Tennessee State Museum

State museum chairman says comptroller review vindicates new leadership efforts to resolve past troubles

A “limited review” of Tennessee State Museum operations finds past problems – ranging from missing booze to nepotism and other conflicts of interest — are now being addressed and Thomas Smith, chairman of the board that oversees museum operations, tells The Tennessean he sees the report as a vindication of new leadership.

“I believe that this letter from the comptroller’s office is excellent,” Smith said in a phone interview Wednesday.

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Private donations to new state museum at $25M (with $40M goal)

News release from Tennessee State Museum

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee State Museum today announced that fundraising efforts for the new museum have progressed well, with more than $25 million committed by corporations, foundations and individuals statewide during the campaign’s initial “silent phase.

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State museum commission repeals controversial code of conduct

The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission voted Monday to repeal controversial policy changes adopted in July that some state legislators saw as an attempt to muzzle critics, reports the Nashville Post.

The policies included a “code of conduct” that prevented commission members from maligning the Tennessee State Museum or its staff and required notification before a member spoke to the press. It also outlined a process to force the resignation of a commissioner who didn’t abide by the policies — something at odds with the state law that specifies how commissioners are appointed.

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Museum retreats from new code of ethics in face of legislator attacks

The chairman of the Tennessee State Museum’s governing board pledged that the panel would reconsider its controversial “code of ethics” in the face of round of strong criticism from state legislators at a hearing Tuesday.

“Do you want to take the legislature on?” asked Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, addressing Thomas Smith, chairman of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission at the outset of a hearing.

An hour and a half later, Smith declared, “It is not our intent to take on the Legislature… Clearly we are going to go back and evaluate all of these items.”

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Harwell appoints PAC treasurer to TN State Museum governing board

House Speaker Beth Harwell has reappointed Deputy Speaker Steve McDaniel to the governing board of the Tennessee State Museum, but is giving her own seat on the panel to Tina Hodges, CEO of Nashville-based Advance Financial.

Harwell had previously appointed herself to a four-year term on the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission that officially expired June 30, but she continued to serve through the panel’s July 3 meeting, as allowed under relevant rules allowing an appointee to stay aboard until a successor is appointed, said Kara Owen, spokeswoman to the speaker in response to email inquiries.

Subsequently, Owen said, Harwell appointed Hodges, who already serves – by appointment of Gov. Bill Haslam – on the board of directors for Volunteer Tennessee, a group that has the declared mission of promoting “volunteerism and community service” by Tennesseans. She is currently listed as vice chairman.

Hodges also serves as treasurer of Advance PAC, a political action committee operated by Advance Financial. A check of the Registry of Campaign Finance website for 2015 and 2016 shows Advance PAC giving Harwell’s reelection campaign for her state House seat $10,000 and it also donated $8,000 to the leadership PAC operated by Harwell.

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Bell, Faison question validity of new state museum code of conduct

Chairmen of General Assembly’s Joint Government Operations Rule Review Committee are questioning the legality of the new operating policies adopted by the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission last week (including a controversial new ‘code of conduct,’ reports the Nashville Post.

State Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), the chairs of the committee, sent a letter to DHSMC chair Tom Smith and museum executive director Ashley Howell on Tuesday stating that the changes in the operating policies — including the controversial new code of conduct that prevents board members from disparaging the museum — should have been adopted in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, as it is spelled out in state law.

… “In light of the statutory authority, and in accordance with the past practices of the Joint Government Operations Rule Review Committee, we strongly believe that the attached operating policies clearly meet the definition of a rule, and that those policies must be promulgates in accordance with the UAPA.”

(Note: Museum officials contend the new policy is an operating procedure and thus not a “rule,” which is subject to requirements of the UAPA, including advance notice, a public hearing, etc.)

In an interview, Bell said that he thinks the language of the enacting clause creating the DHSMC requires anything relating to the governance of the agency should fall under the UAPA.

“I have issues with the substance of the policies as well, and I know other legislators have been commenting about that,” Bell said. “But I’m very concerned with the process here, which I do not think was followed correctly.”

The new code of conduct seems designed to silence board member Victor Ashe, a former legislator and Knoxville mayor who has been a recent critic of several missteps of the board. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally criticized it last week, expressing “serious concerns.” However, DHSMC members and legislators House Speaker Beth Harwell, now a gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Steve McDaniel (R-Parkers Crossroads) and Rep. Charles Sargent (R-Franklin) all voted in support of the policy changes.

“[Commissioners] are free to talk to anyone they want to talk to and say anything they want to say. That’s still the case,” said Harwell after the meeting.

Some suggested TN political junkie weekend reading

The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission’s efforts to block Victor Ashe, or any other board member, from making negative comments about museum operations have generated a round of negative comments about museum operations.  Here’s a sampler, along with other articles not involving Ashe or the museum appearing around the state during the past few days:

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TN museum staff ‘off the deep end’ in blocking access to public records?

A Tennessee State Museum staffer snatched an agenda packet for Monday’s meeting of the museum’s governing board from a reporter’s hand and declared she would have to file a formal open records request to see one, according to the Nashville Scene.

The reporter was Cari Wade Gervin, who (after the episode) penned an article on the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission’s vote at the Monday meeting to adopt a new code of ethics that former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe,  a member of the board who was absent at the session, labeled “a gag order.” It puts new restrictions on commission members speaking publicly about museum operations. (Previous post HERE.)

Excerpt from the Scene’s report (under a headline declaring, ‘State Museum staff hiding records from public’):

Gervin went to pick up a meeting agenda packet and was informed that she would have to file a written open records request with the Attorney General’s office to see one. When she tried to take a picture of one, it was grabbed out of her hand by Mary Skinner, the museum’s media relations officer. When House Speaker Beth Harwell, a commission member, gave Gervin her copy, museum staff attempted to take that one, too.

To be clear: A state employee attempted to stop a member of the press from reading a public record that should be made readily available to the public. This is actually against the law.

… “It looks like it’s an intentional attempt to keep information from the public,” says Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “This commission has gone off the deep end.”

Note: Ashe is also a member of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government board of directors. He says notice of the proposal to adopt a new code of ethics was not sent to museum commission members (via email) until 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, when the meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday.

UPDATE: On Friday, Museum Executive Director Ashley Howell sent out this statement: “In the future, the Tennessee State Museum will proactively provide all members of the media copies of agendas and accompanying materials for each Commission meeting in keeping with the practice of most state agencies. The museum’s management values transparency, and we will work diligently to abide by the state’s open records act.  We appreciate and value the role of the press, and we welcome coverage of museum business.”

TN State Museum board votes to impose ‘gag order’ (Victor Ashe’s description) on its members

The governing board of the Tennessee State Museum has adopted a “astonishingly broad new code of conduct” that restricts board members’ public commentary on museum affairs, reports the Nashville Post.

The new code, which was adopted without much discussion Monday morning, was emailed to members at 1 a.m. Sunday, less than 36 hours before the vote. Although state law dictates the DHSMC (Douglas Henry State Museum Commission) should “promulgate rules and regulations” in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (as it is spelled out in state law), DHSMC chair Tom Smith said “operating policies” are not subject to the UAPA and thus do not need to go through the state’s lengthy notice process in advance of hearings for rule changes.

Although Smith stated repeatedly the changes to the code of conduct were not singling out any one individual commissioner, the new regulations seem specifically designed to target one particular DHSMC member — Victor Ashe, who was just reappointed to the commission for another four years and has been a regular critic of some of the commission’s recent actions.

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McNally appoints ‘watchdog’ Victor Ashe to new term on state museum board

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, who has clashed repeatedly with other members of the board governing the Tennessee State Museum in the past, was appointed Friday to a new four-year term on the panel by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.

Further from the News Sentinel:

McNally, who shares appointments to the board formally known as the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission with House Speaker Beth Harwell, also reappointed Nancy Baker De Friece, a Bristol realtor. The old terms of both expired Friday; their new terms began Saturday.

“He’s had a great public service record – as a legislator, as a mayor, as an ambassador – and he’s also been a strong advocate of the public’s right to know,” said McNally when asked about the Ashe appointment.  “Certainly, as a watchdog, he has few people who are his equal…. And we definitely need someone from Knox County on the board.”

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