSHA coordinator” Oct. 25, and he earns $35,802. He listed “$34,271-$47,980” as an expected salary on his application. He, too, graduated from UT and earned a degree in finance – which appears to be one of the requirements for the job.

(On a side note, he actually submitted a resume that listed a number of safety and security, and inspection-related experience.)

There you have it.

You be the judge.

Pinkston is no 'Lumpy' Lambert

Former Knox County Commissioner Paul Pinkston (at immediate left) won't follow in the footsteps of his former peer, the colorful Greg “Lumpy” Lambert.

No, Pinkston says – despite word making the local rounds – he hasn't taken a $50,000-a-year security gig with the school system.

Nor does he want one.

(Lumpy, pictured on the far left, as you might recall began a new career in early January, working as a courtroom security officer.)

Pinkston, laughing, said: “I'm 73 years old. I don't want to work.”

The former commissioner added that – other than his time on the county commission – he's been retired for eight years and plans to fix up his house - “and all the things I couldn't do before.”

However, Pinkston's son, a former police officer, has worked school security for the past 12 to 14 years. And Paul's wife still works for the PD.

In the meantime, Lumpy is still watching over one of the criminal courtrooms.

So far, he hasn't pulled a gun on anyway.

That I know of.

Let's try this again

Call it Screams from the Porch 2.0, I suppose. Not really sure how much screaming I can do at work. And I no longer own a porch. I just liked the name and I started this blog years ago. (I've since cleaned it out, deleting the old posts, cutting out the $%&*s, and #*$^#s. Self-censorship is charming. No, not really. But we're a family newspaper, they tell me. Whoever “they” is. So I'm not allowed to swear. I'm sure I'll violate that rule soon.)

You're bored by now, aren't you? I should get to the point.

So, what the heck is this blog going to be about, anyway? I'm not sure. Maybe it's an addendum to my regular reporting. Again, I don't know. I don't like themes. I never liked labels. I suppose, though, I'll talk about local politics, mostly at the county level, and hope I somehow stumble into making sense. (I can ramble like a mental patient at times, and tend to touch on whatever comes to mind. But I digress.)

I guess we'll all see.

You're not going to find breaking news on here. Probably not. (You'll find that at the main site.) But, you will find news, more than likely, the inside baseball of Knox County politics. Sometimes it will be insightful; most of the time probably silly. I might even make up stuff. Other bloggers do.

Kidding. About the making up part.

Who knows?

Maybe something cool will happen