boomer's archives        
 

Coal miners’ museum – time to tell a story that is long overdue

Last week was one of those rare occasions when I did not attend the Campbell County Commission’s monthly gathering, as I had bigger fish to fry on Monday night.

This particular fish was the gathering of the Anderson County Commission down in Clinton, where squires were set to vote on whether or not to spend a hundred grand on the county’s red-headed stepchild, my home town of Lake City.

The hundred grand is the purchase price for the former Bank of America building on Main Street, which had been offered as a new home for the Coal Creek Coal Miners’ Museum. Happily, I can report that the county agreed to provide the money from $300,000 that they are receiving for selling off some industrial land.

This museum has been a work in progress, or lack of progress, for over a quarter of a century now, first envisioned by a group of us back during Tennessee’s Homecoming ’86 celebration.

We established a Coal Creek miners’ museum at the time in the old Wenders’ Department Store building next to City Hall, and as former miners and their families donated or loaned tools, lamps, old photographs, script and other artifacts for the displays, we gradually filled up several rooms with the history of old Coal Creek, Briceville and Beech Grove.

The Town of Lake City owned the building, which was once the original Coal Creek Opera House, where Vaudeville acts, musical troupes and the like came to perform. We hoped to obtain historic preservation status for the building and perhaps a grant or two to replace an aging roof and renovate the interior, but alas, it was not to be.

A state official, perhaps at the urging of city officials, decreed that the old building had been too extensively remodeled to qualify for historic preservation grants. Lake City’s fathers then did what they had wanted to do for years and razed the old building to make room for a new city hall.

Our consolation prize was a single room in the community center, once the town’s small library, where all of the displays and artifacts were stacked on top of each other with no space to tell the story.

And that is where things stood for a time, until a new mayor, Buck Wilson, took office and rekindled interest in the museum. Buck’s motivation was simple: Lake City’s old downtown was drying up and a really first class museum might attract tourists and therefore new businesses to the numerous abandoned storefronts on Main Street.

The City was able to lobby for some county and state funding to earn a matching federal grant and before you knew it, Lake City’s museum plans were making headlines again and the town had $150,000 or so to spend. One hitch however, all of the grant money was for “planning and design” and not a cent to be used for construction, land purchase or renovations.

What do you get when you have $150,000 to spend on architectural plans and design for a “world class” museum? Answer – first you get an appropriate architectural firm  “suggested” by the grant-makers, in this case a Washington-based firm that specialized in museums and such.

Then you get a design for a structure deserving of $150,000 worth of plans and drawings, price tag for construction- 16 million dollars. When the design and the price tag were presented to the museum board and other interested citizens, you could hear the air go out of the room. One museum board member observed, “If you added up all of the appraised value of all the residential and commercial property in Lake City, it wouldn’t come to 16 million dollars!”

Perhaps an exaggeration, but you get the picture. The momentum for the museum was stalled in its tracks. Over the next three years, two of the city council members who had supported the museum died, then Mayor Wilson became ill, eventually left office and passed away, his vision for a museum unrealized.

But the dream had not entirely died with him. My personal stake in this project dates to Homecoming ’86. I wrote and edited the small Coal Creek/Lake City history book that proved to be the museum’s chief source of revenue through the years, and served through it all as the board’s treasurer, keeping tabs on our modest bank accounts as they grew from a few hundred to $15,000 or so.

I also preserved negatives and copies of the numerous old photographs that were loaned for the book, submitted to the newspapers I worked for or otherwise offered to the museum, hoping that someday a new group of local people would step forward with the energy to see this thing through.

Perhaps, with a new building and new momentum, that day has come at last, when we can tell the story of the area’s coal miners, their lives and their sacrifices so that our school children can understand the legacy they have inherited.

And what a story we have to tell! From the coming of the railroads and the coal mines following the Civil War to the establishment by southern states of a convict lease system that was nothing more than an extension of the institution of slavery, supposedly ended with the Civil War.

It is the story of how courageous coal miners from Anderson, Campbell and other counties rose up in rebellion against the state itself to end convict lease, making Tennessee the first southern state to abandon the practice.

It is the story of roughly 200 coal miners, including young boys, who perished in the Fraterville mine disaster, which up to that time in 1902 was the worst mining disaster in American history.

They did not die in vain. The magnitude of the disaster forced a complacent industry to look at safety practices and more importantly, forced a complacent government to look more closely at enforcing mine safety and improving mine rescue techniques.

The death of numerous young boys who had accompanied their fathers into the mine that day helped provide the spark for stronger child labor laws as applied to mining, while the poor treatment of the perished miners’ families encouraged the first unionization of Tennessee coal mines in 1903.

A second disaster in 1911 at Cross Mountain Mine killed 84 more miners, but improvement in rescue techniques resulted in some lives being saved.

The story that Lake City’s museum has to tell is not all about conflict or disaster, but about how miners and their families worked and lived, how they were paid, educated, entertained, treated for illness and got on with their daily lives. It is also a story of sorrow, of the decline of underground coal mining and loss of jobs, the demise of the old coal camps and the long fall into poverty and depression for many families.

It is the story of how these sacrifices fueled America’s rise as an industrial giant, powered the trains that carried our nation westward and the warships that helped us win three wars, and how this legacy has set us very uniquely apart from the rest of the South, and the nation, for better or worse.

We’ve still got a way to go toward telling this story. But at least we now have a building constructed of solid bricks and mortar and not just a drawing on paper. With that we can build, even if we have to do it one nail at a time, until we can finally tell our story the way it should be told.    (UPDATED TUESDAY, AUGUST, 27, 2013)                  

Why virtual schools won’t rule?  Bubba can’t kill the quarterback with a tweet

     The Campbell County Board of Education got the numbers they wanted on Tuesday night, and wasted no time approving a contract with K12, Inc. to host a virtual school program. K12 can now sign up online students to the 1,500 student cap, with Campbell County receiving the state’s BEP funds for each student.

The county will keep 4 percent of the state’s money and hand over the other 96 percent to K12 to cover the cost of educating the students. Based on the estimates for BEP funding, the county could stand to take in $412,000 as its share of the pot, Finance Director Jeff Marlow told the board.

Why wouldn’t Campbell County jump at such a sweet deal? We get nearly $300 a year for each student registered and don’t have to pay to educate them. Rector Miller suggested that all the proceeds should go to pay for security guards at the county’s elementary schools and the rest of the board appeared to agree with that notion. It’s free money, after all.

Of course there are some questions that went un-asked, such as how will the virtual school effect Campbell County’s enrollment, which determines how much BEP money the school system receives. The presumption is that the online students will come from all over the place, not just Campbell County, just as Union County’s virtual academy claimed 30 kids from our county last year.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that a hundred of those 1,500 online students are from Campbell County and formerly attended one of our county’s old fashioned brick and mortar schools. The state will still pay Campbell County somewhere around $7,000 each for those 100 kids, but 96 percent of that amount will now be turned over to K12, Inc.

Math has never been my strong suit but that appears to be a decline of somewhere around $700,000 in state BEP funding, versus the county’s total share of the virtual school program - $412,000.

But we don’t have to pay to educate those 100 students, so it shouldn’t affect us, right? Well, we’ve already built school buildings with classroom space for those kids. The portion of BEP funds that goes to offset the debt service on those classrooms isn’t virtual, it’s real, and still has to be paid.

A hundred fewer students in Campbell County’s system isn’t going to enable the schools to cut down on utility bills, or supervisors, or maintenance personnel. At best, the county’s “savings” from not having to pay to educate those 100 kids will be a few grand in textbooks that won’t be needed, and a couple of teaching positions that can be eliminated.

I hear school officials moan all the time about how declining enrollment is behind the loss of teaching positions and the continuing financial pinch that our schools experience. We don’t yet know how a virtual schools program will impact future enrollment.

Virtual schools are a reality and are most likely the wave of the future in this increasingly cyberspace world. The school board should not be faulted for wanting to get in on the cutting edge. What they shouldn’t do is assume that hosting a virtual schools academy will be some sort of cash cow until all the cards are on the table. That last card that we’re dealt might turn out to be the joker.

Speaking of jokes, how about last week’s Highway 25 yard sale? It was ballyhooed on TV as the local answer to its big brother, the Highway 127 Yard Sale that attracts bumper-to-bumper shoppers to Jamestown, Crossville and the Sequatchie Valley every Fall.

I knew we were in trouble when I saw the map in the LaFollette Press, showing the route of the yard sale extending down from Lexington, Kentucky through Jellico, LaFollette, Caryville, Clinton and on to  . . . Chattanooga. I was at a meeting in Newport Thursday night and made the mistake of having a copy of the Press with me.

One resident looked at the map, then looked out the window at Newport’s Main Street and remarked, “Well, Chattanooga sure has changed since the last time I was here.” For the record, Highway 25 passes through Cocke County on its way to Hot Springs and eventually Asheville, North Carolina and nowhere close to Chattanooga. Oops.

The other “oops” was that the Town of Lake City allowed the Anderson County Tourism folks to organize a community yard sale at the ballpark, with a $10 set-up fee going to the coal miner’s museum building fund.

As a member of the museum board, I agreed to volunteer my time early Saturday morning to be at the ballpark to collect fees and direct vendors to their spots. Of course, the handful of vendors in that town could also choose to set up at two or three wide spots in the road for nothing. Guess what they chose to do?

The idea of a Highway 25 Yard Sale faces a couple of minor challenges not present over on Highway 127, at least in Tennessee. Number one – which Highway 25? The highway splits up in Kentucky with 25W coming on down through Williamsburg into Campbell County, Anderson County and Knoxville. Highway 25E runs through Middlesboro to Tazewell and over Clinch Mountain before reuniting with 25W in Jefferson County.

Challenge number two was obvious to me last Friday when I drove from Caryville to Duff. There are no yards. There were two or three families set up near the Highway 25 intersection with Duff Road, then miles of narrow highway with few turnoffs, then end-to-end businesses from LaFollette to Jacksboro followed by limited access roadway to Caryville.

If they’re going to make this work in Campbell County in future years, the businesses along the four-lane need to be involved in some way. I understand that roadside vendors were more common over on 25E in Claiborne County, and that might be the future of this particular experiment in mom & pop capitalism.

So let’s see, we’ve got school boards that may be mathematically challenged and newspapers that appear to be geographically challenged. An outside observer might think that we have an education issue here. Of course this is Big Orange Country, after all. An outside observer only needs to read the News-Sentinel’s story on the latest NCAA academic progress report to come to the conclusion that we have an education issue.

The Vols new football coach Butch Jones has a reputation for bringing up the academic standing of teams he has coached. That is good, because the Big Orange desperately need improvement. Tennessee’s football team finished close to the bottom of the conference in victories last season. They finished dead last in the APR ratings released by the NCAA.

OK, so the football team has been going through some tumultuous times recently, with four coaches in six years and mass transfers of athletes. So how does that explain the baseball team, which finished dead last in the conference academic ratings? I thought the football players were supposed to be the dumb jocks and baseball players were the brainy ones. Not in Big Orange Country.

Men’s basketball finished a little bit better. The Vols finished eighth out of fourteen teams. Well, really eighth out of twelve teams. The APR ratings are a four-year average and Missouri and Texas A&M have only been in the league for one year.

Big Orange fans voice their displeasure at finishing behind Florida, Alabama and Georgia in the won-loss column. I find it even more troubling that we finish behind those teams, along with Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina in academic standing.

Sadly, most fans could care less as long as the Vols manage to keep their academic heads above water and not get banned from postseason play, assuming they once again win enough games to qualify for a bowl appearance.

Come to think of it, that may be the only thing that keeps our education system from transforming completely to virtual schooling anytime soon. Bubba can’t kill the quarterback with a tweet, and fans want their bone crunching to be real, not virtual.   (UPDATED THURSDAY, JUNE, 13, 2013)              

Well-informed parents might ask - can we pay for virtual school with virtual dollars? 

Things are definitely looking up since my last column. School is out and the science enrichment kids at Valley View have a break from Mister Boomer, and thankfully, vice versa.

The county held its delinquent tax sale last Saturday and the rush to serve notice on delinquent taxpayers is past, for now at least.  In a reminder that the after-effects of the recession are still with us, over a hundred parcels of property went on the auction block, up from 40-50 just a few years ago.

These property owners still have a year to redeem their property, and many will, but at a much higher cost since they must now pay interest on the purchase price to the high bidder.

The county took in $25,984 in overdue taxes and another $8,345 in interest and penalties, but that is only part of what it will cost delinquent taxpayers to redeem the auctioned property. Add to the taxes, penalty and interest, another $1,432 for service of process to cover certified mail costs, $382 to cover computer data fees, $18,680 to cover the fees for the Clerk & Master’s office and another $16,038 to cover attorney’s fees and title search costs.

Now that original $26,000 or so in overdue taxes has cost another $45,000 in fees, interest and expenses, a increase of roughly 173 percent! That means a property owner who had a $1,000 tax bill paid $2,730 to save their property from the auction block. But that only applies to those taxpayers who were able to get in before the sale and pay off their tax bill before it went up for bid.

The county also collected $229,842 in “overbids,” the amount that buyers paid over the base taxes, interest and expenses. That’s 880 percent of the original tax bill. To redeem their property, the original owner will have to pay interest to the buyer on that entire amount, up to ten percent if they wait the entire year to redeem the property.

As much as we all hate to pay taxes, it definitely becomes a losing game when you fail to pay property taxes on time, and especially if one waits until the overdue taxes go the full distance and the property goes on the auction block. I can only hope that all of the original owners had no intention of holding on to their property and let it go, instead of failing to save it because they couldn’t come up with the money in time.

The total take for the auction was $305,733, but the county commission, Finance Director Moneybags Marlow and school board need not lick their chops just yet in anticipation of spending the money. A little over $2,800 of that total belongs to the City of LaFollette, and another $250 to Jellico. The general fund’s share would be only the $34,400 or so if all sales become final with nobody redeeming their property, but the Clerk & Master must hold onto that money until the year’s redemption period expires. The overbid amounts must be paid to the original owner, or their lien holders if they owe money on the property.

If anyone comes in and pays off their delinquent tax, penalties, interest and costs, the county must refund the sales price and interest to the bidder.

While they’re waiting for delinquent tax collections or the appearance of a money tree in the front lawn of the courthouse, the school board is looking at other ways to educate more kids at less cost. Hence, the presentation last week by representatives of K12, Inc. to the board, inviting Campbell County to sponsor a virtual school where students get all of their instruction online and need never darken the halls of an actual school building.

The two K12 spokespersons, Joe Chisum and Karen Ghidotti, gave a smooth presentation to the board about the virtues of an Internet-based education. Chisum confidently told the board that virtual schools are the wave of the future and that changes in state laws allow public school districts to become partners with online providers such as K12.

“We anticipate a rush by school districts to get in on this and Campbell County has the chance to be on the cutting edge,” Chisum predicted. He was less upbeat after Eugene Lawson pointed out that the “cutting edge” so far consists of Union County, which had well-publicized problems in its first year of sponsoring the Virtual Academy of Tennessee.

“There were some problems – too many students in that first year,” Chisum agreed. “Test scores were not what we had anticipated.”

I found the presentation to be much like K12’s slick brochure – long on style and short on content. Karen Ghidotti handled most of the presentation, explaining the concepts, describing the amount of instructional materials in “pounds” that are sent out to each student and so on. To most questions from board members, she prefaced her responses with “That’s a very good question,” then went on to give generalized answers.

Since K12 is still in the process of preparing a proposal that gets down to dollars and cents, neither representative could answer the big question asked by Lawson, “Is there any way that you’ll be charging us more than we receive from the state?”

Chisum’s response was less than direct. “We’ll be under contract to you to provide the services.”

The LaFollette Press editorial page jumped on the virtual school bandwagon with both feet last week, challenging the school board to be at least “brave enough to try.”

I can see that, like it or not, this is the wave of the future. The current generation communicates more through twitter and Facebook than we ever did in person. There will probably come a time when physical schools, like newspapers printed on actual paper, will be a curiosity of the past. They will be relegated to museums that, by the way, people will no longer be allowed to visit in person, but through virtual tours on their computers and Ipads.

My advice, such as it is, to the school board would not be to reject the concept of a virtual school, but tread carefully. The presentation by the K12 folks simply reminded me that this firm and others like it are not in this business to provide a public service, but to turn a profit. The board needs to be fully aware of the bottom line and every line in between before committing to a contract.

Some kids with special needs or who don’t socialize well with other kids may benefit greatly from the opportunity to be educated at home online. I keep coming back to another statement in the LaFollette Press editorial, however.

“But what’s in the best academic interest of a particular student should ultimately be left up to a well-informed parent, whose given multiple options for their child to succeed,” the Press urged.

That’s the rub, isn’t it?  Sadly, too many Campbell County parents don’t fit the description of “well-informed.” (UPDATED FRIDAY, MAY, 31, 2013)        

Kids weak on Middle East, England but at least know way to McDonalds

There is, I believe, an old adage about not trying to do too much at once or you will do everything poorly. Brother, did I learn the truth of that during the past couple of weeks.

It all started a couple of weeks back when I got stuck with jury duty down in Anderson County. That put me about a week behind on my tax enforcement work, just as the county prepares for a delinquent property tax sale this coming Saturday.

I had to turn in a stack of notices un-served because I ran out of time. Of course by now, the names of the delinquent taxpayers have been spread across the pages of two newspapers for the past couple of weeks. Anyone who isn’t aware that their property is about to be sold is either 1) deceased and the heirs can’t agree on who should pay the taxes 2) about to declare bankruptcy or be foreclosed upon and care less about paying the taxes 3) in jail with their house quarantined as a former meth lab or 4) some combination of the above reasons.

Still, it bothers me to not get all notices formally delivered, just in case one is for a little old lady whose late husband handled all the complicated paperwork. Fortunately there is a one-year redemption period to protect such little old ladies (or men) from being unceremoniously tossed from their homes.

So, running behind schedule on both delinquent tax notices and wheel tax violations, I also had to film the school board meeting last week and write a report for WLAF.  Rector Miller dropped his suggestion to use Johnny Bruce’s athletic director salary to pay for additional school security officers and instead went along with a motion to ask the squires to come up with the additional money.

Later, after the board voted to authorize boy’s and girl’s soccer teams at CCHS, Rector commented that this would add another sport to the athletic director’s duties and the director should be compensated for it.

I assumed he was talking about Johnny Bruce and this was some sort of mind game to keep Bruce focused on solving the security problem. Turns out Rector was referring to CCHS athletic director Sherry Chapman, although he didn’t name names, so I had to apologize and correct the story.

I should really apologize to Sherry for denying her the raise, and to Johnny for taking his raise back, but then it was all rhetoric and no actual money has yet materialized.

So I fumbled the school board meeting as well as my tax work. What more could I mess up in one week? There’s always my lawn, which has now taken on aspects of the Amazon rain forest. Wednesday would have been a perfect day for mowing grass, but I was busy tying up loose ends on my aforementioned foul-ups so only dedicated an hour or so late in the day to cutting trails through the grass.

“I will rush home after my last Valley View science enrichment class on Thursday and finish the job,” I told myself. I got home at 5:05 p.m. and began changing into work clothes. At 5:09 p.m. I heard the first rumbles of thunder. At 5:15 as I was rolling out the lawnmower, the skies over my yard opened up, Noah floated past in his ark and waved. So much for mowing grass.

This was also the final week for my after-school science enrichment classes at Valley View. I usually wind up the 3rd graders with a visit to “Mr. Boomer’s rock pile” where the kids get to pick out quartz-lined hollow geodes and break them to find and keep the shiny crystals inside.

That project went off pretty well, but not so the class on Thursday for grades 4-5. The older kids are also exposed to a little world geography as well as science, I having discovered that very little geography is currently taught before kids reach middle school.

I buy up a stack of second-hand student atlases at McKay’s used books each year and give one to each student to take home and study. Their incentive is a geography bee at year’s end with prizes of coins or sample gemstones from foreign countries for each correct answer and a grand prize for the highest score.

Jury duty forced me to cancel the previous week’s classes when we usually prepare for the geography bee so I typed up a list of study questions to give the kids before the big day on Thursday. But work and meetings delayed my arrival at the school and I didn’t have time to distribute the study list on Tuesday as planned.

Instead I asked the assistant principal to take the lists around on Wednesday, at least giving the kids one night to locate countries, oceans, rivers and mountain ranges in their atlas.

Thursday I arrived at the school and asked the office manager if the lists were given out. “I hope so but don’t count on it. All the children were watching a movie when he went to deliver the lists so he brought them back to the office.”

I asked the first student to arrive in the classroom if he had received his study questions.

“Yes” (relief)

“Have you studied them?”

“I’m going to study them in free period.”

“The geography bee is this afternoon!” (panic)

“We just got the list this morning.” (desperation)

I tried to re-schedule the last class until the following week but no dice, too much going on at the school during graduation week. We soldiered on and held the geography bee without any preparation time. At least, I told myself, I’ll see if these kids have bothered to open their atlases since I gave them out in October.

A dozen or so of my students showed up for the class, and one by one, I gave them the chance to locate, on a blank wall map, places drawn randomly from a hat.

England?” Nobody even ventured to guess since wrong answers cost points in the race for the grand prize.

“The Middle East?” No takers.

Madagascar?”

“No that’s Greenland. Anybody else?”

“The Hudson Bay?”

At the beginning I was strict. “Iraq?”

“You’ve got your hand on two countries. Which one is Iraq? No that’s Iran, sorry.”

Later I loosened up some.

“The Himalaya Mountains?”

“Well, that’s really closer to the Great Wall of China but I’ll give it to you. At least you’re on the right continent.”

In the end I just ended up giving things away.

“Here’s a coin from Brazil. Anyone know where Brazil is located in South America? Good, here you go.”

I ended things up by making sure everyone had a prize or two, even the boy who guessed every time and mostly guessed wrong. His final score: minus five points. I also admonished my class, telling them that when they grow up some of them will be dealing with people all over world by way of the internet; they should at least know where those people live on a map.

The sobering thing is, their knowledge of the world isn’t likely to get all that much better, as high school and middle school curriculums are now downgrading geography and mixing it with history in a combined “social studies” course

But then, how much can you say to a kid whose world is home, school and maybe the lake, or a long trip to Dollywood. They will grow up and become aware of this wide and increasingly hard world soon enough.  (UPDATED TUESDAY, MAY, 21, 2013)

County’s collection of mayors a good source for nightmares

Criminals seem to be coming in threes this week. First, we had the three idiot college students who were arrested for covering up for their buddy, one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

I know it’s a big no-no for teenagers and young twenty-somethings to snitch on their buddies. Not supposed to tell who smuggled the booze into the dormitory. Not supposed to tell whose bag of marijuana that was the cops found in the back seat, etc.etc. But not supposed to tell about that college roommate who just exploded a bomb that killed and maimed dozens of innocent people, including children?

Those college cronies will probably have a decade or so behind bars to ponder the difference. Let’s hope the lesson makes an impression.

Then there are the three brothers in Cleveland who are suspected of kidnapping three young women/girls and holding them in captivity for over a decade. Sick is too tame a phrase for that kind of behavior.

Here in East Tennessee we have our own trio of arch-criminals, two elderly men and an 82-year-old nun who have just been found guilty by a federal jury of “sabotage” for breaking into the Y-12 weapons complex and writing peace messages in blood on an outside wall.

I can see “trespassing on federal property.” I can even see “destruction of property.” But sabotage? This goes to show that you can plant bombs, take pot shots at the White House or mail poison to members of Congress and expect to be punished. But one of the most severe punishments is reserved for the crime of “embarrassing the federal government.”

A security company or private detective agency would have tested Y-12’s security procedures in a mock break-in for a small fee, say $100,000 or so. These three peace protesters did it for nothing and uncovered serious security flaws, thankfully before some bearded radicals in turbans uncovered the same weaknesses.

For their valuable contribution to national security, the three now face lengthy prison terms. The elderly nun may die in prison, achieving the martyrdom in the name of peace that she seems to be seeking. Instead, they should send the Department of Energy a bill for services rendered.

Whether we agree with their positions and methods or not, and I don’t, we should still flood the White House with emails demanding a presidential pardon. The three did the country a great service in uncovering security lapses at very little cost other than some red faces at DOE and its Oak Ridge contractors.

I’m stuck on jury duty this week down in Anderson County. During a break the judge shared his concern that I might be dozing off during the testimony. I assured him that I clearly heard everything worth hearing, but I admit that I did doze a bit during the morning.

One of the first jurors to be seated, I then had to sit through two hours of three lawyers asking the same questions over and over to other prospective jurors and alternates until we could find fourteen people to whom nobody objected. Good time to make up for a restless night.

My night was made restless by another one of those Campbell County nightmares. This time I dreamed that the county commission had asked Representative Dennis Powers to introduce a bill down in Nashville to combine the county and its four municipalities into one metro government, and the legislature, in its infinite wisdom, passed the bill.

In a compromise intended to give everyone a little something, the new metro government would feature a rotating county mayor, with the mayor of each town or city alternating with William Baird to run the county for a week.

So in my dream, County Mayor Mike Stanfield of LaFollette hired Thomas Hatmaker as his vice mayor. The next week, County Mayor Les Stiers of Jellico gave him a 40 percent raise. The following week, County Mayor Chris Stanley of Caryville fired him without giving a reason and the week after that, County Mayor William Baird asked the TBI to launch an investigation into questionable hiring practices.

The following week County Mayor Jack Cannon convened a meeting of the Jacksboro Board of Mayor & Aldermen and Jacksboro voted to secede from the county and ask the legislature to pass another act creating a new county.

Campbell County has finally gone completely nuts. Those of us in Jacksboro are going to take our Wal-Mart and go home,” Cannon announced.

The four remaining county mayors instructed yours truly, as the county’s tax enforcement officer, to arrest the Jacksboro board of Mayor & Aldermen for refusing to purchase county wheel tax decals for their police department. It was at this point, predictably, that I woke up in a cold sweat.   (UPDATED THURSDAY, MAY, 9, 2013, FOR THE WEEK OF MAY 6)

         

Insurance, Wall Street and air travel a tangled web, but the Internet rules

By Charles "Boomer" Winfrey

I’m a big enough man (understatement) to admit when I’m wrong. I received some bad information a couple of weeks back that lawyer Terry Basista had stated that had received the controversial video of apparent animal abuse at the shelter and put it out over the Internet.

Terry tells me that the video was already on U-tube before he ever saw it, so my information was wrong. The column seems to have stirred up things on R.L.’s program the other night when one caller claimed I accused Terry of creating said video. I never did, and someone else on the program corrected the record.

Some animal right crusaders in North Carolina are taking credit for dispensing the video on the web, and who knows who actually created and edited it. All of that is more or less irrelevant. In the end what will matter is what the county does about the problem.

One commissioner has suggested that the county wash its hands completely, turn the shelter over to the Humane Society to operate and divert the $140,000 annual appropriation to other needs. So the problem of a shelter with not enough money to operate efficiently will be solved by taking away what money it does have.

That lets the county off the hook, at least until voters start complaining about stray dogs and cats running loose because there is no animal control program to pick them up.  I can’t wait to see what comes next.

One thing I am not wrong about. After being abused in a couple of airport security lines after 911, I swore off flying to anywhere within a two-day’s drive of East Tennessee. The additional charges for luggage, cessation of free refreshments, decrease in leg room and other air travel nightmares through the years have just reinforced my determination to avoid airports like the plague.

Now comes the sequester, and the FAA has furloughed air traffic controllers, causing major delays at most of the nation’s major airports. I can now honestly say that I can drive to Atlanta, Chicago or Washington faster than I can fly to those cities. Thank you, congressional Republicans, for giving all those high-flying business executives who put you in power a taste of their own medicine.

I can avoid air travel, but like everyone else, one thing I can’t avoid is the insurance industry. I just received the renewal notice on my homeowner’s policy this week and was amazed to see a 50 percent rate increase over last year. Predictably, I called my agent immediately to question a few things on the declaration sheet.

“You’ve got the replacement cost of my home set at $115,000. I built it three years ago for $66,000 and home values are down. No way could I get $115,000 out of that home!”

“But we don’t insure based on home values. We insure based on replacement cost and our analysis indicates that building costs are up in your zip code by that degree.”

“What about this estimate of $80,000 for personal property? I donated my million-dollar art collection to the Campbell County Animal Shelter. I could replace everything I own for half that much!”

“Our company follows industry standards of setting the value of contents at 75 percent of the replacement cost.”

“OK, what about this – loss of use of home, valued at $42,000? Do you think I would spend three months living in the penthouse suite at the Hyatt Regency while my home is rebuilt?”

“Sir, that is the standard equation, blah, blah, blah.”

“I think I’ll shop around a bit before I renew this policy.”

“Feel free (snicker)”

What I discovered is that everybody’s home insurance rates are through the roof this year. The insurance companies will have a million different explanations for why costs are up, risk assessment is higher, etc. etc. ad nauseum. They don’t want to tell customers the truth, which is that we’re all paying the cost of climate change.

You know, that thing that conservatives in Congress deny is happening – “climate change.” In the past few years, the insurance industry has taken its licks – hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, devastating floods and blizzards alternating with drought in the Midwest, destructive tornadoes causing hundreds of millions in damage in the Midwest and mid South and most recently Superstorm Sandy, causing billions in damages to the Northeast.

So those of us in relatively untouched parts of the country have to pay higher premiums to help the insurance industry offset their losses. It would be nice if the companies would just tell us the truth instead of feeding us unbelievable gobblygook.

It wouldn’t make the increased costs any less painful, but at least the companies would show customers enough respect to tell them the truth, instead of trying to confuse everyone with double talk.

Of course, even if the insurance industry was not suffering from hefty weather-related losses, they would still have to worry about their other risk factor, which is loss of the value of their investments. The insurance industry makes much of their profits by investing our premium dollars, so when the economy and Wall Street go in the tank, profits are down and rates go up.

That is not reassuring, based on the sell-off panic that Wall Street experienced just this week when somebody hacked into the Associated Press website and put out a fake news flash that the White House had been bombed and the President injured.

Investments tied to computers went into automatic “sell off” mode before anyone could verify the accuracy of the report and the Dow Jones dipped a couple of hundred points in a matter of minutes, all caused by a bogus Internet report. Gives one a rosy, warm feeling inside about our nation’s future, doesn’t it?  (UPDATED WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24, 2013, 4:30 PM)

Mandatory gun ownership?  Could be a blessing in disguise

Boomer's Corner - By Charles "Boomer" Winfrey

So much going on, I hardly know where to start. The animal shelter hubbub has calmed down a bit, with Mayor William Baird closing the shelter and placing employees on administrative leave while the TBI investigates accusations of animal abuse.

I predict that the investigation will uncover some shoddy procedures, but no criminal wrongdoing. Shelter director Betty Crumley, however, has become a political liability and may not return.

Betty’s case is sad, in a way. Active in the Humane Society, she championed establishment of the shelter, along with namesake Adrion Baird. I don’t see her as being the type of person who would willfully be cruel to animals.

Her people skills, however, are another matter. Her inability to work with local animal lovers and her resistance to accepting criticism have combined to make too many enemies when what she needs are supporters.

Alas, the shelter’s problems come down to that root of all evil – money. The shelter as planned was to be funded by a combination of county taxpayer dollars and animal registration fees. A previous county commission, facing criticism from dog owners, eliminated the registration requirement. Budget constraints have kept the shelter’s appropriations flat for several years now while costs continue to go up.

The result was predictable. A shelter that is too cool in winter and too warm in summer, that sells cat carcasses to a biological supply company to raise funds and skimps on drug costs by failing to sedate animals before administering lethal injections.

You get what you pay for. Campbell County pays for a bare minimum operation and now gets bad publicity, investigations and more headaches. Same old story.

The gun control debate in Washington is over for the time being and sadly, it also is the same old story. You my recall that I predicted right after the Newtown shootings that Congress would hmm and haw, and in the end do nothing because they are afraid of the NRA bully.

They did nothing. The next test will come in election year, when we see if the NRA bully has the clout to defeat some of the senators, such as Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who dared to support expanded background checks. Until gun control advocates are willing to organize, raise large amounts of money and fight the NRA in the trenches of American politics, future gun control debates will go the same way.

There may yet be hope for those of us who seek a silver lining behind every cloud, however. A Farragut city councilman intends to propose that Farragut go the way of some small Georgia cities, and pass an ordinance requiring that every head of household within the corporate limits maintain a firearm.

Seems the Second Amendment protects every American’s right to own and keep a firearm, but does not protect our right not to own one. The good news is that once every gun-happy Farragut homeowner is packing, along with every Farragut homeowner who has never owned, handled or fired a gun in their lives, the potential for slaughter will be high.

State Senator Stacy Campfield lives out that way, along with the voters who keep returning him to office, so a stray bullet or two could be a blessing to the rest of us.

Of course I don’t know how Farragut will deal with situations where the head of household is a convicted felon. I’m guessing the city will have to round up any convicted felons living inside the corporate limits and send ‘em packing since they can’t legally possess firearms.

Commissioner Thomas Hatmaker proposed a little ordinance Monday might that would have sent convicted felons packing from county employment, or at least prevented the county from employing said felons in the future.

County Attorney Joe Coker calmly explained that the squires have no authority to mandate hiring practices to the county’s elected officials and such an ordinance would only impact three county jobs controlled directly by the commission.

Vice Mayor David Young, who is a convicted felon, made an impassioned plea to commissioners to remember that many people who made mistakes in their youth have gone on to lead useful, law-abiding lives and should not be forced to pay for their mistakes over and over. He asked how many of us can honestly say that we’ve never done anything that could have landed us in the same boat.

I can relate to that. Like all red-blooded American males, I can think of numerous felonies I may have committed in my reckless youth, usually in the name of wooing women. In addition, “Contempt of Congress” is considered a serious offense and I confess that I have been in utter contempt of Congress ever since I was old enough to vote.

Grandpappy Winfrey once spent a year in a Chicago jail, convicted of driving a truckload of Canadian whiskey across the border during Prohibition. He went on to serve as Lake City’s first water commissioner and a jailer for the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department.

On the other side of the family tree, Great-Grandpappy Sharp was a coal miner who had to leave the state for a time after the Coal Creek War back in the 1890s. Granny used to tell of how her daddy would load a coffee can full of bullets and climb Walden’s Ridge to his position, where he would spend the day shooting at any Tennessee State Militia soldier who popped his head up behind the walls of Fort Anderson.

His shift over, Grandpappy Sharp would come back down for a good night’s rest before spending the next day shooting at soldiers again, He was one of several thousand area coal miners who were never convicted of their felonies.

The commissioners seem to have taken David Young’s pleas to heart, as they voted 14-1 to, as Steve Rutherford said, “Not kick a man while he’s down.” Poor Thomas cast the only vote for his proposal. Marie Ayers seconded his motion “to bring it up for discussion” and then voted against it.

On a more positive note, my science enrichment students at Valley View got to go on their field trip on April 1 to the Gatlinburg Aquarium. The vice principal had to cancel out at the last minute due to a family emergency, the head count and the check to the aquarium were off because some parents counted teenagers as “other children” while the aquarium counts them as adults, and the bus had a flat tire on the way home.

The principal cancelled personal travel plans to bravely accompany the trip, the aquarium worked with us to make the check come out even and we limped home on one of the two dual wheels on the bus. The 50 kids were blissfully ignorant of all the little problems, had a great time and hopefully learned a little something as well – and we didn’t lose a single chaperone. All in all a successful field trip!   (UPDATED THURSDAY, APRIL 18, 2013, 4:00 PM)  

    

Boomer's Corner by Charles "Boomer" Winfrey

Campbell County gets both a halo and a black eye . . . . all in the same week *

Being part of the Campbell County community can be quite an emotional roller-coaster. One minute your head can be swelling with pride; the next, hanging in shame.

Last week was one of those weeks. First came the pride, as the community’s outpouring of love and caring for a 14-year-old girl’s courageous fight against cancer made national news.

The schoolmates of Katelyn Norman led the way as an entire community exerted every effort to help Katelyn realize her “bucket list” dream of attending her high school prom. An entire community reached out to let her know she was loved, and her story touched millions through the attention of national news media.

While Campbell Countians could hold their heads high with pride over the national attention gained by Katelyn’s story, another kind of attention placed our county in an unkind light the same week.

Video leaked over the Internet appeared to expose the folks at the Adrion Baird Animal Shelter of abusing animals and treating them inhumanely. To prove the point that there are few zealots more zealous than animal lovers, shelter director Betty Crumley was bombarded by death threats to the point of being given police protection, while courthouse offices were inundated by angry calls from all over the country.

“People were even calling our office,” County Clerk Debbie Wilson said last week. “We told them we had nothing whatsoever to do with the animal shelter but they just wanted to let us know what low life human beings we people in Campbell County are for abusing poor animals.”

Vice Mayor David Young told me Friday that he spent the entire week responding to telephone complaints over the shelter rhubarb. “I started out being nice and patient. By the end the phone calls were so abusive and threatening that I just hung up on some of them before I would say something I would regret,” David recalled.

County Mayor William Baird, showing uncommonly good sense, found that he had urgent business to attend to down in Nashville last week and left his Vice Mayor in charge of the office.

As it turns out, lawyer Terry Basista, formerly a member of the animal control board, ‘fessed up last week to putting the incriminating video out over the web. It was sent to him by a former shelter employee and appears to have been doctored considerably, if not completely fabricated.

“PETA actually came to our defense,” Young pointed out. “They said that they had inspected our facility and found no evidence of the kinds of abuse the video purported to show.”

PETA did take shelter personnel to task for using the same dosage of an euthanasia chemical on larger dogs that is used for smaller dogs, resulting in a longer delay before the animals’ hearts stop. Accusations that dogs were placed in the freezer while still alive or suffered pain during the euthanasia process are totally unfounded, Young stated.

The shelter also fails to follow another PETA recommendation, that animals be given a dose of sedative before being injected with the fatal chemical. Young claims that budget restraints have made it impossible to sedate all of the animals first, but that the euthanasia injection does not cause pain or discomfort.

Whether any of the criticisms aimed at the shelter are justified might just come down to who you believe, but it does underscore the fact that hubris seldom ends well. Director Crumley may be a dedicated individual, but she comes off in public meetings as being arrogant and stubborn, especially when faced with criticism from the county’s animal lovers.

Betty simply wants nothing to do with the folks with Campbell County Friends of Animals, an outspoken group that has been pushing for more adoption-friendly policies such as allowing volunteers to place photos of adoptable animals on Facebook or other online venues.

She has resisted offers for free volunteer help from people who she sees as critical of her performance and has made a poor impression with many county commissioners. The result is predictable. Just because you are paranoid, the old saying goes, does not mean people are not out to get you.

If part of the shelter’s problem involves budget restraints. If the shelter cannot afford the cost of sedating every animal that must be put down, a good way to encourage donations to offset the costs would be by making friends and not enemies.

While the shelter controversy has given our county a black eye to go with our Katelyn halo, county commissioners got a preview of more trouble on the horizon at Monday night’s workshop.

Can you spell E-911? Perhaps not, unless it’s spelled “b-r-o-k-e.” That appears to be the way our 911 system is heading, with revenues from the public down about 50 percent in recent years.

The problem is cell phones, and the fact that telephone landlines are going the way of 8-track tapes, movies on VHS and the U. S. Postal Service – consigned to the obsolete scrap heap of history.

The E-911 system, so ballyhooed when set up as the answer to all our prayers for prompt response in emergencies, is funded partially by an appropriation in the county budget and partially from a surcharge on telephone bills. Problem is, the surcharge is on stationary landlines. When 911 was established, cell phones were still an occasional luxury.

Not so anymore. The number of business and residential landlines in the county has declined by nearly half in the past few years, and monthly revenues have declined right along with them. The state did set up a system for assessing cell phones, at the rate of a dollar a month, but the State of Tennessee keeps three-quarters of that amount and gives local 911 systems the remaining quarter.

“Not enough,” 911 Director Charlie Hutson told the squires Monday, A bill to increase the cell phone surcharge went nowhere in this year’s legislature, as the majority GOP lawmakers obviously viewed it as a “tax increase.” They, of course, would much rather do nothing and leave it up to local governments to increase taxes to help E-911 survive.

Without more revenue from telephone subscribers or a hefty increase in county funding paid for by property taxpayers, E-911 will still function, Hutson explained, but more than likely without dispatchers. Instead, an automated system would direct incoming calls from the 911 call center to the appropriate emergency service based on the location of the call.

Callers would then be transferred to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department, police and fire departments in the various towns or other appropriate agencies. He did not explain how a location-based relay system could separate police calls from fire calls or requests for an ambulance, and it seems likely that the absence of 911 dispatchers would mean a delay in response time, perhaps a fatal delay in some cases.

While commissioners mull over how to deal with the looming 911 crisis, one crisis seems to be resolved. The commission’s EMS Committee took a vote Monday night that will finally put the embattled Pinecrest Volunteer Fire Department out of its misery once and for all.

Pinecrest VFD, you might recall, became insolvent last year under a mountain of debt approaching $200,000. How such a thing might happen can only be guessed at, but the fact that former Pinecrest Chief Jerry Moat was arrested last week on an indictment from Bradley County for theft over $1,000 might shed some light on the matter.

At any rate, the Pinecrest board disbanded the department and tried to start off from scratch with a new Norris Ridge Volunteer Fire Department. They declined to declare bankruptcy, however, choosing to salvage the department’s station houses by assuming and consolidating the Pinecrest debt.

The commission pledged 15 grand to the new fire department, once Norris Ridge had applied for its tax exempt status from the IRS. Fast forward nearly six months and the Pinecrest area is still being covered from afar by Campbell County Rural Fire Service and Jacksboro Fire Department.

Norris Ridge Chief McCullah admitted Monday night that his department still hasn’t applied for the 501(c) (3) tax exempt status because they can’t afford the $850 filing fee. Naturally, not a penny of the county appropriation has been spent and now the folks at Campbell County Rural Fire Service would like the share of the money that would have gone to Norris Ridge for the past five months.

The EMS Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the county funds be divided between the Rural Fire Service and Jacksboro, with Campbell County Rural Fire Service assuming permanent responsibility for most of Pinecrest while Jacksboro covers the Mount Paran area.

If this plan works, folks in Pinecrest might eventually see their insurance rates fall back to normal levels, all areas of the county will again have fire protection and the commission won’t have to spend more money than they have already appropriated. The only losers will be the creditors for Pinecrest/Norris Ridge VFD and all of the dedicated volunteer firefighters who put their hearts and souls into their community fire department and their trust in the wrong man. (UPDATED WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10, 2013, NOON)

       * PETA responds to the latest Boomer's Corner

Dear WLAF,

We hope this message finds you well.  We're writing to clarify certain misinformation included in WLAF's April 10 report regarding PETA's involvement with the Campbell County Adrion Baird Animal Shelter.  We understand that the information is being shared by others via social media, such as on this Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=315639751898437&id=395292177235646#!/permalink.php?story_fbid=398542250243972&id=395292177235646.
Please be assured that PETA has not visited the county shelter and is therefore unable to offer any firsthand information in that regard. We contacted county officials in writing and by phone to urge them to ensure that the shelter follows humane euthanasia recommendations from national experts and in accordance with state laws. Additionally, PETA provided them with recommended guidelines for operation and standards of care<
http://www.sheltervet.org/about/shelter-standards/> from sheltering experts the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, and we've urged them to follow the guidelines closely.
Regarding pre-euthanasia sedation, PETA concurs that this is not always in the best interests of the animal. Whenever possible, a cooperative animal should be held and comforted and given an intravenous (IV) injection of sodium pentobarbital (or in the case of some cats, kittens, and puppies, intraperitoneal, or IP injection, using the proper recommended dosage, may be more appropriate). Fractious and hyperactive animals must always be handled cautiously, and unfortunately, two animals of the same breed and size may react differently to the drug (and in some, the drug may actually exacerbate fractious behavior). There is an unacceptable inherent risk in having a policy of administering the same drug to a number of animals and hoping or assuming that their responses will be uniform. Each animal must be individually evaluated to determine if sedation is necessary.
Thank you for your time and attention. I can be contacted at 443-320-1277 and TeresaC@peta.org<
mailto:TeresaC@peta.org>.
Sincerely yours,
Teresa Lynn Chagrin
Animal Care and Control Specialist
Cruelty Investigations Department
cc:        The Honorable David Young, Deputy Mayor of
Campbell County
(UPDATED MONDAY, APRIL 15, 2013, 5:00 PM)

Kids can be worth a trip to Hades, Congress should go there and stay

In my job enforcing various Campbell County taxes, you would not be surprised to learn that I occasionally run into people who consign me to the nether regions. Whenever that happens in the future, I can now respond that I’ve already been there, and plan to return soon.

It’s time to begin planning the annual spring field trip for my science enrichment students at Valley View Elementary. This year I noticed an ad in the News-Sentinel for a temporary dinosaur exhibit at Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg.

“Perfect,” I said to myself. My 4th and 5th graders study ecosystems including ocean life, while the third graders study rocks, fossils and ancient life, the most popular of those being dinosaurs.

But one does not plan to take a busload of kids, ages 9-11, on a trip without knowing what to expect. Since I’m otherwise engaged during the week, I drove up to Gatlinburg on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. For any of you out there considering a visit this spring to the Gateway to the Smoky Mountains, may I suggest a weekday, even if you must take a vacation day from work. If not, try a Sunday morning, Saturday morning, Friday at midnight, any time other than Saturday afternoons.

There were, of course, the usual mobs of tourists and shoppers, which always make the trip into town a bit adventurous.  I hit the traffic line about a mile short of the city limits. Slow going, but nothing unusual for Gatlinburg. Then I approached the cutoff north toward Pittman Center and Cosby. Traffic leading west was now moving at a crawl; road crews were stabilizing a rockslide and Gatlinburg’s Main Street was cut down to one lane in each direction.

Finally I reached the turnoff to the aquarium, joined the line into the parking garage and found a space. So far, so good. After talking with folks in the education department about school group rates, classroom programs and the like, I forked over twenty-five bucks for one adult admission. This was necessary so I could tour the place and estimate how long it will take our school group and what the kids will see.

Again, so far, so good. Then it was time to depart. Exit the parking garage. Well, exit the parking space. Then I joined the line on the third level trying to exit the garage, and went nowhere. An hour later, I had made it to the first level, and could almost see the ticket booth.

Last Monday night, county commissioners raked Environmental Service Director Don Boshears over the coals. They were angry over his decision to cut hours at convenience centers and all the calls they are receiving from an angry public.

These people weren’t angry. Angry is the emotion one feels when you sit in line for an hour and a half creeping slowly out of a parking garage, get within four car lengths of the exit, and watch some pencil neck walk down to his car, parked two spaces from the exit, start his engine and back out when the car in front of you lets him break the line. Total wait to the exit, approximately 60 seconds.

Finally out of the garage, after paying an extra hour’s parking fee for the time spent in line trying to get out. It was immediately clear why the wait had been so long. A long line formed on the side street where the garage exited, waiting for a chance to turn left on Main Street into the bumper-to-bumper single lane of traffic leading back toward Knoxville.

I inched slowly forward as about one car every five minutes was able to make the turn. Finally I reached the place where the street divided into two turning lanes and whipped to the right, turning east toward the national park.

No traffic at all, no stops except at pedestrian crosswalks, all the way through town. Finally, passing mile after mile of backed up cars leading into town, I reached the park visitor center and the cutoff for the Gatlinburg bypass toward Pigeon Forge.

Traffic through Pigeon Forge heading away from the mountains was as light as I’ve ever seen, all the cars still being backed up in the Gatlinburg bottleneck. Question # 1: Were all these motorists strangers to the region and clueless about where roads lead? Question # 2: What part of the sign reading “Gatlinburg bypass to Pigeon Forge” did all those folks coming out of the mountains not understand?

Fast forward to Tuesday. Time for me to teach my after-school third grade class and distribute permission slips for the April 1st field trip. A beautiful day, so I planned an outdoor class to look for minerals in the Nature Center rock pile.

Five minutes after the kids all gathered we got the word: “Lock-down.” A man who was not authorized to be there tried to pick up a child, probably an estranged husband/father. So, lock-down; no teaching materials, no rocks, just 23 slightly amused, slightly nervous children with nothing to do.

“Can I go out to my car and get an educational DVD for the kids to watch?”

 “No, we won’t let you back in and a security officer might shoot you.”

So we played my version of the “quiet game.” Everyone kept quiet and tried to keep a straight face and not giggle while I went around the room trying to make the kids laugh by whatever facial expressions or strange noises I could think up. Good thing these kids don’t have cell phone cameras – I would never live it down.

Finally, after 25 minutes or so, we received the all clear and could finally go outside. So much pent-up energy should be bottled and sold. Finally I got them settled down to the challenge of identifying minerals such as calcite, quartz or “fool’s gold” among the limestone boulders and fossils in the rocks along the nature trail.

Mr Boomer, here’s some fool’s gold. Can I have this rock?”

“That rock weighs 40 pounds. Can you lift it?”

“No.”

“Then you can’t have it.”

Awww.”

“Here’s a squidward fossil, Mr Boomer! Can I have it?”

“I saw it first. I want it.”

“Hold on. Here’s two, three fossils on the rock. I’ve got my rock hammer. I’ll break it in half and you can each have some.”

And so it went, until time to go in for snacks and wait for parents to pick them up. Great thing about kids, they’re resilient. One minute worried because there’s a “bad man” near the school. The next, enthralled by a fossilized bug on a muddy chunk of rock.

Keeps me young. Come April Fool’s Day, we’ll go back to Gatlinburg, hope for lighter traffic and take whatever comes. It’s worth a trip back to Hades to see the smiles on their faces.

Congress, on the other hand, appears more concerned with staying in the good graces of the National Rifle Association than whether children can continue to smile. I wish for Congress that they should all go to Gatlinburg on a Saturday afternoon, and not find their way back out. (UPDATED FOR THE WEEK OF MONDAY, MARCH 25, AT 6:00 AM, 03/22/2013)  

 

Words can be powerful things, the wrong words can get you in trouble

You will have to forgive me for showing a bit of bias, but as a writer, I’ve always considered words to be powerful instruments, more powerful than guns or bombs. They reach more people and tend to hang around longer.

Choosing the right words can make someone immortal – “Four score and seven years ago;” “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Choosing the wrong words can end a political career. Choosing the wrong word can also lead to unintended consequences.

Take our own dear county commission. A proposal brought up at last week’s workshop calls for the creation of a “solar panel oversight committee.” The stated purpose of said committee would be to review the records, energy production and financials of the solar panel project to determine if it is a good idea to expand it from school buildings to other county buildings.

The school board’s attorney advised the board to “respectfully decline” the invitation from the commission, should it be offered. The board appeared in agreement with his advice. In other words, “Stay out of our business!”

Attorney Dail Cantrell also pointed out that all of the records the commissioners want to “oversee” are public records open to inspection upon request. The rub was not the school board not wanting their business reviewed by commissioners, the rub was in that one little word, “oversight.”

The county commission by law can have no oversight over the business of the school board, beyond approving or disapproving the school budget. Any attempt to do otherwise would lead to a quick slap on the wrist from the courts.

The commission can re-name their committee, something like “solar panel assessment committee” or “solar panel study committee” and get away with it, but that one little word, “oversight” indicates some level of control, which is not legal.

Of course, the three individuals suggested to serve as the “oversight committee” are all folks, who forgive me if I’m mistaken, have taken a critical stance against the solar panel project. It might be better termed the “Find Fault Committee,” because I suspect that is exactly what they hope to do.

Ah well, I’m sure somebody will come up with the right words before it’s over, perhaps something more appropriate such as “urinating contest,” or other words to that effect.

The squires are also being asked to endorse several pieces of legislation that are being bounced around down in Nashville. One would endorse a cemetery preservation law. The commissioners were hesitant to wholeheartedly endorse that one until they are sure that the county would not assume some level of responsibility for the cost of preserving abandoned cemeteries.

Another bill would hold local government officials to the same open meeting restrictions as members of the state legislature. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What that bill actually does is change the law to allow county and city officials to meet in secret to discuss policy decisions as long as a quorum is not present.

Currently, if two or more commissioners meet to discuss or debate policy, they have to do it in public with adequate notice. The legislature, in passing Tennessee’s “sunshine law” was careful to exempt themselves from the restrictions. This bill would have little real impact, since local officials get together over a Shoney’s salad bar or a Hardee’s breakfast and talk about public business all the time. It’s technically a violation of the sunshine law but few people, including the media, ever challenge them on these social violations.

The difference is that if this new law is enacted, county officials could make the secrecy official and schedule meetings to discuss policies, as long as they are one vote short of an official quorum for conducting business. Six or seven commissioners or four school board members could have all the secret meetings they want.

Another resolution that the commission is being asked to endorse is “in support of the rights of the people to keep and bear arms.” Sounds like something our local county commission should jump on with both feet, doesn’t it? Endorse the Second Amendment of the Constitution, and protect the rights of legal, law-abiding gun owners who just want the right to protect themselves, or hunt deer or collect antique guns.

Again, we come up against words. The final paragraph in the resolution reads that the county commission “Supports and requests the legislature of the State of Tennessee adopt and enact any and all measures as may be necessary to reject or nullify the enforcement of any federal acts, laws, executive orders, rules or regulations in violation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States . . .”

The word can be a powerful thing. In this case the word is “nullify.” The Constitution of the United States also denies states the power to nullify federal law. The State of South Carolina tried that back nearly 200 years ago. The state “nullified” federal trade tariffs that South Carolina felt were hurting business in the Port of Charleston.

The President of the United States sent South Carolina a message. He threatened to send the Navy to blockade Charleston, declare martial law, send the Army to occupy the state and jail the entire state legislature. South Carolina backed down. The state’s politicians knew the President, a hard-nosed Tennessean by the name of Andrew Jackson, did not make idle threats.

If the Congress, by some miracle, was to actually pass a law restricting automatic weapons or high capacity ammo magazines, it would more than likely not be a violation of the Second Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to keep and bear arms but doesn’t define what those arms may be. Congress already passed a automatic weapons ban once, a couple of decades ago, but the law was allowed to expire.

If such a law is unconstitutional, the courts will quickly strike it down. Meanwhile, any attempt by a state government to nullify a federal law would definitely violate the Constitution. The ghost of Andy Jackson might rise from his tomb at the Hermitage and lead the ghosts of 250,000 Tennesseans who fought for the Union during the Civil War in sweeping the rabble out of the state capitol, if the current President doesn’t order the 101st Airborne to do it first.

One final word about words. The word “entitlement” has certainly gotten a lot of play lately, especially among conservative politicians and conservative pundits who bandy it around in much the same way they did “welfare.”

Entitlements? Aren’t they the things that are bringing our country to ruin because lazy people who don’t want to accept personal responsibility are relying on entitlements to live off hard-working Americans while that socialist Obama turns our country into a welfare Euro-state?

I just started collecting my entitlement last month, in the form of a social security check. This year I reach the unenviable age of 66, at which point I can continue to work full time and draw my social security without penalty. I opted not to wait until age 70 in hope that I might be able to pay off my debts before I reach an age where I can no longer work.

Of course the check I draw is merely paying back some of the money that has been held out of my pay checks for the past 40-odd years that I have worked and paid taxes. If I’m really, really lucky, I might live long enough to collect everything I paid in, plus some of the interest that money would have earned.

As long as I continue to work and earn over $25,000 a year, I will also have to pay income tax on my social security income. Since federal income tax is calculated on net income before social security is withheld, I am in essence paying taxes on the same money twice.

That is my personal “entitlement.” Next time I hear somebody toss that word around like it’s a federal giveaway program for welfare bums, I will feel entitled to reach down their throat, pull out their tongue and tie it around their nose. They won’t really miss their tongue anyway, since they do all their talking out of the other end. (UPDATED FOR THE WEEK OF MONDAY, MARCH 18, 2013, 6:00 AM)  

Academy Awards miss out, ignore school board and Stacey Campfield

I have a confession to make. I purposely delayed writing this column until Sunday night, after watching the Academy Award show. I wanted to see if the Campbell County Board of Education was going to get a last minute nomination, but ended up disappointed.

Alas, there is no justice in the world and true talent for theatrics again goes unnoticed. But our county commission recognized the talent when they saw it. Last Tuesday night the squires met, quickly dispensed with business by agreeing with each other on an unprecedented ten consecutive unanimous votes, and went home. They knew they couldn’t hold a candle to the school board in the “Best Actor” category and didn’t even make the attempt.

There is certainly some strong competition, however, if one’s gaze is drawn to our state capitol, where the General Assembly is in full swing.

Let’s see, we have bills to allow guns in parking lots, bills to require teachers to become armed guards and bills to require Tennessee law enforcement officers to arrest federal law enforcement officials who try to enforce federal gun control laws in our state.

We tried that once before, I recall. Got our butts kicked at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Missionary Ridge, Fort Sanders, Franklin and Nashville, to name but a few. The Confederate States of America persuaded Tennessee to leave the Union and join the Southern cause.

Later, they told us, “Oh, we forgot to mention, since ya’ll are on the border, we’ll fight all our battles in Tennessee, leave the state devastated, your crops trampled, horses stolen, cattle slaughtered, chickens plucked and courthouses burned, but don’t ya’ll fret, it’s for a good cause!”

Now the TEA Party crowd in Congress wants Tennessee’s Congressional delegation to join in their rebellion against the big bad federal government by letting us plunge over the cliff, lemming style, as the March 1 deadline for automatic budget cuts takes effect.

Later, the Republicans from Kansas, Indiana and Mississippi will undoubtedly say, “Oh, we forgot to tell you that between Oak Ridge, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Fort Campbell, the Army Corps of Engineers, TVA and Tullahoma, you Tennesseans will suffer about ten times as many layoffs and job losses as our states, but don’t you’uns fret none, it’s for a good cause!”

Hmmm. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

But back to the subject of dramatics and academy awards, I have one final suggestion. Stacey Campfield.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel ran an article last week entitled “Who keeps electing Stacey Campfield?” They tried to make sense of how a clown who has been a regular butt of jokes by Stephen Colbert and other national comedians can not only get re-elected, but has advanced from the lowly House to the powerful Senate down in Nashville.

They reviewed Stacey’s track record: his early attempts to gain admission to the Black Legislative Caucus, his “Don’t say gay” bill, his bill to arm classroom teachers and his bill to cut welfare payments to families if children do poorly in school.

The News-Sentinel failed to come up with an adequate answer as to why Stacey keeps getting re-elected or even why he does the things he does, but I think I’ve figured it out. Stacey Campfield is neither a clown nor a fool, He is a political genius.

Think about the district he represents, West Knox County, Sequoyah Hills, Concord and Farragut. These are people who live in mansions on Fort Loudon Lake, or in upscale, gated communities in Knox County’s most wealthy neighborhoods. They have memberships in Cherokee Country Club, lifetime memberships in the Vol Navy and season tickets on the fifty at Neyland Stadium. They shop at Turkey Creek, dine at the Orangery and dress their registered bull terriers in matching jacket and booties.

These people, the voters who keep Stacey Campfield in office, don’t need anything from state government. Their idea of a perfect legislature is one that will do as little as possible and leave them alone with their money.

Like all Americans, however, they do like to be entertained. Stacey always manages to introduce a bill or two down in Nashville that entertains, and gets the attention of news media desperate for anything to entertain their readers and viewers.

Even before he was in a position to introduce legislation, Stacey knew the value of a good show. While running in his first, unsuccessful campaign for the legislature, he managed to make headlines by getting himself tossed out of a barbeque sponsored by Congressman Jimmy Duncan when he tailed Governor Phil Bredesen around with a sign reading “Tax and Spend Governor.”

One year, after the legislative session was long past and Stacey found himself hard-pressed to entertain his constituents, he donned a Halloween mask and tried to gain admittance to the Tennessee-Kentucky game. When he later put the mask back on and refused to remove it, he was unceremoniously tossed out of the stadium. More headlines; more entertainment for the masses.

He purposely insults his critics in emails and blogs, suggesting they may need psychiatric help. When the manager of a Market Square restaurant refused to serve him, he was ecstatic. More publicity, more entertainment!

So here’s to ya, Stacey, you old fox. You may be the butt of late night comedians, banned from Tomato Head and an embarrassment to your fellow Republicans, but you will probably stay in office as long as you keep coming up with new material.

But be forewarned. Once the jokes get old and the material stale, the public will seek a new act and you’ll be forced to seek a living doing stand-up comedy at a gay nightclub in Vegas.  (UPDATED FOR THE WEEK OF MONDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2013, 6:30 AM)  

 

‘Doing the Little Sidestep’ – school board meeting or just a bad dream?

Boomer's Corner - Charles "Boomer" Winfrey

I had the strangest dream Tuesday night. Woke me up with a start around 2:00 A.M. I was thrust into the middle of a movie, one that any of you who, like me are on the backside of 50, will recall vividly even if you didn’t see it. Dolly Parton fans will certainly recall her role in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

The film was a musical comedy that appeared in theaters in the early ‘80s, starring Dolly as the madam of “The Chicken Ranch,” a legendary bordello of such historic renown and tradition that the winning football team in the annual Texas-Texas A&M Thanksgiving game was always treated to a night with the ladies, paid for by loyal alumni while university officials looked the other way.

In the film a crusading journalist slips a camera crew into the ranch, filming scantily-clad ladies scampering in all directions until the local sheriff (Burt Reynolds) tosses the intruders out.

The crusader, played by comedian Dom Deluise has his proof, however, and kicks off his television expose with a little song & dance number, “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It!” In my dream, however, Dom Deluise is replaced by our very own R. L. Gibson. I didn’t know R.L. could carry a tune, but then this was a dream after all.

Cut to the chase. My dream continued with Dolly and Burt doing a few songs together. (Unfortunately for the film, Burt could not carry a tune) until we get to the big song & dance production at the state capitol.

In the movie, the Texas governor is faced with a dilemma – a knot of good ole boys and major contributors on one side who insist that the traditions of the Chicken Ranch be upheld, while a parade of protestors, led by Christian ladies’ sewing circles from across the state, demand that the house of ill repute be closed down.

The governor does this hilarious number, where he dances to one side of the stage, tips his ten-gallon hat to the good ole boys, then shuttles across to the other side, reversing his hat as he sings and dances “The Little Sidestep.”

Only in my dream, this number is played out by a chorus – the Campbell County school board, all dancing across the stage in unison to “The Little Sidestep,” ten-gallon hats and all. Over in one corner, Eugene Lawson sits alone on a stool, wearing a dunce cap and scowling at the show.

As you can imagine, this is the point where I woke up, my T-shirt soaked in sweat, and realized I had not yet finished my report for Channel 12 on the recent school board meeting.

Say what you will, the school board can rival the cast of “Best Little Whorehouse” for drama and entertainment value. Rector Miller opened the proceedings by reaffirming his love and respect for Director Donnie Poston and telling folks that his lone concern had been the fact that Donnie didn’t appear willing to fight off the evil Finance Director, Jeff “Moneybags” Marlow over potential teacher lay-offs in the upcoming year.

“Mr. Poston assures me that he will do everything he can to avoid losing another twelve teachers. I’m going to support you, Mr. Poston, for as long as you want to remain Director,” Rector proclaimed, with a tip of his ten-gallon hat.

Rector asked me if I couldn’t say something nice about him this week for a change, so I will. Rector, you are even more eloquent than the Texas governor in the film, and in my dream’s dance sequence, you’ve got some really nice moves!

Danny Wilson was next to speak at the meeting. Danny supported Director Poston from the get-go, but there appears to have been some unfortunate exchanges with his fellow First District board member, the contents of which we can only imagine. Danny offered his sincere apologies to Rector for “things said,” although most in the audience had no idea what was said by who about whom for what reason.

Once all the speechifying and peacemaking was complete Johnny Byrge, another of the original “Get rid of Donnie” group, offered a motion to schedule a special called meeting at the end of the mandatory 15-day public notification period, “For the purpose of extending the contract of Donnie Poston as Director of Schools.”

The motion passed by a unanimous vote of 10-0, the audience applauded and ten-gallon hats were tossed into the air. Everybody loves a happy ending.

Well, most folks do. My money is on Eugene Lawson to vote “no” on extending the contract. A teacher I ran into after the meeting said, “Eugene is going to live forever. God will keep him around to give him a chance to change his ways, but he’s too stubborn to change.”

Probably so, but disagree or not, I confess that I admire Eugene for sticking to his guns, even if he’s dead wrong. You always know what he’s thinking and as Moneybags Marlow told county commissioners on Monday night, “I hope everyone of you gets re-elected to office. I prefer the devil you know to the devil you don’t know every time.”

Some of the squires didn’t seem overly pleased to be referred to as “the devils I know,” but then that’s Moneybags for you. He is a master at working with figures, keeping the county out of financial hot water and finding ways to get things done despite commissioners’ propensity for wanting to get things done without paying for it.

Where Jeff differs from other accountants and money czars is that he’s not afraid to voice his opinion, sometimes in rather plain English, sometimes peppered with some colorful adjectives unprintable in family publications.

He told the school board at one point Tuesday night, “I go over to a county commission meeting and they give me grief because they accuse me of representing the school board. I come to a school board meeting and you accuse me of representing the county commission.”

The truth is, Moneybags is not personally the target of official disdain, so much as the position, “Director of Finance.” This county, some of you may recall, was dragged kicking and screaming into the Financial Management System from the get-go. The commission would never have voted to adopt a system that set one person up with control and oversight over all money matters, if a delegation of bankers and business leaders had not insisted upon it.

Those community leaders, fed up with budget mismanagement at every level of county government, more or less suggested that they would dedicate however much of the money they controlled to financing the electoral defeat of every commissioner if something wasn’t done. The squires got the message. They didn’t like it, but they got it.

The school department was another matter, and stubbornly held out for some time, wanting to control their own money in-house as they had always done. The year the school budget was so far out of balance that the board and Superintendent had to cancel bus service for the last month of the school year was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and soon the voting public elected some new leaders and the school department’s bookkeepers were transferred to the Finance Office.

But bowing to pressure and doing it doesn’t mean they liked it. Marlow is the subject of rumors from every corner, questions about whether he is favoring certain vendors and contractors, or paying his help too much, or simply not treating other officials with the respect they deserve. Every time a vendor gets a contract to do work for the county, somebody in county government suspects foul play, it appears.

Moneybags may have his faults, but I can only make one observation. If he’s doing all these things that are unethical or illegal or simply immoral, and given the number of people out there who are out to get him, and given the fact that the state comptroller’s office keeps a sharp eye on the books, why is he not behind bars by now? Marlow has, after all, served under two county executives, two county mayors, an interim county executive and comptrollers for at least three, maybe four governors.

Nah, he just gets under people’s skin. Now he’s probably gotten under the skin of yet another person, school board attorney Dail Cantrell. Jeff announced at the board meeting that the State Department of Finance has finally ruled on a request he made over a year ago, to look into allegations that coal mined in Campbell County had been credited to Anderson County and the severance tax sent to Clinton.

Yours truly had a small role in this little adventure as well, when Moneybags asked me to investigate whether Campbell County was getting all of the severance tax it was entitled to. He suspected, based on production figures and severance tax payments, that somebody wasn’t paying their taxes.

What I discovered was that Premium Coal Company was operating a mine in Campbell County but no severance tax was being paid to Campbell County. Premium wasn’t cheating, however. They were paying the tax but since their tipple and business office is in Anderson County, the state was sending everything Premium paid to Anderson County. Oops.

Moneybags requested a correction. The state took its time but finally agreed with us. They denied Moneybags’ request for $240,000 in misallocated funds, I assume because too much time had passed, but agreed to give Campbell County $120,000 from future severance tax owed to Anderson County.

The catch is, nobody is currently mining coal in Anderson County, so we’re going to have to wait awhile, hopefully a short while. Where does Dail Cantrell fit into this tale, you ask?

Dail is on the school board in Anderson County. Our schools will eventually get $60,000 out of this severance tax correction with the other half going to Dennis Potter for asphalt. Dail’s school board will kiss $60,000 goodbye. Might make those checks he gets for serving as our board attorney a little less sweet, since his school system is paying for them. Hi Ho. (UPDATED THURSDAY, FEB 14, 2013, 6:00 AM)    

 

“Unsurpassed integrity” or the lawyer whose mouth is moving: who to believe?

This past week has been a sad one for me, on more than one level. First came the realization, after the LaFollette Press hit the streets last week, that Donnie Poston will probably not continue as Director of Schools after his contract expires this year.

The school board, or is that “fool board,” deadlocked 4-4 at their January meeting on a motion to extend Poston’s contract. Since they had voted tentatively 9-1 in December to extend it another year if some changes were made, it appeared this might just be some shucking and jiving by one or more board members flexing their muscles.

After reading the newspaper interview with Poston, that appears to not be the case, and whatever bridges were left standing may be burned beyond repair.

Eugene Lawson, who has already landed the board in litigation over his propensity for speaking his mind, even when his mind goes blank and his comments border on libelous, appears to be the spark behind the latest explosion as well.

Poston told the Press that Lawson and Rector Miller visited him in his office in November, where Lawson gave Poston the names of three school system employees he wanted terminated in exchange for Lawson’s vote to retain Poston as Director of Schools.

Lawson, of course, denies any such thing, but Miller took a dive, telling the Press, “On advice of my counsel right now, I have been advised not to comment on that.”

Hmmm. Miller also told the Press that he considers Poston an “outstanding Christian” with “integrity that is unsurpassed” but feels some changes need to be made in the school system.

If Miller was present at the alleged meeting between Lawson and Poston, and if Poston claims Lawson demanded the firing of three employees in exchange for his vote, and if Miller still considers Donnie Poston to have “integrity that is unsurpassed,” well, I’ll leave it up to you readers to decide who you believe.

Eugene, for his part, has the support of board attorney Dail Cantrell. Poston also told the Press that he spoke with Cantrell about the alleged meeting later that afternoon, but Cantrell denied the story.

“Based on my investigation, that did not occur, and I don’t have a problem making a public statement to that effect. I have no clue as to how this story has ever gotten out,” Cantrell said, adding, “It’s a story that I’ve now heard repeated, but based on my investigation, that exchange did not occur.”

I assume Cantrell’s investigation involved asking Eugene and Rector if they met with Poston and if Eugene actually asked for the heads of three employees. I can only guess as to what they told him, but I keep coming back to that old joke: “How do you know if a lawyer is lying or not? Look to see if his lips are moving.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Dail Cantrell would tell anything other than the truth, of course. But I keep recalling a lawyer friend of mine who once told me, “There are many kinds of truths.” Cantrell does work for the Board of Education, remember, and not the Director of Schools.

So where does this leave the Campbell County school system? Some directors would go screaming and kicking out the door, filing lawsuits left and right, transferring relatives of school board members to Stony Fork (when that was an option) and conducting a scorched earth policy as they wreck the Central Office and disrupt the entire school system on their way out.

Donnie Poston is too much the nice guy to do any such thing. He served briefly on the county commission back a couple of decades ago and decided to not run for re-election because he was disgusted with all the seamy politics going on around him.

He told the Press, “For the sake of the kids let’s make a smooth transition.” The board could bring the contract up for another vote at their next meeting, but Poston said he doesn’t want that.

“We need to do everything we can as professionals. I’m not a politician,” Poston said. “That just gets me back on course to what I’d originally offered to start with and planned to do. I have a peace it’s hard to describe.”

Donnie Poston may be at peace, but if Campbell County parents give a tinker’s dang about their school system and the future of their children, the Campbell County Board of Education may see anything but peace in the upcoming year.

This particular school board is, in my humble opinion, close to being a failed institution. There is entirely too much political maneuvering going on behind the scenes, too many board members with personal agendas, too little real concern for the future of the children and too much just plain meanness.

I chalk much of it up to too much testosterone. If ever a school board needed a few strong women to tone down the bar room bull, this board is a prime candidate. It’s a while yet until the next election, but it’s certainly not too early for parents to get involved and let this board know they’re being watched. Might be nice to see a few more people in the audience at board meetings who aren’t school employees for a change.

Another sad moment for me probably went unnoticed in Campbell County and for that matter, received scant notice in the Knoxville press as well. This week Stan Musial died in St. Louis at the ripe old age of 92.

Who, you ask, is Stan Musial? Well, here in Big Orange Country where serious baseball fans are few and far between, and where the handful of serious baseball fans are hard pressed to recall anyone who hasn’t played the game in over half a century, the name probably means little.

In the City of St Louis, I imagine they will close city hall, shut down the Budweiser brewery, let out the schools and drape the Riverfront Arch in black. “Stan the Man” meant that much to fans of the St Louis Cardinals and many baseball fans around the country.

Musial played outfield back in the 1940s and ‘50s, retiring in 1963 after breaking practically every National League hitting record on the books. Except home runs – he didn’t usually hit those towering fly balls that would float up into the upper deck and threaten to bring rain.

Stan was one of those line drive hitters whose home runs left the park at the speed of a jet airplane but as often as not banged off the outfield wall, so he set records for batting average, hits. doubles, runs, RBIs and all those other little things while usually only hitting 30-40 homers a year.

But it was the way in which he went about playing the game that would be his lasting legacy. Defined by the news media as “baseball’s perfect knight,” Musial seldom argued with umpires and never complained when a pitcher threw a ball too close to his head. He would simply get up, dust off his uniform and knock the next pitch into the Mississippi River, Lake Michigan or San Francisco Bay, depending on where they were playing.

He was never in so much of a hurry that he wouldn’t take time to give a kid an autograph, and in an era when ballplayers didn’t make millions of dollars (Stan’s salary topped out at around $120,000 a year), he was notoriously generous with charities.

When the first African-American ballplayers began to break the color barrier in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Musial was one of a handful of white ballplayers who spoke out against the racism they saw in the dugouts, and went out of his way to make players like Jackie Robinson feel at ease.

I became a Cardinal fan back in the late ‘50s. The only baseball team you could watch on local television was the hated New York Yankees but if you lived in East Tennessee, you could always pick up KMOX Radio, “The Voice of the St Louis Cardinals,” at night with Jack Buck and Harry Carey announcing the games.

Finally, one year when my family was taking a trip to Iowa to visit relatives, my dad agreed to go by way of St Louis so I could see my heroes play as a birthday present.

We ordered tickets two rows up behind the Cardinal dugout along the baseline in old Sportsman’s Park. Late in the first game of a double-header, Stan the Man fouled a ball off into the stands. My dad, who was not at all a baseball fan, trampled several people and nearly broke his back to retrieve that ball for me.

He paid a ball boy ten bucks to take it into the dugout and see if Stan would autograph it. Musial had reached base on a force play and then went into the field so it was a long time before he returned to the dugout. Quite a bit of time passed and we thought either a) the ball boy forgot about us or b) Stan the Man was too busy to bother with autographs.

Suddenly Stan stepped to the front of the dugout and motioned the ball boy over, sending him up our way with the prized baseball, a smile and a wave.

“Since Stan was out running the bases, they just sort of passed it around the dugout so a whole lot of the team signed it as well,” the boy told my father.

Still got that ball. The scratch where it bounced off a railing is still visible, along with the signatures of Stan Musial, his buddy and fellow Hall of Fame player Red Schoendienst, outfielder Curt Flood and a little-known pitcher named Bob Gibson, plus a few more of my childhood heroes. (UPDATED AT NOON ON 01/25/2013 FOR THE WEEK OF 01/21/2013)    

 

Gun debate ranges from contentious to outrageous to just plain insanity

Just another typical week in Campbell County. Jellico teeters on the brink, La Follette officials have egg on their faces and the school board doesn’t know whether to go forward, backward or just stand still and hope nobody will notice them.

There are questions unanswered of course. Will the IRS padlock the City of Jellico? Why, exactly, did Hansford and Cade have to go all the way to Memphis to discuss a program with the State Department of Corrections and why did nobody else at LaFollette City Hall know anything about it? More to the point, did anyone at the Department of Corrections know anything about it?

Is Donnie Poston’s job in jeopardy or are some school board members just flexing their muscles by voting against his contract extension after voting for it a month earlier?

I’m still waiting for answers to these questions myself, so have no opinions to share, at least not until more facts emerge. Did Hansford Hatmaker, as the rumor mill has it, really drive a city vehicle clear across the state to watch a lady friend graduate from a prison rehab program?

Facts are fuzzy but one thing is certain. I don’t want Hansford serving as my designated driver anytime soon.

Is there reason to suspect illegal activities at Jellico City Hall, where the town appears to have failed to pay employees’ withholding taxes to Uncle Sam, or is it merely a matter of not enough revenue to pay the bills and putting off paying Peter in order to pay Paul?

Facts again are fuzzy, but the one thing that is certain is that Jellico needs more revenue, and that will mean higher taxes if the city is to continue to function. The other fact that seems clear is that whoever was in charge of auditing the city’s books has failed miserably.

While we must wait on more facts to make any informed comments about local events, that is certainly not the case in the national debate over gun control. There have been more than enough comments, both informed and uninformed, to turn anyone’s stomach, most of those comments serving one of the numerous vested interests on one side or the other.

The President has finally come out with his list of recommendations. It include bans on automatic weapons and high capacity magazines as well as universal background checks on anyone buying guns, plugging the gun show loopholes. Good luck on any of those, which will require the cooperation of Congress.

He can, without the help of Congress, push for more stringent enforcement of existing laws. I noticed on the news that of the 79,000 people nationally who have failed background checks or been found to have lied on background checks, only 41 have been prosecuted.

Since even the NRA has voiced support for stronger enforcement of existing laws, I suspect that we will see more federal sting operations such as the one that just landed Roane County’s infamous Houston brothers in federal custody for possession of firearms by a) a felon and b) while in possession of illegal drugs.

An outright ban on assault rifles and high capacity ammo clips will probably still be debated in Congress when the next mass killing occurs, and the next after that. If those massacres occur in schools, we will see more schools take on the appearance of armed camps, which will suit the NRA just fine. More armed guards and armed teachers will mean more gun sales by the firearms manufacturers that bankroll the NRA.

I wonder if the NRA would still be pushing armed guards in every school or arming and training teachers if the federal government suddenly agreed, and because such programs would cost billions of dollars, announced new federal taxes on the sale of guns, with higher rates on assault weapons, in order to pay the price tag?

Meanwhile, even if Congress should by some miracle pass a law that limits assault weapons, gun happy states like Tennessee have fearless legislatures prepared once again to take on the big bad federal government. Rep. Frank “I hate TWRA” Niceley and Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cocke County, home to moonshiners, pot growers, chop shop and cock fighting rings and corrupt law enforcement, have teamed up to save the day for Tennessee gun owners.

Niceley and Faison are offering a bill to prohibit the expenditure of state or local funds to enforce any new federal gun control laws, and to prohibit local and state agencies from enforcing federal laws unless Uncle Sam foots the bill.

Of course a lot of state and local officials are tired of unfunded federal mandates that put more burden on local taxpayers. The Niceley-Faison bill may be “In-your-face Uncle Sam,” but others are probably more dangerous, including one by Cleveland’s Rep. Eric Watson to allow permit holders to take their handguns into schools, with proper training and the school superintendent’s approval, of course.

The debate in Congress and state legislatures promises to be heated and contentious, but at least predictable and more or less sane. Not so, some of the comments and discussion appearing in local letters to the editor or on the Internet, where insanity can be shared freely with the public.

Probably the most disgusting report I’ve heard is about conspiracy theory nuts who have been attacking the parents and victims of the mass shooting in Newtown, accusing them of being part of a government conspiracy to take away guns and even going so far as suggesting Newtown was faked by the government and the victims don’t really exist.

Parents who have just lost a beautiful six-year-old child to a senseless act of murder have enough to deal with. They don’t need to learn they are being called liars and actors by Internet conspiracy nuts, set on providing inspiration for the next crazed gunman.

I noticed a letter in the News-Sentinel today from a fellow named Tom Ferguson that pretty well says it all. Speaking of the Bushmaster rifle used in Newtown, Ferguson declares, “All but the willfully ignorant know that this rifle and hundreds like it are not intended for hunting or sport shooting. They are paramilitary weapons that are intended for paramilitary use.”

Ferguson continues, “The Second Amendment was enshrined in the Constitution, not to hunt Bambi or shoot sporting clays, but to oppose all enemies foreign and domestic, and to protect against civil disorder and tyranny. . . Why would anybody need a gun like that? Because we are not serfs. We are a free people living in a republic of our own design. We may consent to be governed, but we will not be ruled.”

Hmmm. I have not been a gun owner myself since my 20s. Never felt a need to have one, personally, but Mr. Ferguson’s letter may lead me to change my mind. I really feel like perhaps I need to arm myself for protection against people like Tom Ferguson.   (UPDATED AT 7:00 AM ON 01/16/2013 FOR THE WEEK OF 01/14/2013)    

A sad moment for all us dreamers, NASA plans to hold a fire sale

This week has been a real challenge: What to write about in this first full week of 2013? The rest of the scribbling, blogging and talking head world is still fixated on guns in schools, fiscal cliffs, Superstorm Sandy and how much everyone hates Congress.

Tough. I’ve already said all there is to say about guns in schools, particularly turning teachers into armed guards – “BAD IDEA.”

 Like the rest of America, I’m suffering from fiscal cliff fatigue and we’ve got at least two more fiscal cliffs approaching. This will give the media plenty to talk about besides the weather and give Washington at least two more opportunities to plunge us all back into another recession.

Republican lawmakers in the Northeast discovered the hard way just how far party loyalty goes with Republican lawmakers in Kansas, when the latter dropped the hammer on the former and refused to vote to let go of disaster recovery funds.

I can’t wait to see what happens when the next string of killer tornadoes or crippling floods hits the Midwest and those Republican lawmakers go searching for disaster aid.

Seems some hard right Pachyderms take their “no tax” pledge to Grover Norquist more seriously than their oath of office. There used to be a time when we called that sort of thing “high treason,” but oh yeah, that was the conservatives talking about far left liberals back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when everyone feared that the Russians were coming.

As far as Congress, it’s amazing that only eleven percent of Americans approve of the job done by the recently expired 112th Congress, and yet most of those turkeys won re-election. One pundit wrote that we need to hunt down that eleven percent and separate them from the rest of society.

I disagree. We need to find that eleven percent, and whether we agree with them or not, give them government jobs. They are the only honest people around willing to stand behind their secret ballots. At least half the country, those yahoos who voted for Congressman X, then tell the pollsters they disapprove of Congress, are hypocrites at best, bald-faced liars at worst.

I can safely say this because I haven’t voted for an incumbent congressman since . . . I’ve not sure I’ve ever voted for an incumbent congressman. I did vote for an incumbent congresswoman, Marilyn Lloyd. I think the answer to our country’s Congressional nightmare is to put more women in charge.

This is only appropriate. Women generally outlive men, so in the end they wind up owning everything. That means if the country goes down the financial tubes and China forecloses on Disney World, women will lose the most while we guys will just take our guns and go fishing.

You want something done right, put people in charge who have the most to gain or lose.

So now that I’ve talked about all the important issues of the day, what’s left? How about space exploration? Now that the space shuttle program is history, NASA is having a fire sale at Kennedy Space Center. For a few measly millions, you can buy the launch pad that sent the shuttles into space, or lease the Saturn rocket assembly building or a 15,000-foot landing strip.

I personally find this very sad. I grew up during that magic period when the most important thing driving America was the race to beat the Russians to the Moon. The thrill of John Glenn’s first orbit around the Earth, Neal Armstrong’s “one small step, one giant leap,” the agony of the loss of Apollo I and the Challenger shuttle, these were moments that froze time, that not only left all Americans, but the entire world riveted to their television sets and radios.

Neal Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface not just for America, but for all mankind. Now the remnants of those great accomplishments are left to rust in a Florida marsh unless the government can find buyers.

The space agency hopes to find takers among the world’s private individuals and corporations. Now that we’ve spent billions of taxpayer dollars paving the way into space and the moon, it’s time to let private enterprise move in and find a way to make a profit from all that government technology and research.

Perhaps NBC will launch their own weather satellites in the future, as the old ones fall into disrepair. They can charge the government a fee to let them in on where and when the next hurricane will strike – or FEMA can just stay tuned to the Weather Channel.

The Prison Corporation of America might want to look into building orbiting lock-ups, or even construct a maximum-security facility on the Moon or Mars. The initial costs will be astronomical but think of how much can be saved on maintenance and security! No guards, just a robot or two.

Too much science fiction for you? Well, we could just handle space technology the way we (and the Russians) handle international relations, by selling arms and armaments. We can lease a few spy satellites and orbiting missile platforms to Israel. The Russians can then sell spy satellites and missile platforms to Iran. Everybody’s happy, at least until al Qaida hijacks one and fires on Hollywood.

Seriously, despite the cost, I hope we will continue to push the envelope in exploring space. There is so much to learn. Think about it, we were clueless about how the Solar System and Universe formed until scientists looked into deep space from outside our atmosphere. We weren’t really sure how old our Earth was until we brought back and dated rocks from the Moon.

If we hope to save our Earth from our own destructive activities, we need to fully understand what makes it different from the uninhabitable planets, why Mars lost its atmosphere, where our water came from, is it possible to create an atmosphere where one does not exist?

Many Christians may feel that there is nothing to learn, that our Bible says it all. As I often tell my science enrichment students at Valley View, the Bible tells us what happened, but the ancient Israelites didn’t have the knowledge to explain how it happened. That is left to science.

I once hoped to live long enough to see men walk on Mars. I think the current state of the world makes that highly unlikely, but I would like to think that those ten and eleven-year-olds in my class will see it happen. Who knows, one of those budding young scientists might even help make it happen. We humans, after all, have always based our dreams in the heavens.   (UPDATED AT 10:00 AM ON 01/14/2013 FOR THE WEEK OF 01/07/2013)       

 

Think 2012 was a rough year? Look at fractured forecasts for “Lucky ‘13”

All in all, 2012 was a pretty good year. Even that 48 % who voted against Barack Obama found a few things worth smiling about – the economy improved, we finally got Osama bin Ladin, and the election?  It could have been worse. Think President Donald Trump.

On the other hand, Mother Nature continued to fight back in the war that we humans are destined to lose. Tornados, Superstorm Sandy, drought, wildfire and floods continue to remind us who is boss, and it ain’t the TEA Party, pilgrims.

But enough about what has been. What can we look forward to in 2013? Will things continue to look up or will we discover, to our horror, that due to an error in counting, the Mayans actually meant to predict January 21 as the day the world will end?

Once again I humbly present my own predictions, and give you Boomer’s Fractured Forecasts for the year “Lucky ‘13.”

January – Congress fails to find a compromise and the nation falls off the fiscal cliff. Markets are in turmoil, many businesses close their doors and millions of taxpayers prepare to march on Washington with vats of boiling oil. The City of Jellico, however, holds a massive New Years’ Day celebration at the Church of God Tabernacle.

“Finally Jellico has caught up with the rest of the country,” Mayor Les Stiers announces. “Now we’re all up the creek without a paddle.”

February - Campbell County School Board member Eugene Lawson resigns his seat, announcing that it would be a conflict of interest now that he has been hired as the chief contract negotiator for the American Federation of Teachers.

“The only way we figured we could keep Eugene off our backs is if we’re paying his salary,” AFT president Sharon Marlow explains. “And besides, he has such compassion for the challenges faced by teachers.”

March – State Senator Stacy Campfield introduces a bill in the Tennessee Legislature mandating that all public school teachers be provided with side arms and required to wear them at all times in school. The bill is later amended by lobbyists for the National Rifle association to include pastors, hospital orderlies and football coaches.

Meanwhile in Washington, it is revealed that Tennessee Congressman Scott Desjarlais once operated an abortion clinic in Louisville, Kentucky. Despite this news, a poll of Fourth District voters shows that Desjarlais enjoys an 87 percent approval rating.

April – Torrential spring rains fall on Campbell County and an underground river floods the excavation site of the new Campbell County Justice Center. After repeated attempts to drain the flooded hole prove unsuccessful, the architects present an alternate plan to construct the jail above a basement level swimming pool.

“This will cost the county an additional $5 million, but you can then lease the facility to the federal government for incarcerating white collar criminals. The pool will be a nice touch,” a representative of the architectural firm Bustem, Cheatem & Scratch points out.

In Nashville, legislation to require teachers and others to wear side arms while working runs into problems. To pay the costs of buying all that firepower, sponsor Stacy Campfield adds an amendment to his bill that would place an additional tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition. The NRA immediately drops its support of the legislation.

May Campbell County commissioners begin the process of reviewing the upcoming fiscal year budget and are surprised when Road Superintendent Dennis Potter announces that he has no need for additional money to pave roads. “I’ve managed to pave over 50 miles of county roads this year and plan to pave another 50 miles next year,” Potter tells the commission.

“You’ve managed to pay for all that asphalt without a tax increase?” Commissioner Bobby White asked.

“You would be surprised at what you can do with careful money management,” Potter replied.

June University of Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart announces that an analysis of the football recruiting class for the upcoming season shows that the Tennessee Volunteers rank number 122 nationally, slightly below Wofford College and only slightly above the University of Kentucky.

“With this in mind, there is no way UT can have a winning season for at least the next three years, so we’re decided to go ahead and fire Coach Butch Jones and his staff now, before the season starts. This will give UT a head start in the search for a new coach.”

When asked how UT athletics can afford to pay off another $12 million in contracts before the staff has even coached a single game, Hart replied, “We have discovered that the athletic department holds the deed to all UT campus parking. From now on the University of Tennessee must pay the athletic department rent on those parking lots or students and faculty will have to park downtown and walk to school.”

“We’re also shaving the costs of athletic department personnel, “Hart added. “As an example, we’ve laid off our public relations department and hired a veteran sportswriter from Campbell County, Dwane Wilder, to head up media relations. Dwane knows his job, but having worked for outfits like WLAF and the LaFollette Press, he’s accustomed to working cheap.”   

July – A Washington D.C. watchdog group announces that it has proof that Tennessee Congressman Scott Desjarlais was once a business partner of Doctor Victor Kevorkian, providing assisted suicide services in the Chicago area. A poll of likely Fourth Disrtrict voters shows that Desjarlais’ approval rating has increased to 94 percent.

August Campbell County is rocked by a 5.3 magnitude earthquake. The quake causes only minor damage to buildings and other structures, but the underground river feeding the Olympic swimming pool in the basement of the new Justice Center vanishes and the pool can no longer hold water.

“Too bad. We just finished redesigning the jail to accommodate the subsurface swimming pool. Well, it’s back to the old drawing board,” architects tell the county commission.

At the same meeting commissioners prepare to vote on a 5-cent property tax increase to pay for design changes in the Justice Center. Commission watchdog James Slusher protests the proposed tax increase, telling commissioners, “Why can’t you operate the county like Dennis Potter operates the highway department? Fifty miles of paved roads and he’s not begged for a penny of taxpayers’ money.”

September – In the early hours of Labor Day Monday, two elderly PETA members, a Catholic nun and a Hindu pediatrician slip through security at the Campbell County Animal Shelter and release 136 dogs and cats, two hamsters and a Thanksgiving turkey from their cages into the wild, scribbling “God loves all creatures” on the side of the building and covering the office with used kitty litter.

An investigation results in the suspension of two unpaid volunteers for security lapses while Senator Stacy Campfield promises to pass legislation to arm all animal shelter employees across the state.

October – In the most damning revelations yet, Congressman Scott Desjarlais admits that he is a regular contributor to National Public Radio, once allowed his children to watch Sesame Street on TV and although a strong defender of the Second Amendment, personally does not own a gun. His approval rating among likely voters in the Fourth Congressional District dips to a historic low at 18 percent.

November – A state safety inspector visits the Campbell County garage and notices something mysterious: several vehicles in various stages of disassembly and a trailer from an 18-wheel rig filled with bootleg Hostess Twinkies.

Agents from the TBI, ATF, FBI and Interstate Commerce Commission descend on Campbell County, where they discover that a chop shop and car theft ring has been operating out of the Campbell County Highway Department garage for the past 18 months.

“I just told my boys that I didn’t care how they did it, but just find a way to pave some roads. I didn’t take a dime,” Road Superintendent Dennis Potter says while protesting his innocence.

The following August, while serving 3 to 5 years at a federal facility in Atlanta, Potter will be re-elected to another four years as Road Superintendent with 97.4 percent of the vote.

December – The “Christmas Quake” strikes Campbell County on December 24, registering a magnitude of 5.8. Miraculously, damage is restricted to a few buildings near the epicenter in Jacksboro, where a crevasse opens up and swallows the nearly completed Justice Center.

Prisoners have yet to be moved into the new facility so fatalities are light, restricted to one missing assistant DA, three trusties and an inspection team from the architectural firm of Bustem, Cheatem & Scratch.  (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 01/01/2013 FOR THE WEEK OF 12/31/2012)       

A column that nobody will read – if the Mayans turn out to be right

   I don’t really know why I’m bothering to write this column. After all, it’s 9:00 p.m. on December 20 and in three more hours the world is coming to an end. That is, of course, if you put any stock in the forecasting abilities of the ancient Mayans.

Unfortunately the Mayans didn’t say whether the world is ending at midnight, or perhaps not until noon or even 5:00 p.m. Since I’m a writer with a writer’s ego, I can’t resist the temptation to get in one last word, assuming the end comes later in the day and someone has a chance to read this first.

Personally the worst thing about all this apocalypse nonsense is that I underwent surgery on Monday. I’ve have been stuck at home watching TV all week, which has been dominated by an endless parade of really bad B-movies about the end of the world.

The best commentary I’ve seen about the predicted end was actually in a comic strip. Two Mayans were carving stone calendars and one said, “Oops, I just ran out of space!”

“That will really blow some minds in a few hundred years,” the other Mayan observed.

And so it goes. The Mayans were a people so bad at urban planning that they managed to eat themselves out of house and home. They built impressive cities, then farmed the surrounding thin tropical soils until their farms could no longer grow enough food to support the cities’ populations, then merely abandoned their temples to the jungle and moved on. 

Those who seriously place any faith in questionable calendars created by such losers must really be bummed out by the world as it is, and have just been counting the hours until the end of time.

Sadly, as this Christmas approaches, one loser who wanted to end it all managed to do so in spectacular and tragic fashion, taking 26 innocent lives with him in Connecticut.

The tragic school shooting earlier this week has cast a pall over all Americans at a time when we hope to rejoice and celebrate life. It has dominated the news and predictably been taken up as the topic of the moment by the chattering classes, those of us who like to share our opinions with everyone else.

A call has once again been raised for more control over guns, a call that I predict will get lip service from a lot of politicians until it comes time to actually do something.

Then Congress, fearful of the deep pockets of the National Rifle Association, will again hmm and haw and do nothing. Assault rifles and high capacity magazines will continue to be sold to the public and the whole thing will blow over once the memorial services have ended – at least until the next time that some nut job decides to end his own pathetic life and take a lot of innocent people with him.

Some critics say the National Rifle Association has blood on its hands. That’s not quite true. The NRA is awash in the blood of innocent Americans. Innocent blood flows through the hallways of the NRA’s Washington offices and drips from the fingertips of their lobbyists each time they write a check or hand out a campaign contribution.

Anyone who likes to hunt should have the right to possess as many hunting rifles and shotguns as they want. Anyone who wants to protect their home should be allowed to keep handguns and rifles for protection.

You don’t need an AK-47 to protect your home, and its illegal to hunt with them. You don’t need a pistol that fires twenty rounds without reloading to feel safe from intruders or muggers. Such weapons are handy, however, for carrying out a massacre. Their only other logical purpose is if you want to conduct guerilla warfare against your own government.

Is this what the NRA condones, mass murder or high treason and armed rebellion? If not, they should join the voices supporting restrictions on the sale of high capacity assault weapons, not fighting such restrictions.

Assuming that gun control is an improbable goal, there have been numerous other suggestions for how we might avoid future school shootings, from more focus on mental health issues to armed security officers in all schools.

Tennessee is one of ten states where probably the worst idea of all has emerged, to arm teachers and principals. Do teachers really want to be required to learn how to use a firearm and be responsible for shooting it out with an armed intruder while their first graders look on?

And just how traumatic would it be for children to see all their teachers walking around packing pistols, and how long before a curious child looks in a teacher’s purse while she’s in the bathroom, removes a gun and it goes off with tragic results? I can see the legislation now, sponsored by the indomitable Stacy Campfield, to require all teachers to take mandatory firearms training courses and obtain concealed weapon permits.

I hope, should such a bill be brought to the legislature, that lawmakers and Governor Haslam will remember that one of the most recent school shootings in this area occurred when a teacher at Powell shot his principal and assistant principal.

The sad fact is, there is no foolproof answer. Tragedies involving firearms will continue to occur, no matter what steps are made to prevent them. More resource officers in our schools will help. Legal restrictions on assault weapons will help. More focus on mental health will help. Together these steps can decrease the frequency of such tragic incidents, and that may be all we can hope for, but mass shootings are going to occur again, somewhere.

Perhaps the best we can do in this time of national sorrow is place our faith in the spirit of Christmas, hold our families close, love them and pray that it never happens to us.(UPDATED AT 11:30 PM ON 12/21/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 12/24/2012)       

Charlie Herman proves a point: sometimes you win by losing

Tuesday night’s school board meeting started out on one of those feel-good, joyous holiday notes, with AFT president Sharon Marlow and other teachers handing out tins of homemade fudge and candy, various board members plopping Christmas cards down in front of microphones and everyone smiling and laughing,

They even managed to agree on most things, a notable exception being re-establishing some standing committees that have been the subject of controversy lately. The board split down the middle on that question 5-5, so for now there are still no permanent standing committees.

Just when I thought things would pass peacefully into a silent night, the board’s resident Grinch came through. Eugene Lawson launched into a stinging rebuke of the teachers’ union, complaining that previous boards had given away the farm to the teachers and that Director Donnie Poston was still following the terms of a union contract that was invalidated by the state legislature, rather than board policy.

Eugene didn’t ask for, or suggest any particular changes or actions. He seems to have merely been venting in public before teachers voted this Thursday on whether to continue with the AFT as their union representatives.

Eugene said he didn’t begrudge teachers being paid a fair wage and benefits; he just hated it when they could insist that schools close every time the wind blows or it rains. I’ve never noticed Campbell County schools closing down because of rain or high winds, but hey, with climate change in full swing, we might get a hurricane next. Who knows?

Eugene’s Grinch act seemed to be catching, so Rector Miller then donned his Scrooge hat and began pushing Director Poston and Finance guru Jeff Marlow about the fact that the board appears to need six additional teachers after eliminating nearly two dozen teaching positions to balance the budget.

Moneybags, speaking the always mysterious accountese language, tried to explain how shifting positions to different accounts would cover the need without appropriating more money, but Rector merely seemed to be flustered by the explanation and ended his inquisition with a “Bah, Humbug.” 

While the school board holiday spirit got dampened a little by sour grapes, not so at a gathering at the courthouse Thursday. The occasion was a little retirement party for Charles Herman, who is retiring from his post as public defender.

There was enough food to strangle a whale and a packed courtroom to hear all the lawyers, judges, clerks and just plain folks wax eloquent about Charlie and his service to the community.

Nobody that I heard even mentioned what is surely the one disappointment in Charlie Herman’s career, when he lost his bid for re-election as Circuit Court Judge many years ago to Rocky Young.

Young beat him out in a hatchet job campaign, accusing Judge Herman of being soft on crime with too many people getting probation or community service instead of hard jail time.

I wander if those same voters would feel the same way today, as Campbell County taxpayers struggle to pay for another multi-million dollar jail expansion and justice center to accommodate the constant increase in prisoners, many for minor offenses that could be addressed by probation, fines, or community service.

If you live by the sword, you die by the sword, as the old saying goes. Rocky Young eventually got his comeuppance from the voters as well, and feeling rejected, moved back to Blount County where he apparently felt more appreciated.

Charlie Herman did not. He remained in Campbell County, swallowed his wounded pride and took the job few other attorneys want, defending people who are too poor and destitute to afford their own lawyers. The testimony from his peers at Thursday’s retirement party underscores the quality of Charlie’s service and his basic humanity.

I can recall a conversation I had with late Criminal Court Judge Lee Asbury some years back, when I was still editor of the LaFollette Press. Judge Asbury and I, and maybe one or two others were having one of those pot-bellied stove sessions in his office, where the Judge would wax eloquent about his favorite subjects - crime, politics, elk and the Campbell Outdoor Recreation Association.

Somehow, the subject of Rocky Young came up (Lee didn’t like him much, I gathered) and then Charlie Herman became the topic of conversation.

“You know, in the end Campbell County may have come out ahead,” Judge Asbury mused. “Charlie Herman was a competent judge, but he is an exceptional public defender.”

Enjoy your retirement, Judge Herman. You’ve earned it.    

 Advice for new UT coach: ‘Keep the alumni sullen but not mutinous’

Some years back, I worked for a newspaper that covered both Campbell and Anderson counties. Anderson County had a controversial District Attorney General named Jim Ramsey, who was better at making headlines and outraging judges than he was at winning convictions.

Jim had an assistant DA, Janet Hicks, who handled the lion’s share of the prosecutions. Janet was a competent lawyer, I suppose, but had the personality of a turnip and was generally unpopular with attorneys, judges and the media.

I once asked Jim, in an off-the-record session, how he ended up hiring Janet as his top assistant.

“Well I’ll tell you,” he replied. “I had a court case once where she was the lawyer on the other side and I won the case. I figured I needed to hire her since I could beat her in a courtroom.”

The thing about Ramsey was, you never knew for sure when he was joking.

I tell this story because I was reminded of it last week when the University of Tennessee finally managed to find a coach willing to leave behind a secure and successful job elsewhere to jump into the frying pan that is Big Orange Country and our never-satisfied fans.

In Derek Dooley’s unfortunate tenure as Tennessee’s coach, he managed to lose a couple of heartbreaking games to LSU and North Carolina in his first season while his second Volunteer team lost to Kentucky and managed to beat only one quality opponent all year. Right, he beat Butch Jones’ Cincinnati team.

Dooley’s third team was so inept that they reached all new lows on defense and a disheartened team with a coaching staff that already knew they were on the way out went down to Nashville and got embarrassed by Vanderbilt.

So Dooley was sent packing before the final game against Kentucky and UT sent out invitations to the party. But what happens when you throw a party and nobody shows up?

Tennessee’s first choice never seriously considered leaving his lucrative job at ESPN. The second, third and fourth choices decided they were better off where they are. So finally Tennessee pulled a Jim Ramsey and hired the one guy we were able to beat.

I hope Butch Jones does well at Tennessee. I hope the fans, boosters and news media will give him the space and time he needs to build back a devastated program. I noticed that this year’s Tennessee recruiting class ranks about three notches from the bottom in the SEC, not surprising with four coaches in six years.

I suspect, if Jones has a losing season next year, John Adams, GoVols.com and the rest will start writing his coaching obituary, which will encourage fans to call for his head, which will make potential recruits nervous about playing for Tennessee.

With Oregon added to the already suicidal SEC schedule, how can we expect anything but a losing season next year?  Midway through his second season, Jones had better be working his miracle or fans will begin calling for another coaching head to be spitted on the stadium flagpoles.

I wonder if they will give Jones and his staff time to work until their contracts expire, or ask students and faculty to subsidize another $10 million buyout package?

UT once had a great All-American lineman named Herman Hickman who, after playing for General Neyland, went on to a long coaching career at Yale University, back when the Ivy League still counted for something in football circles.

Herman was never all of that successful, usually losing about as many as he won, but he coached Yale for many years. A curious sports writer once asked him about the secret to his long tenure as coach.

“I like to keep the alumni sullen but not mutinous,” Hickman famously replied.

Phillip Fulmer failed to accomplish that feat. He messed up and won a national championship in 1998 and when he could never quite equal that accomplishment again, he finally got the axe for failing to live up to heightened expectations. Derek Dooley never got UT’s program past the mutinous stage and paid for it. Johnny Majors won an SEC championship once in awhile, led his team to a minor bowl most years in between and never put together two losing seasons back-to-back.

He kept us sullen but never mutinous and coached as long as anyone since General Neyland, a true follower of the Herman Hickman coaching philosophy.  So Butch Jones, a word of advice. Strive for mediocrity, it’s safer.

Congress, it appears, is striving for mediocrity. The Republicans are beginning to realize that they, unlike President Obama, must run for re-election sometime down the line and have the most to lose if they steer the country over the fiscal cliff.

Hard-nosed TEA Partiers like Jim DaMint of South Carolina are bailing out, looking for lucrative Beltway consultant jobs while their personal stock remains viable. The moderates, while continuing to keep America on the edge of our collective seat, seem headed toward some accommodation with the White House that will avoid fiscal Armageddon.

But Congress continues to baffle me with their collective buffoonery. The latest? The Senate refused to ratify a United Nations treaty supporting fair treatment for people with disabilities, despite the presence of longtime Republican Senator Bob Dole in the chamber.

This is a treaty modeled largely on our own Americans with Disabilities Act, so why the opposition? Because it is a United Nations treaty, of course, and all good conservatives in Congress know that anything coming out of the UN must be a Communist plot, or worse still, an Obama plot.

Bob Dole’s presence made little difference. This longtime icon of American conservatives would be judged a wimpy moderate by today’s TEA Party standards.

Congress would be well advised to follow the Herman Hickman model and keep the voting public sullen but not mutinous. Obama’s victory in November is a strong sign that the mutiny is right around the corner.   (UPDATED AT 4:00 PM ON 12/07/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 12/03/2012)       

  Politics smells, corporations take, but only people can love and give

Campbell County finally has something in common with folks in Nashville and Memphis, not to mention Oregon and Washington state. What we have in common is, unfortunately, that our courthouses all had to be evacuated last week after receiving bomb threats to the County Clerks’ offices.

There were no bombs, of course, and most likely the crank calls originated in Boston, South Dakota or Nigeria, compliments of the fact that anybody anywhere can access public phone numbers over the Internet and route cell phone calls through any number of phones with little fear of being traced.

Some people are desperate for entertainment, it seems, but not so here in Campbell County. Here one can venture up to Jellico Elementary School and watch school administrators and teachers duke it out, or attend county commission meetings or any variety of city council meetings and watch grown men and women make fools out of themselves.

For anyone truly desperate for entertainment, simply sit in the courthouse parking lot and watch the excavation progress on the official county hole in the ground, which may end up being an underground parking garage, a dungeon for the new county jail or if they hit the water table first, a really expensive public swimming pool.

I personally think the county missed a great opportunity to raise funds a couple of months back, when the demolition crews dismantled the old jail to make space for the aforementioned hole. The county should have erected bleacher seats and advertised the destruction of what was once known as the “Bates Motel” because you could check in, but there was no guarantee you would ever check out.

More than a few former residents might have paid good money for a comfortable seat to watch the destruction, cheering as each wall came tumbling down. Sheriff’s deputies could have peddled snacks while old timers debated who had clocked the most days behind those ancient bars.

Meanwhile Black Friday is behind us and the Christmas shopping season is in full swing. This year consumers are spending as if there is no tomorrow, which is good news for retailers and credit card banks, at least until the bills start showing up in January mailboxes.

By then we should also know if the donkeys and pachyderms in Washington are going to make like lemmings and plunge the nation over the fiscal cliff. Perhaps that is the real reason folks are shopping so heavily this holiday season – many fear that there truly is no tomorrow!

For around a hundred employees at the Merita Bakery in Knoxville, the fiscal cliff came early when Hostess Brands filed for bankruptcy and closed down all of their operations around the country. No more Twinkies, no more Dum Dums but more importantly, no more jobs for a lot of people just as Christmas approaches.

The company blames the union for refusing to grant further concessions and staging a crippling nationwide strike. The union blames corporate greed and points out that while asking workers to accept further cuts in wages and benefits, large bonuses were being granted to upper level managers.

While there is usually some truth on both sides of such disputes, it is rather damning that Hostess asked the bankruptcy courts to approve large bonuses to top managers so these “crucial” administrators would stay on board long enough to complete the liquidation of assets.

Even more disgusting, the courts approved the bonuses. How much expertise does it require to go out of business, for Pete’s sake? Simply lock the doors, walk away and let your creditors hire people to fight over the remaining assets.

The fact that Hostess had been taken over by venture capitalists says it all. Think Bain Capital. Think buy a company in trouble at fire sale prices, play around with it for a couple of years while granting huge salaries to CEOs and directors, then liquidate the assets at a nice profit, leaving creditors and longtime employees out in the cold.

Some people’s misfortune can be other people’s good fortune, as one Campbell County minister proved the day before Thanksgiving. XXX discovered that trucks loaded with loaves of Merita and Wonder Bread were sitting outside the idled bakery, unable to be delivered and going bad. He got permission to load up a truck with bread, buns and rolls and bring it to Lafollette, where he gave it away to people on the street outside WLAF.

Thanks for reminding us all that despite fiscal cliffs, nasty politics and greedy corporations, there is still good in the world. Christmas is not just about Black Fridays, shopping and holiday stress, but a time to reflect on, as one writer put it, the “better angels of our nature.”     (UPDATED AT 4:00 PM ON 12/03/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 11/26/2012)                        

Joseph and Mary lack a photo ID? Billy Joe White would ‘have an app for that’

Ah, the good ol’ Tennessee legislature. Just when we thought, with elections behind us that all the loony entertainment was over, it is almost time for the General Assembly to reconvene in Nashville.

A preview of some of the witty, zany fun that is in store for the pubic this year is already making the rounds of county courthouses, including our own.

Commissioners on Monday night were presented with a resolution from the Mayor’s office, presumably drafted by some of our legislators, supporting a bill to require registration of all adult guests in motels, hotels and the like. This law, they were told, would make it easier for law enforcement officials to keep tabs on fugitives, meth dealers and other evildoers who use motel rooms for their evil doings.

The bill would require motels to keep the register of all adult guests, with names, addresses, dates of birth and vehicle license information. With the notable exception of those people opposed to further invasion of privacy by the government, this seems pretty harmless so far, but . . .

Another provision of the bill promoted in the resolution requires anyone registering for a motel or hotel room to present a valid state or federal photo ID card, such as a photo driver’s license.

So, if you’re one of those elderly Tennesseans who has a non-photo ID, don’t try traveling around the state of Tennessee. You will find, as Mary and Joseph did, no place at the inn and be forced to sleep in the stable.

I can also visualize this scenario.

Tired motorist: “I need a room for the night.”

Motel clerk: “Yessir. May I see your photo ID please.”

“Motel clerk: “Uh, I’m sorry, I need to see a federal or state issued ID.”

Tired motorist: “That is a federal issued ID. It’s my Canadian drivers’ license.”

Clerk: “I’m very sorry but that isn’t a valid ID in Tennessee. I‘m afraid I can’t rent you a room.”

“I just drove all the way from Toronto on my way to Florida. It’s midnight and I’m falling asleep at the wheel. How far do I have to drive to find a place where I can stay?”

Motel clerk: “Let’s see. That would be Rossville, Georgia. It’s only about 150 more miles.”

That proposed law still needs some tweaking before the GenAss passes it, I suspect. That didn’t keep our own county commission from considering the resolution, photo ID and all. Fortunately a handful of the squires had the good sense to be skeptical and vote against it. The resolution failed by one to gain enough votes for a majority and Mayor Baird, seemingly surprised, ruled it as failed.

That is the kind of poorly thought out bill that Chancellor Billy Joe White would take much pleasure in shooting down in his courtroom. Sadly, Judge White passed away this week following complications from a stroke.

I will miss Judge White, not least because he was a fan of my newspaper columns. But he was also a good judge, one who could be relied upon to rein in government when it overstepped its bounds and wield a heavy hand if government failed to govern wisely.

My personal highlight of Judge White’s career was back in the early ‘90s when he was forced to rule on a Campbell County budget impasse that had delayed the opening of county schools for nearly two months.

The school board kept presenting a budget that they felt was a bare bones minimum to keep the quality of schools from slipping, but the county commission was just as determined to avoid a hefty tax increase at all costs.

The squires kept sending the budget back, unapproved, to the school board with one message: “We’re not going to raise taxes to fund this budget. Lay off teachers, close some schools, or cut out bus service, whatever you have to do to give us a budget without a tax increase.”

County Executive David Young finally resigned as chairman of the commission so he could file a lawsuit against both the commission and the board, placing the matter in the courts, or rather, in Judge White’s court.

The Chancery Court Judge heard the various arguments from attorneys for both sides and then declared, “ I don’t see where you cannot come to a compromise that will enable Campbell County children to begin going to school.”

Judge White then instructed the board and the commission to retire to an adjacent room and come back to him in one hour with a balanced budget that could be approved.

“If you can’t do it in an hour, we will all go downstairs where I will have you all locked up for contempt of court until you do agree on a budget,” the Judge added. “One way or another, children are going to school in this county come Monday morning.”

Melvin “Doctor No” Boshears admits that this is the only time in history that he ever voted for a tax increase. The school board made some concessions while the commission voted a small tax increase and enacted a $30 wheel tax, and the schools opened on Monday.

Judge White could just as swiftly step on the toes of local government when it overreached its authority. Several years later, the Campbell County Board of Education passed a “zero tolerance policy” that mandated an automatic one year expulsion for students caught with drugs, drug paraphernalia or alcohol in their possession on school grounds.

The zero tolerance also extended to cell phones. Back in those times when cell phones were considered a luxury rather than a necessity of life, the Board reasoned that the only reason for a kid to have a personal cell phone was to make drug deals.

It was not long before a child in seventh grade at Jacksboro Middle School was caught with a cell phone and expelled from school for a year. When it became known that this child had been given the phone by his parents, who both worked and needed him to call them when he needed to be picked up, the board was “sympathetic but zero tolerance is zero tolerance!”

The parents predictably sued. Judge White heard the case over in Tazewell, listening patiently to arguments from both sides before ruling.

“The problem here is a policy that ignores common sense and a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime,” Billy Joe told the board, ordering that the child be readmitted to school immediately. He added to the parents that while their child could return to school, the cell phone stays at home, or he would find them in contempt of court.

Billy Joe could also be rather outspoken when he was riled up. Recently, lawyer Dave Dunaway expressed displeasure with the pace at which some of his workers’ compensation cases were being processed and set for trial by the Campbell County Clerk & Master’s office. Lawyer Dave filed a complaint with the court, and asked Judge White to recluse himself from ruling, since he appointed Clerk & Master Bill Archer and they were personal friends.

Judge White denied Dunaway’s complaint, and in his order, handed down one of the most stinging pronouncements on an individual attorney I’ve ever seen in official court papers.

Judge White stated that he would no longer hear cases brought before the court by David Dunaway, but would refer all such cases to another judge. His reason? David Dunaway is “a liar when under oath and a liar when not under oath,” Judge White wrote in his order.

As I said earlier, Judge White will be missed, probably not by David Dunaway, but certainly by the majority of attorneys who argued before his bench. We can only hope that his replacement will have the same knack for tempering the letter of the law with a good dose of common sense, something too often lacking among those who make the laws. (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 11/23/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 11/19/2012)                        

Really want to secede? Just move to Texas – after we sell it back to Mexico

Wow, just when I thought the American people had spoken and all the election madness was behind us, we have a new wave of insanity making the news.

I’m talking about, naturally, the “secession movement” being promoted through petitions on social media. Apparently some 60,000 Texans have petitioned to secede from the Union, as have close to 24,000 Tennesseans.

These are most likely people who, as I’ve pointed out earlier, just can’t bear the thought of having a black man in the White House for four more years. They deny that, of course, instead claiming as Ron Harwell of the Roane County TEA Party has, that they just can’t take “a communist sitting in the White House.”

Hmm. John F. Kennedy was more liberal by far than Obama, but nobody petitioned to leave the Union when he was narrowly elected in 1960. Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the modern welfare state and signed into law the civil rights voting act, but nobody petitioned for secession then. Of course, both those ultra liberal presidents were white guys, weren’t they?

Well, secession is not an option for these poor deluded sore losers, since that act was defeated on the battlefield in 1865 and officially banned by the Supreme Court a few years later.

 What a shame. My great-great grandpappy, like those of most of us who can trace our roots in East Tennessee back to the 1860s, donned Union blue and shot secessionists on behalf of his country. Might be fun to follow in his footsteps just once.

I jest, of course, but one can always dream. Meanwhile, another series of online petitions have been started urging that anyone signing a secession petition be deported. Despite the old Vietnam era rant of “America – love it or leave it,” we can’t deport people just because they don’t like the government. Besides, no self-respecting nation would take these loonies so we’re stuck with them.

I have an alternate plan that makes better sense. Sell Texas back to Mexico. If we hurry, we can still get something for it before the droughts turn it into a worthless desert. We’ve already pumped most of the oil out of that state. With the end of the manned space program we no longer need Mission Control in Houston and nobody will much miss the Houston Astros or the Dallas Cowboys anyway.

We can then erect a border fence and deport all of the secession nuts to Texas. This will have the added advantage of making George W. Bush, Rick Perry and Karl Rove illegal aliens. We would have to grant citizenship to Willie Nelson, of course, or at least grant him a permanent work visa.

The fact is, there are always a lot of sore losers after an election, most often heard mouthing off down at the local diner over a cup of coffee or in the bars and American Legion posts after a beer or three.

One of the great tragedies of the modern online world is that social media gives these loud-mouthed loonies a forum and an audience of millions. The news media picks up on their rants and raves and actually treats it as “news” while late night TV comedians have more fodder for their monologues. In the end, they do, however, manage to provide us with cheap entertainment.

Not so entertaining is the ongoing tragedy of Big Orange football. Instead of seceding from the Union, Tennessee may instead need to secede from the Southeastern Conference if things don’t begin to look up.

I never would have thought, back in the glory days of the late 1960s or the more glorious days of 1998, that the Vols would fall on such hard times, with three coaches in five years, possibly now four coaches in six years, and a defense that couldn’t stop a high school team.

The more outspoken critics among the Big Orange Nation are calling for Derrick Dooley’s scalp, led from the rear by News Sentinel sports editor John Adams, who has been pouring fuel on the anti-Dooley fire since the season began.

(I’ve always suspected Adams, an LSU alumnus, of being a secret mole inserted into Big Orange Country to disrupt UT football and bring an end to LSU’s “Tennessee curse”).

I’m not so sure that firing Dooley and searching for yet another miracle worker to stop the bleeding is such a good idea. If there has ever been a testament to the failure of a “three years and you’re out” approach to building a football program, Campbell County should be the poster child.

What’s it been? Thirty years, thirty-five? How many coaches? The Cougars may just now be approaching the point where they can consider a .500 season as normal rather than a resounding success.

The sad fact is, UT may have made a mistake in firing Phillip Fulmer in 2008. True, his program had declined from his 1998 national championship year and he was having problems beating Florida, but Fulmer had just lost his offensive guru and hired a replacement whose complex new offensive scheme was a disaster.

UT fans and UT administrators gave Fulmer no time to fix the problem before turning the program over to Lane Kiffin, who had no loyalty to the university, no loyalty to the fans and no principles when it came to NCAA rules.

When Kiffin left us high and dry to go out and attempt to take Southern Cal back into probation, we should have felt relief, but what he left behind was a football program in shambles. Many of his recruits bolted for greener pastures and Derrick Dooley was left to inherit a UT football program at an all-time low ebb.

Even the old single wing Tennessee teams of the late 1950s and early ‘60s were still competitive, capable of upsetting number one teams on occasion and fielding strong defenses. Doug Dickey took over a team in 1964 that included the best defensive lineman in the country in Steve Delong, two future All-American linebackers and the most effective punter in UT history.

No wonder he was able to turn a 5-5 team into a championship contender in a mere three years.

When Dickey abandoned UT to return to his native Florida, Bill Battle took over a program that was at the top – SEC champions. Battle couldn’t keep the program on top, and was relieved of his job after six seasons when only one of his teams failed to make a post-season bowl.

Battle probably needed to go, as UT football had steadily declined under his leadership, but he left his successor, Johnny Majors, with a program that was only a couple of years removed from ten victories.

Majors, Tennessee’s fair-haired hero, was if nothing else, a master of public relations. He immediately began poor mouthing the program he had inherited, moaning that Tennessee football had declined to such a point that it might take several years for him to “bring UT to a new level.”

That new level became apparent when Majors lost to the likes of Rutgers and Army and was still struggling to reach an eight-win season or compete with Bear Bryant’s Alabama teams half a dozen years later.

Tennessee fans and administrators were patient with their hometown hero, however, and eventually Majors was able to produce a program that could occasionally compete for an SEC championship and a spot in the Sugar Bowl.

Majors finally lost his job to assistant Phil Fulmer, not so much because the program had been on a decline, which was true, but because he was laying down hints that he would like Doug Dickey’s job as Athletic Director. Dickey canned him in self-defense, you might say.

All of this history is merely to say that UT’s current coach has inherited a program that has never, since the 1920s, been as far down on its luck. The rebuilding task faced by Dooley was unprecedented in modern Tennessee history.

It is obvious that Dooley or somebody has made a serious error this year when it comes to the defensive side of the game. Either the defensive coordinator is the wrong guy, his defensive scheme is unsuited to the personnel or the talent is lacking.

Whatever the cause, Tennessee fans and media would probably give a Johnny Majors another year or two to sort things out, at least until his contract expires. Dooley, not a fair-haired hometown hero, may not get that time.

Instead, John Adams will get his wish and Tennessee will again roll the dice with yet another new coach, who will take at least another three years to build up a program that is competitive, or in his turn, be replaced. UT will also have to raise ticket prices again to pay off the millions of dollars owed to Dooley and his staff when they are let go before their contracts expire.

UT administrators need to grow a backbone and at least give the current coaching staff until the end of their contracts to find some answers. A few hundred empty seats at games might cost a few bucks, but not nearly as much as paying off all those coaches.

Meanwhile, I strongly suspect that most of the hotheads calling for Dooley’s scalp sit at home and watch UT football from the comfort of their couch rather than supporting the program. If they switch channels, they won’t be missed.     (UPDATED AT 8:00 AM ON 11/19/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 11/19/2012)    

Quake nothing to worry about, just Kentucky Senator McConnell blowing his stack

The election is mercifully over, and the American people have spoken, which leaves a whole lot of Republicans trying to figure out what, exactly, happened last Tuesday.

Some members of the GOP brain trust are moaning about how Mitt Romney was obviously not the right candidate, that the GOP had a Romney problem. I contend that the opposite is true and Mitt Romney had a GOP problem.

Republicans lost all of the so-called “swing states” except North Carolina, lost the popular vote by a modest margin and the electoral vote by a significant margin. Face it folks, the election wasn’t even all that close in the end.

Hispanic voters in Florida, Nevada and New Mexico helped put those states in the Obama column, not surprising since the Republican Party has all but declared war on undocumented immigrants and alienated the country’s fastest-growing minority group.

Women helped Obama win in Iowa, Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin, not surprising since Republican senatorial candidates in Indiana and Missouri made headlines with their comments about rape, pregnancy and “God’s will.” Both candidates were legitimately raped by female voters and can now crawl back underneath their rocks.

The solid Republican South, aided largely by a healthy dose of racism among white male voters, was the Republicans’ only bright spot. Racism was not a factor, you say? Wake up. My hometown of Lake City has been a bastion of Democratic voters since FDR.

Lake City always voted 60 percent donkey and 40 percent pachyderm in every election I can recall since the days of Eisenhower and Stevenson, including the Ronald Reagan landslide over Michael Dukakis and the ill-fated candidacy of ultra-liberal George McGovern in 1972. Always, that is, until the Democrats put a black man on the ballot.

In 2008, Lake City voted 40 percent Democrat, 40 percent Republican and 20 percent Democrats who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a black President.

The Republican Party needs to take note of the fact that the South lost the Civil War. The GOP isn’t going to win many national elections with a philosophy designed to win big in the South and alienate the rest of the country, but that is the way the party seems headed.

The GOP is fast becoming a party of old white guys. That means they have a corner on most of the money and can inundate us with negative political advertising, but 2012, if nothing else, shows that you can’t always buy your way into power.

Even the GOP message about fiscal conservatism and “what’s good for business is good for America” doesn’t wash. Financial manager David Moon, in his News-Sentinel business page column on Sunday, pointed out that the stock market generally performs better when a Democrat is in the White House, returning an average since 1900 of 15.35 percent annually on investments under Democratic presidents compared to 8.61 percent under Republicans.

Moon goes on to explain that much of the difference can be attributed to the fact that when several Democratic presidents took office, the stock market was in such bad shape that it had nowhere to go but up. In other words, the economy under Herbert Hoover had hit rock bottom and had to improve under FDR, and the economy under George W. Bush had slumped so badly that it had to improve under Barack Obama.

By contrast, the economy under Bill Clinton was so healthy at the end of his second term that poor George W. had nowhere to go but down, while despite all the negative opinions about Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the economy was strong enough when he left office that it improved very little during Ronald Reagan’s first four years.

Republican hard-liners stubbornly insist that this election proved nothing, that Americans basically voted for the status quo, or more gridlock in Washington. They point to the continued GOP control in the House as an indication that Americans have not totally rejected the Republican Party. They fail to recognize that unlike the Senate, where Republicans lost ground, Congressmen are elected by districts, districts that were purposely gerrymandered to protect Republican Congressmen and put Democratic incumbents at risk.

The fact is, the Republican-controlled legislatures in many states did everything possible to insure a Republican victory in 2012, from voter ID laws designed to hold down voting by minorities and the poor to re-districting plans tilted to heavily favor Republican candidates to a Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns.

Nothing worked. The Republicans lost because the GOP has been hijacked by the extreme right wing of their party, while the majority of Americans are moderate fence sitters. Democrats allowed their party to stray too far left in the 1970s, resulting in twelve years of Republican control until Bill Clinton, a moderate, brought the party back toward the middle.

Despite all the red-baiting, name-calling and questions about religion and national origins, Barack Obama is also a moderate, not an extreme liberal, Democrat.

Republicans have allowed the social conservative, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, pro-military wing of their party to take the GOP too far to the right to suit the tastes of most Americans. They will continue to lose ground until they wise up and move back to the middle.

Meanwhile, how many of you felt the 4.3 magnitude earthquake we experienced on Saturday? The epicenter has been pinpointed in the neighborhood of Whitesburg, Kentucky, but some Kentuckians I know tell me that we need not worry about any catastrophic earth movements.

The quake, they say, was simply caused by Kentucky Senator and GOP minority leader Mitch McConnell blowing his stack when he learned that popular country singer and actress Ashley Judd is thinking about challenging him for the U. S. Senate in 2014.

Mitch, of course, is that fellow who declared, back in 2008, that the GOP’s primary objective for the next four years would be to insure that Barack Obama’s presidency was a failure. For the President to fail would, unfortunately, mean that the nation would also have to fail. Last time I looked, working to bring down your own nation is considered “high treason.”

In many parts of the world, they still line people up against a wall and shoot them for high treason. Mitch is lucky; he’s just going to be legitimately raped by the female voters of Kentucky.    (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 11/14/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 11/12/2012)                               

New election year slogan: “Climate – the one change you can believe in”

Mercifully, it is merely one week before Election Day, and an end to political ads, mailers, robo-calls and pollsters. I’m one of those old fashioned geezers with a landline in my home and a listing in the BellSouth directory.

As a result, I get an average of three calls a day from candidates or groups conducting “unbiased” polls. Since everyone who isn’t unemployed is generally away from home during the day, they always time these calls for that exact moment when my dinner is coming out of the oven, or in the middle of the six o’clock news.

Of course these calls all involve local races or Congressional races, since both the Romney and Obama campaigns wrote off Tennessee as a solid “red” state long ago. We will all dutifully fulfill our obligation to cast a vote, knowing that the outcome in Tennessee is already a foregone conclusion and that our nation’s future will be determined by Yankees in Ohio, prostitutes in Nevada and beachcombing retirees in Florida.

I’m tempted here to offer my own personal predictions on the outcomes of various races, at the risk that readers will take them as endorsements. Well, perhaps not. It won’t be much of an endorsement to predict that several candidates in state legislative races will defeat “Unopposed.”

As much as I would like to see “Unopposed” win a race here and there, the odds are against it. “None of the Above” has a better chance of forging a victory or two here and there, if enough voters write Mr. Above in on their ballots, but asking for a paper ballot is more trouble than most people are likely to endure.

But I’ll go out on a limb here and predict “None of the Above” as the victor in the race for Mayor of LaFollette. Seems a logical choice to me.

We in Campbell County are fortunate to no longer be represented by Congressman Scott DesJarlais, which means we do not have to choose between voting for a liar or a fool.

After being exposed as a hypocrite for urging a mistress to get an abortion while claiming to be a “family values” politician, DesJarlais has now seen a second former girlfriend come forward who claims he provided her with prescription drugs.

Still, the Democrats are the fools, presuming that their candidate can win not by convincing voters that he can give them what they want, but that he is less immoral than the disgraced incumbent. I’ve got two words for that approach: “Bill Clinton.”

Voters already assume that most politicians are immoral; they are more interested in knowing what a particular scumbag, if elected, is going to do for them.

Clinton could be elected in a landslide today, Monica Lewinsky not withstanding. Fortunately for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Constitution only allowed Bill two terms in office, so Americans must choose between them.

Romney might have a chance of unseating the incumbent President, except for one problem – his party includes other candidates such as Missouri Senator “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Indiana Congressman Mourdock, who thinks if a woman becomes pregnant due to rape, it’s “What God intended.”

I predict that Mitt Romney is about to learn the truth of the old axiom, “If you lay down with dogs, you will get fleas.” The Republican Party seems Hell-bent on becoming the party of rich old white men. That might give them a big edge in campaign fundraising, but when it comes to numbers, women rule.

The GOP-dominated legislatures in many states, including Tennessee, have tried to level the playing field with all of these voter ID laws, passed supposedly to prevent voter fraud. These laws are guaranteed to prevent two or three illegal aliens or perhaps a convicted felon here and there from casting ballots.

It might do that, along with millions of poor people and minorities without driver’s licenses or birth certificates (who tend to vote Democratic), some young people who have yet to obtain driver’s licenses and also tend to vote Democratic and elderly folks without photo IDs who may be holdover Roosevelt Democrats. Here in East Tennessee, I predict the GOP strategy will backfire. Most elderly East Tennesseans tend to vote Republican.

Here in Tennessee, the City of Memphis has thrown a monkey wrench in the legislature’s works by challenging the law in court. Memphis won a ruling that City of Memphis library cards can qualify as appropriate IDs despite the fact that the law requires a “state-issued” ID. The court ruled that in the states-rights State of Tennessee, city government is merely an extension of state government and city-issued IDs are legitimate for voting purposes.

This leads one to suspect that county-issued IDs are also legitimate, and we can expect more legal appeals as time goes on. Eventually a re-elected President Barack Obama will get to appoint one more justice to the Supreme Court of the United States. That Court will then rule all voter ID laws unconstitutional infringements on the right to vote and put an end to the madness, at least until the next election cycle.

Meanwhile, the big winner this election cycle appears to be Mother Nature, which has delivered another of her numerous messages on the subject of “Climate Change – the one change you CAN believe in.”

But we already know that climate change is so much baloney made up by Godless tree-huggers and leftist politicians, don’t we? There ain’t no such animal. It’s all just part of the natural cycle of things and just like women who won’t get pregnant when they are raped, it’s all as God intended it.

Hey, I’m on the downside of 65. I don’t have to concern myself with the fact that by 2040, Texas will be a dust bowl, hurricanes will routinely slam into New York City and half of Florida will be under water.

My advice to you 20-somethings out there is to sell your New York brownstone, buy some cheap swampland in central Georgia and wait for it to become sea front property. Oh, and sell Texas back to Mexico now, while we can still get something for it.       (UPDATED AT 3:00 PM ON 10/30/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 10/22/2012)              

Jellico could have tourism angle, only ‘ghost town’ in eastern USA

The big news in these here parts this week was that the City of Jellico failed to make payroll last week when management decided to pay a $16,000 insurance premium that was due, rather than delaying payment in order to make the $10,000-plus payroll for city employees.

Mayor Les Stiers called it “a bill-paying error,” but how can you possibly call it an error to pay your debts when they are due? The only error I see is that Jellico has no fund balance to draw upon when things get tight. With that sort of situation, you can expect more of the same in the immediate future.

The mayor and city council are moving to come up with some additional revenue, jacking up garbage collection fees and looking to sell some city-owned land. That might resolve the immediate crisis, but it looks like Jellico is suffering the same fate as many other small towns around the state and nation in this recession.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for Jellico was probably the bursting of the Rarity Mountain bubble. If it had succeeded, that high-end real estate development would have brought a big boost to the town’s tax base. Instead, it is just so much unoccupied mountain land, most of which has already been sold at the county’s delinquent tax sales for a fraction of the appraised value.

Jellico isn’t the only berg that is suffering in the current economy. LaFollette isn’t exactly the picture of a thriving metropolis either, while Lake City can barely afford to keep cops on the street and its water system is springing leaks at an alarming, and costly, rate.

Sad fact is, if Jellico and Lake City were towns out in the Arizona desert, the only inhabitants would be rattlesnakes and Gila Monsters lurking among weather-beaten abandoned buildings. The word for that is “ghost town,” which is what happens in barely-habitable regions when the mines in a mining boom town play out. The population packs it in and heads for a friendlier climate.

We already live in a friendly climate, so folks hang on, even after the economic engine that powered the town has run out of gas. Coal mining boom towns don’t disappear overnight like they do out west. They just shrivel up and die a slow death.

The answer to this inevitable decline is not easy. It takes leadership that can recognize changes and adapt to them. It takes both business and political leaders who will sit down and work together to utilize a community’s strengths and address its weaknesses. Oh, and it takes a touch of good luck.

Jellico and Lake City already had their share of good luck back in the 1960s. It’s called Interstate 75 and if Uncle Sam had decided to build that highway 30 miles west of its current route, both towns would by now be wide spots in a seldom-used secondary road.

But I-75 in a sense was also a curse for both towns. It made it too easy for city leaders to sit back and expect retail trade from the interstate to solve all their financial challenges. Downtown is decaying and stores are boarded up? Bound to happen, the town is just moving out to the interstate exit. No need to plan.

Too many communities also cling too long to a past that isn’t going to return. King Coal is dead. Even if somehow a new technology made it possible to develop Tennessee’s modest remaining reserves of mostly high-sulfur coal, it would not be in the same way as in the past. Mining jobs would be few and far between.

The healthiest communities are those with diversified economies based on a balance of industry, retail trade, transportation, services and tourism It’s easier when a community finds that balance from the beginning and much more difficult when a community must reinvent itself, but not impossible.

It does take unity, determination and the setting aside of petty political feuding. Unfortunately, the only commodity that most small towns have in abundance is petty politics that divides rather than unites.

Getting Jellico’s politicians to work together? Might be easier to just become a ghost town, at least that would attract tourists.

Speaking of dividing, the presidential race is coming down to a climax as early voting has begun. After two presidential debates and countless hours of political advertisement, it looks to me as if we can predict a winner: Big Bird.

Yes folks, the latest news is that following Mitt Romney’s statement that if elected, he will cut funding for public television, Big Bird Halloween costumes are flying off the shelves at astounding rates. It is practically impossible to find a costume of the popular Sesame Street character anywhere across the country and manufacturers are pushing production to take advantage of this unprecedented demand before its too late.

In a totally unscientific poll that I conducted this week with parents waiting in line to pick up kids at Valley View Elementary School and among old timers at both the Hardee’s Breakfast Club and liar’s bench outside Scottie’s, the results are clear.

If the election were held this week, Mitt Romney would receive 23 percent of the vote, Barack Obama 16 percent and Big Bird 58 percent. The remaining three percent were unaware that there is an election this year.

Meanwhile, leave it to irreverent TV political pundit Stephen Colbert to coin the quote of the week. Colbert, commenting on the revelation that Congressman Scott DesJarlais, formerly representing Campbell County, had urged a mistress to get an abortion while touting his anti-abortion family values, had this to say about DesJarlais:

“He is still adamantly against abortion, except when it endangers the political life of the father.”(UPDATED AT 2:00 PM ON 10/19/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 10/15/2012)              

County commission not the only thing going to the dogs this week

Some years ago, before Campbell County had built the Adrion Baird Animal Shelter, I ruffled some feathers when I criticized the operations at the shelter operated by the City of LaFollette, referring to it as “Fluffy-Belsen.”

The comparison to the notorious Nazi World War II death camp was accurate, considering many animals were being put down as soon as they were brought in by the animal control officers, without waiting to see if owners might come searching for missing pets.

There were even reports of animals being dispatched not with chemical injections but bullets, and unceremoniously dumped in nearby brush piles.

That sort of thing was supposed to end with the establishment of a county animal control program and modern shelter. Late commissioner Adrion Baird, whose name is honored by the shelter, was one of many Campbell Countians who worked to see an effective control program that would deal with stray animals in a humane manner and encourage adoption and an effective spay & neutering program.

Complaints from a newly-formed group called “Friends of Campbell County Animals” reveal that the county is a long way from realizing those goals, with 80 percent of the animals brought into the shelter being killed, many as soon as the mandatory three-day waiting period expires.

Bad blood exists between shelter personnel and animal lovers who would volunteer their time and even money to encourage more adoptions and fewer kills, to the point where the Friends group is turning to the county commission and news media to make changes.

After listening to the complaints and suggestions for change that “Friends” spokesperson Michelle Davis laid out to commissioners Monday night, I think I can put my finger on much of the problem – money.

The vision of the early supporters of the animal shelter included a countywide pet registration program that would help fund the animal control program as well as provide owner identification of animals and a low-cost optional spaying & neutering program.

Alas, many Campbell County residents balked at being forced to register their dogs and cats and that idea was quietly abandoned by the squires in office at that time, ever eager to silence any squeaky wheels among taxpayers and voters.

What I see now is an animal control program that is more about money than it is about animals. The Friends group complains that the shelter charges $95 to anyone wishing to adopt a pet, to cover a $15 adoption fee and the balance for spaying and neutering, and that is much higher than what veterinary clinics charge for the same service. Money.

They also protest that the Campbell County shelter is selling the remains of dead cats to an outfit called Boyd Kennedy Enterprises, where they eventually end up in biology labs at colleges and high schools for dissection classes. The incentive here seems to favor executing Fluffy rather than adopting her out. Again, money.

Another complaint? While we cannot afford to keep Campbell County animals much beyond the three-day minimum before putting them down, the shelter accepts Scott County’s animals, I assume for a fee. Money?

So what is the answer to this problem? It would seem to be more funding from the county, either from a registration fee or taxpayers’ dollars, in order to take money pressures off the shelter’s operations. Ain’t gonna happen, pilgrims.

But some things can be done to improve the situation. Mayor William Baird has made some tentative steps toward improving the adoption rate, agreeing to utilize social media sites to showcase adoptable animals and looking into Channel 12’s “Green Screen” as a possible way to expose cute puppy and kitten pictures to the public.

Finding a way to resolve the bad blood between the animal lovers in the Friends group and the shelter personnel would be a logical next step. Potential volunteers need to understand the pressures on shelter personnel to keep the population of animals at manageable levels. That may mean putting down dogs and cats after a few days rather than having all animals surviving for longer periods, but living in overpopulated and underfed squalor.

At the same time, the shelter’s paid staff needs to take advantage of, and welcome, volunteer help. If they get a little edgy over volunteers wanting to save every animal they can, the shelter employees might do well to remember who is responsible for their jobs in the first place. Without the pressure from animal lovers, there would be no Campbell County animal shelter and law enforcement officers would still be resolving stray dog problems with a bullet and a shovel.

Campbell County isn’t the only place that seems to have gone to the dogs lately. The campaign between Campbell County’s former congressman, Scott DesJarlais, and Democratic challenger Eric Stewart is declining into another smear campaign similar to the one that resulted in DesJarlais upsetting Lincoln Davis in the last election.

Now it has come to light that DesJarlais, while promoting himself as a pro-life, pro-family conservative, encouraged a mistress during one of his numerous extramarital affairs to seek an abortion.

I can respect the opinions of both those who support a woman’s right to choose and those who feel that abortions are wrong. There appears to be little middle ground and room for compromise in this debate, but at least proponents on both sides are sincere in their beliefs.

I cannot abide a hypocrite, and DesJarlais is a hypocrite with a capital H. His opponent, alas, is little better, condemning DesJarlais while his own record on abortion votes in the legislature is spotty at best. Voters would probably do well to elect “None of the Above” to that congressional seat.

Fortunately for Campbell County, most of the county was moved into Chuck Fleischmann’s congressional district after the recent census and no longer has to rely on Congressman DesJarlais, who couldn’t find Jacksboro if he had a GPS attached to his rump.

Our choice in the upcoming congressional election rests between an unabashed liberal, Dr. Mary Hedrick, and a rock hard conservative in Fleischman. Whichever way you lean, you can at least know that both candidates are being honest about their positions and not pandering for votes by saying whatever they think we want to hear.

Jellico, White Oak and environs were moved into Congressman Jimmy Duncan’s district. Jimmy is arguably the most conservative Tennessean in Congress, but he’s no hypocrite. Duncan was the only Republican to oppose President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, arguing it would be too costly and there was no clear evidence that Iraq supported Al Qaida terrorists or had weapons of mass destruction. History has proven him right on both counts.

Duncan, unlike many of his Republican colleagues who are pandering to the TEA Party crowd, was a rock hard conservative even back when conservative wasn’t cool. Agree with him or not, you’ve got to respect him for being consistent in his beliefs. 

The University of Tennessee athletic department nearly went to the dogs last week as well, when a lawsuit filed by former Lady Vols associate athletic director Debby Jennings included an affidavit from legendary Coach Pat Summit stating that Athletic Director Dave Hart told Summit she would no longer be coaching the Lady Vols after last season.

Before more damage could be done to UT’s reputation, Pat Summit released a statement saying she was not forced to resign and it’s all a big misunderstanding. Maybe, or maybe Pat is falling on her sword for the good of the university and longtime assistant Holy Warlick.

It was painfully clear to all of us Lady Vol fans last year that there were times when Pat wasn’t fully into the games, that her Alzheimers was taking a toll and Warlick was really in charge of the courtside action.

That being said, Pat Summit is the reason that Tennessee women’s basketball is where it is, the dominant power in the sport over the past three decades, with Summit being universally recognized as having done more for the sport of women’s basketball than anyone in the country, period.

The University of Tennessee, and all Lady Vol fans, owe it to Pat Summit to have allowed her to make the call when it was time to step down. If she insisted on coaching another year or even longer, UT should have honored her wish, even if she had to be led to courtside by a nurse or carried in a hospital bed.

If, as Jennings alleges, Hart did in fact tell Pat Summit that her physical condition was too serious for her to continue as head coach and that she must step down, I’ve got only one thing to say: “Dave, you know how to find the highway back to Alabama and if not, there are a lot of fans willing to show you the way.”   (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 10/12/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 10/08/2012)   

John Belushi wasn’t dead, just moved to UT’s fraternity row

Confession time. I stayed home Monday morning and watched the special Today Show college broadcast from UT. I could point out that I’m nursing a bad cold, had plenty of paperwork to do here at the house and decided to stay out of the chilly rain, but I would be lying through my teeth.

I do have plenty of work to keep me right here at my computer, and am still nursing the final stages of a roaring head cold, but I couldn’t resist watching the Hoda and Kathie Lee Big Orange scream fest from UT’s “Hill.”

I really, really hoped that somehow, the disgraced frat boys from Pi Kappa Alpha would pull a true “Animal House” moment and try to sabotage the television program in revenge for losing their charter. That would be worth watching – a John Belushi “Bluto” look-alike springing from the shadows dressed in pirate garb to kidnap Kathie Lee in mid-sip.

Didn’t happen. Not only did the Pikes keep a low profile but Kathie Lee isn’t nearly as big a lush as she is portrayed on Saturday Night Live, and not half as entertaining.

UT should be thankful that it was the Today Show on campus and not Jimmy Fallon or Jay Leno. The university and East Tennessee would have not gotten off so easily, I fear, if one of those comedians had been broadcasting live from Big Orange Country a week after the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity reached all new lows of depraved fraternity behavior.

Depraved might be putting it mildly. I have heard of just about every wacky way that human beings have invented to get high, but ingesting alcohol through the rectum to get higher faster might be hitting an all new low for alcohol abuse. It certainly wins high marks for stupidity. The kidneys are there for a reason, you know, to keep drunks from poisoning themselves among other things.

The one frat brother who ended up in the hospital and had his stupidity immortalized thanks to social media is actually quite fortunate that the jokes about him are not post mortem.

When I first read about the fraternity’s “butt chugging” party, however, my reaction was “Pi Kappa Alpha? Of course, who else?”

The comparisons to the “Animal House” movie are most appropriate in the case of the Pikes, who had a reputation as the party house as far back as my college days in the 19th Century. Well, maybe not that far back. I entered UT as a freshman in 1965, and Pi Kappa Alpha was “the” fraternity to pledge if you wanted to be cool and party on, dude.

Being neither cool nor independently wealthy, I chose not to pledge a fraternity at all, but many of my dormitory mates went through rush week, became pledges and endured the ruthless hazing that was part of fraternity life in those days. A couple of my fellow Lake City mates even pledged Pi Kappa Alpha, so I heard about many of their shenanigans second-hand.

In those days, UT’s neat fraternity park had yet to be constructed. Fraternity row was basically a collection of former private homes in a two-block area adjacent to Hess and Melrose Halls. Directly across the street from my dorm sat the Sigma Nu House.

Sigma Nu was considered the nerd fraternity on campus. Most frats bred future lawyers, businessmen and politicians. Sigma Nu bred shy bespeckled guys with slide rules hanging from their belts, the type that would eventually put man on the moon and invent the Internet. Think George W. Bush or Donald Trump versus Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.

All of the other frats looked upon anyone belonging to Sigma Nu with disgust and loathing, while the Pikes reserved a special level of hatred for the nerds. One early morning, somebody knocked on the front door of the Sigma Nu house. When a sleepy Nubian opened the door, the nozzle of a fire hose was thrust into the house and the water turned on full force from the nearby hydrant.

The masked “firemen” kept the hose trained until furniture, fraternity brothers, stereo systems and wine decanters were all washing out the back door. Sigma Nu, in effect, was cleansed of its sin, which was being un-cool. The university investigated, of course, but found no definite evidence of those responsible and chalked it off as “a fraternity prank.”

Everybody knew the Pikes were the culprits. They were the only fraternity well connected enough to get access to a fire department hose and hydrant and crazy enough to use them. Years later, individual Pike members would eventually confess to the deed after safely graduating to the esteemed position of “alumni with bank accounts.”

The university might have shrugged off the cleansing of Sigma Nu as a prank, but the National Park Service took a less forgiving stance when one of their Civil War cannons went missing from Georgia’s Chickamauga National Battlefield. I seem to recall that the Pikes ended up on probation over that little incident.

As the ‘60s moved on into the early ‘70s, fraternities became less dominant in campus social life. During the pot-fueled Hippie era, fraternities in general became “un-cool” remnants of an earlier age. They survived, however, and eventually became cool again. Unfortunately, judging from recent events they don’t seem to have matured much.

While UT fraternities go out of their way to join wacko politician Stacy Campfield in making our area a national laughing stock, Kathy Lee and Hoda should have taken their road show north to Caryville this past weekend.

There, at the Louie Bluie Festival, the Today Show could have received a better lesson in what makes East Tennessee so special, from mountain scenery to great music to arts, crafts, elk, wild turkeys and rainbow trout. You name it, you could hear it, learn about it or buy it at Cove Lake State Park on Saturday.

And for the first time in a couple of years, the weather cooperated fully. Two years ago the festival was held in June and we learned the hard way that summer’s 90-dregree heat is coming around earlier these days. Last year it was held in October and we learned that winter’s chilly weather is coming earlier as well. Late September, however, turned out to be almost perfect, a little cloudy early with a slight chance of rain that stayed away and temperatures that were just right

I volunteered for an early shift and hung around to hear some music until the cold bug wore me down. By early afternoon the three performance tents were packed, eateries and craft booths were swamped and vehicles were stacked up in every available space. Attendance appeared headed for five figures before the day’s end.

Some members of the county commission have been talking about how Campbell County needs a “fall festival” like many other communities in East Tennessee. My first thought when I heard this was, “Don’t we already have one?”

After this past Saturday I can only repeat that question. Why would we want to organize a fall festival to compete with our own fall festival?  Louie Bluie is the real McCoy, folks. We’re not likely to create anything that can top it for participation, support, or publicity. Let’s work harder to make it even better, if that’s possible, instead of seeking to divert support from something that clearly works well.       (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 10/02/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 09/24/2012)              

Time honored tradition - making mole hills from which to build mountains 

Campbell County’s commissioners, having no weighty, history-making decisions to make, on Monday night did what they have done best over the past thirty years or so and constructed mole hills so they can proceed to make mountains of them.

One good example was a budget amendment to make possible the purchase of a couple of new garbage trucks and some containers for the Sanitation Department.

Since the squires chose to hold the line on a tax increase and additional spending this year, they face the challenge of keeping the ship of government from sinking when it springs a few leaks here and there. One leak appears to be a couple of the trucks used to pick up garbage from the county’s convenience centers for transfer to larger tucks bound for the landfill at Chestnut Ridge.

One of those trucks, Sanitation Supervisor Don Boshears told squires, is in such poor shape that they restrict it to runs close to the garage so the mechanics won’t have so far to go to patch it up during the frequent break-downs.

At a budget committee session, squires nixed one proposal to buy replacement trucks on credit and save money to pay the bonds off by closing convenience centers on Saturdays. Finance Director Moneybags Marlow then worked up an alternate plan, to pay off the notes by using the money each year normally reserved for capital projects in the sanitation budget.

Squires were uncomfortable with that plan as well, worried that there would be no money left when a capital expense, such as a new garbage truck, needs to be funded in the future.

So let me see if I’ve got this straight: the county shouldn’t use the capital outlay funds to pay for garbage trucks because we might need that money later, to pay for garbage trucks. Ohhkay.

Predictably, what the commissioners could agree on was a field trip, as the environmental committee and other interested parties plan to go out and inspect the questionable trucks and see for themselves if they are in as bad a condition as Don claims they are.

We’ll see if school teachers, clerical workers and businessmen can see something that the mechanics have missed, I suppose. Or maybe it’s just a good excuse for postponing the inevitable in hopes that something good will happen, such as one of the trucks being swallowed by a sinkhole so the insurance will pay for a replacement.

Another more or less routine piece of business stirred up a minor fluff when Mayor William Baird presented his list of committee assignments for the commission. It was pretty much a carbon copy of last year’s list, with the addition here and there of newcomer Wendell Bailey and deletion of retired commissioner Melvin Boshears.

Thomas Hatmaker, the commission’s perennial squeaky wheel, was unhappy with the list and asked to be added to both the emergency management and environmental committees, claiming, “I always attend their meetings and give input anyway, but don’t have a vote.”

The committees that have oversight over the ambulance service and the sanitation department?  I can’t imagine why Mayor William would leave Thomas off those two committees.

The mayor refused to add Thomas’s name before the commission voted to approve all assignments, but Thomas simply offered a motion after the list was approved to add his name. Everybody except the two squires from Jellico – J. L. Davis and Alvin Evans – voted “yes.” Translate that vote as “I wish I could get out of all these danged committee meetings and here this fool wants more of ‘em. More power to him.”

So every committee now has five members except the aforementioned emergency management and environmental services, which have six, while Thomas Hatmaker now sits on six committees, which is more in line with the average. Five other squires sit on six committees, including newcomer Bailey. A couple, David Adkins and Bob Walden, are on seven, while most of the others are assigned to five.

These numbers don’t include the Budget & Finance Committee, which by statute includes every member of the commission.

If one considers having to attend committee meetings as a good thing, I suppose an argument could be made that the Mayor had short-changed Squire Hatmaker, placing him on only four committees, a couple of which meet only once in a blue moon.

A stronger argument could be made that the Mayor’s selections exhibit a bit of good ol’ boy sexism. Marie Ayers and Beverly Hall were the only squires to be assigned to only three committees. Marie is chairwoman of the Budget & Finance Committee, but every commissioner sits on that committee automatically, and the commissioners, not the mayor, selected Marie to be the chair. Sue Nance was named to five committees, the low end of the average.

So the big debate at this month’s commission meeting involved assignment to jobs that most everyone tries to figure a way out of. As I said earlier, mole hills, of which mountains are made.

On the national scene, the big news, now that the protesters in the Middle East have exhausted themselves and wandered back home, is Mitt Romney’s gaffs at a Republican fundraiser.

In case you’ve been vacationing at the International Space Station and missed it, Mitt told GOP contributors at a presumably private affair earlier this year that he didn’t concern himself with the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes, consider themselves to be victims on the government dole and will vote for Obama anyway.

One would imagine that all the retired Republicans on social security are not amused, but I doubt that the statement will change many minds. Republicans are going to vote for a Republican and Democrats are going to vote for a Democrat, regardless of how poor the candidate.

Most young people and minorities are going to vote for Obama, regardless of how high the unemployment rate is on Election Day. Racists will vote against Obama, even if unemployment hits an all-time low and Al Qaeda announces that it is defeated and throwing in the towel the week before the election. That leaves us Whigs to decide the outcome.     (UPDATED AT 4:00 PM ON 09/28/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 09/17/2012)         

School board hears a clucking sound? Chickens are coming home to roost

 The country, and the news media, has been riveted this week to what’s going on in the Middle East, where another wave of anti-American violence has turned ugly and fatal. There still seems to be some question as to whether the deadly attack in Libya was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim film or was a carefully planned act of terrorism set on the anniversary of 911.

The film, a low budget attack on the Prophet Mohammed and the Islamic religion, appears to have been produced by a shady character of Egyptian ancestry who is a follower of the Coptic Christian religion. He and his supporters apparently wanted to reach a large segment of the Muslim world by putting out an inflammatory trailer over the Internet.

It worked. Muslims in over a half dozen countries have taken to the streets, shouting their “Death to America” chants, storming embassies and burning flags. Here at home, American leaders paused to mourn the loss of life at our consulate in Libya, then were back to sniping at each other in typical pre-election fashion.

Politicians simply can’t help themselves, but continue to be politicians under any and all circumstances. Forget seeking any real solutions to the problem. It is more important to put the right spin on things and go after those undecided voters.

The sobering fact is that it does not take much to encourage crowds to storm the streets in the Muslim world chanting “Death to America.” A negative film, a Florida preacher announcing he will burn the Koran, any accidental slight of their religion by our soldiers in Afghanistan, and thousands will protest and some will die.

We simply have to recognize that we are not liked in the Muslim world, period. Even our supposed allies, such as the president of Afghanistan and the governments of Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt don’t like us very much. They put up with us because we pump billions of dollars in military aid into their countries or in the case of President Karzai of Afghanistan, if we leave the Taliban come back and shoot him.

As long as we continue to be a staunch ally of Israel, many Muslims around the world are not going to like us very much, it’s as simple as that.

For the longest time, through the 1950s into the ‘70s. we could hang back, provide the bombs and bullets and let the Israelis do the fighting. We guaranteed a steady supply of Middle Eastern oil just by supporting a few selected despots such as the royal family of Saudi Arabia or the Shah of Iran.

The increase of international terrorism beginning in the 1970s has changed all that, forcing the United States to send our troops to the region. First it was Lebanon, with tragic consequences, then Kuwait, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Wherever we send our soldiers, we end up making more enemies than friends and resolving very little.

Obama was right in his decision to pull our soldiers out of Iraq and Afghanistan. If he has made a mistake,, it is probably in hanging around those God-forsaken places too long.

We could probably end a lot of the anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world by taking a hard line with Israel. Tell the Israeli government, “Pull all Jewish settlements out of the West Bank, grant the Palestinians complete independence over their own affairs, allow Jerusalem to become an international city, serving as capital of both Israel and Palestine or we will stop all military aid.”

We won’t do that, of course, and it probably wouldn’t work anyway. The Israelis would simply say, “OK. We’ve already got the bomb. If the United States ceases to help us, we’ll just nuke our neighbors if they attack us again.”

There are probably still a few isolationists in America who would say, “Tap all possible energy reserves to end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and tell ‘em all to go the Hell.”

We won’t do that either. Too many oil sheiks have bought too many shares of stock in American companies and our own economy depends too much on how well European and Asian economies are doing, economies dependent upon Middle Eastern oil.

The sad fact is, in this increasingly complex and economically interwoven world, there are no easy answers. The “Arab Spring” applauded by so many around the world as a sign of hope that Middle Eastern countries would replace authoritarian dictators with western-style democracies has an ugly downside – weak governments increasingly at the mercy of mobs in the streets.

In my view, the most sobering thing about the current violence is that it took so little to set it off. Perhaps the producer of that controversial film really is a Coptic Christian who hates Muslims, but he could just as easily be an agent of Al Qaeda who hates Americans.

If our terrorist enemies want to stir up massive anti-American sentiment around the Muslim world, it is far too easy to do. A low budget film lampooning the Muslim religion traced to the United States and voila! Instant riots in a dozen countries! Much easier, and cheaper, than plotting a terrorist attack on an American city.

One thing we can all do is show a little more tolerance right here at home. There is entirely too much anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, against American Muslims who have nothing to do with the violence in foreign lands. Hatred only begets more hatred.

Here on the home front, Campbell County’s problems are small in comparison. The squires are wrestling with how to keep the garbage moving, now that they have passed a budget with no money to replace a couple of aging trucks. One wag suggested killing two birds with one stone by simply using the garbage to fill in the potholes on decaying county roads.

The school board, meanwhile, left a room filled with citizens waiting around Tuesday night for 45 minutes while they held a “five minute” private executive session with attorney Dail Cantrell at the beginning of the meeting. Wouldn’t be so bad, but this is the second consecutive month that this has happened.

I suggested to new board chairman Josh Parker that perhaps the attorney wouldn’t mind waiting until the board had concluded its other business before having his executive session. He is, after all, paid to attend the meetings while members of the public certainly have better things to do than admire the paint job in the courtroom.

I pointed out a couple of weeks back that citizens attending school board meetings or watching the telecast probably don’t get much enlightenment anyway, as much of their business appears to be hashed out at committee meetings and simply rubber stamped on a consent agenda without discussion at meetings.

Anyone wishing to see a list of those “consent” items could always ask for a copy of the agenda, of course. But now the board has decided to go paperless and a printed copy of the agenda is no longer available to the public. We members of the media can always ask to have the documents emailed to us before meetings but that doesn’t help the general public.

The Campbell County Board of Education, alas, has long had a culture of sharing as little as possible with the public. Over a decade ago, I once wandered into a Jellico restaurant for a bite of lunch to discover nearly the entire school board holding an unannounced meeting. They all got up and left as soon as I walked into the room.

Those people are long departed and the current board has simply inherited that culture, but they continue to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s open meetings law. One of the items on the board’s not-so-public agenda Tuesday night was to eliminate their standing committees.

Not only was too much public business being conducted in non-public settings, but it appears that the board’s own policies restrict committees to specific purposes and don’t allow permanent standing committees.

My deep throat contacts within the school department tell me that some unfortunate comments uttered by a board member about a school employee at one of the aforementioned committee meetings has resulted in a formal complaint. A hearing officer may take none too kindly to the fact that the meeting was illegal to begin with.

Although Tuesday night’s executive session was held in private, I thought I heard clucking sounds coming out of the room at one point. Obviously the chickens have come home to roost.      (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 09/19/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 09/10/2012)         

 

 

Answer to Washington gridlock?  But a Whig in the White House

The donkeys finished their coronation Thursday night, with President Barack accepting the party’s nomination. I am still hoping to live long enough to see an incumbent President show up at the convention and announce, “After giving it considerable thought, I’ve decided that things are too bad and the thankless American people just want somebody to blame it on, so I’m out of here. Ya’ll nominate the vice president or some governor or the washroom attendant, I don’t care.”

Lyndon B. Johnson is the only Prez in my lifetime to announce he wouldn’t run for re-election, but LBJ ruined all the fun by bowing out on television early in the primary season. Would have been so much more entertaining if he had strung the public and the news media along until the convention, then landed a bombshell.

Ah well, one can always hope. At the same time, I’m just about sick to death of all politicians of either stripe. Friday the dreaded jobs report came out. The economy only added around 85,000 new jobs in August, far short of the 200,000 needed to lower the unemployment rate, which remains above eight percent.

What did Romney and his Republican supporters do? They were predictably overjoyed because now Romney can keep hammering away at Obama and the Democrats on the sour economy.

I’m sorry folks, but why should we trust somebody as our leader who is happy that millions of Americans are out of work?

Not that the Democrats are any better. Bill Clinton unseated President Bush the elder back in 1992 with his slogan “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Fact is, whichever party is out of power sits around cheering for the country to go to Hell so they can get back into power. What was it Kentucky Senator and Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell said four years ago? “Our number one priority is to see that Barack Obama is not re-elected.”

O.K. Mitch, so your number one priority was to see Obama fail, which since he is President, means your number one priority was to see the country fail. The Pachyderms almost pulled it off, too. They refused to raise the debt limit, taking our nation to the edge of fiscal default, unless the Democrats agreed to a bipartisan commission to draw up a plan for lowering the deficit. Then they refused to go along with the commission’s recommendations because they included higher taxes on the wealthy.

That means we’re pretty much back where we started, facing another fiscal cliff early next year because the debt limit was not raised significantly enough to take us forward more than a year or so. And we face all those mandatory budget reductions that go into effect because the deficit commission report was rejected, reductions that will put hundreds of thousands more Americans out of work.

We should simply have let the country default on its debts last year, I suppose. We could all be treated to the spectacle of watching the Chinese dismantle the Washington Monument and move it to Peiking while the Swiss bankers auction off Disney World and the Grand Canyon.

Or . . . we could do what some politicians like John McCain seem to think would be the answer to all our problems and start a couple more wars. At least the people who work for the companies making bombs and body bags would still have jobs.

Oh, I forgot. Taxpayers have to pay for those wars. That’s one of the reasons we’re in the deficit mess we’re in to begin with. Eleven years of continuous war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I honestly don’t believe that any politicians have an answer for what ails us, because what ails us is politicians, whether donkey or pachyderm. Nobody believes in the art of compromise these days; it’s all “my way or the highway.”

The TEA Party crowd feels taxed enough already and wants government off their backs. But they do want good roads to drive their pick-ups on, a billion-dollar border fence to keep all the wetbacks out and a few more billion dollars spent on prisons and more cops to keep those unruly radical poor in check.

 The liberals don’t know what they want and the Republicans just want to be back in power. Oh, and maybe a few more tax breaks for millionaires so they can become billionaires a little quicker.

May I once more suggest an alternative? The Whig Party appears to be our only hope. First of all, Whig politicians have not become corrupt, because there are no Whig politicians. Secondly, you can’t blame any of our current problems on the Whigs because the party disintegrated after the election of 1860.

Third, and most importantly, the Whigs were the very definition of the word “compromise,” something Washington is in dire need of these days. Henry Clay of Kentucky was the great Whig icon, along with Daniel Webster, and together they crafted several compromises that kept the country from falling apart over slavery. Clay is known to history as the “Great Compromiser.”

Actually, their tendency to compromise had much to do with the demise of the Whig Party, that and the fact that the anti-slavery abolitionists in the North and the slave-holding gentry who controlled the South were much like the conservatives and liberals of today – “my way or the highway,” or in their case “my way or civil war.”

The last Whig President, Millard Fillmore, put the power of the White House behind what became known as the “Compromise of 1850,” securing peace between North and South for a few more years until ol’ Honest Abe was elected.

That compromise, like many, satisfied no one completely but it did avoid war for a time. Poor Millard outraged the Southern Democrats, who wanted to be able to take their slaves with them when they immigrated to California, and he outraged the Northern Whigs, who wanted to draw a line at the Texas-Louisiana border and allow no slavery in the American West.

Alas, the Whig Party power brokers refused to nominate their own President for re-election and Millard Fillmore retreated to the obscurity of retirement. Well, almost. He came out of retirement four years later as a candidate for President under the banner of the “Know Nothing Party.” They knew one thing – they couldn’t elect Millard to the White House.

The Whig Party enjoyed a brief, but obscure role in American history. The first Whig President, William Henry Harrison, holds the record for the shortest tenure in the White House. William Henry caught a cold at his inauguration on a blustery early spring day and three weeks later died of pneumonia.

Vice President John Tyler, known thereafter as “His Accidentcy,” was the first Vice President to assume the mantle of power through the death of a President. His stay in the White House was likewise brief, as the Whigs expelled him from the party before his term in office expired.

The last elected Whig President was General Zachary Taylor, the Mexican War hero. “Old Rough and Ready” might have done great things, but nobody will ever know. Taylor became ill and died a year into his first term in the White House, leaving the thorny job of crafting a compromise that would save the Union to his Vice President, the aforementioned Millard Fillmore.

Why should this history lesson be of interest to us here in Campbell County? Well, for one thing, East Tennessee Republicans aren’t really Republicans at all, but Whigs. When Abraham Lincoln defeated Democrat Stephen Douglas and Southern Democrat John Breckinridge for the White House in 1860, East Tennessee overwhelmingly supported John Bell, the last Whig to run for President.

Since the Whig Party vanished after the Civil War, East Tennessee Whigs had no choice but to throw their support behind the party of Lincoln, rather than the Southern Democrats dominated by that bunch of ex-Confederates over in West Tennessee.

If you doubt my word, just look at some of our East Tennessee Republican leaders. Lamar Alexander? A Republican who supports environmental causes, wants to restrict mountaintop strip mining and is big on spending money for education, not mainstream conservative stances at all.

Governor Bill Haslim? He has outraged some conservative Republicans in Middle Tennessee by leaving gays and (gasp!) Democrats in a number of state jobs and appointing a Muslim woman to a position in the Department of Economic Development. The fact that she is a Tennessee-born Muslim woman seems to have made little difference to the pachyderms calling for Bill’s scalp.

Shucks, Bill even appointed Madeline Rogero, his former Democratic opponent, to a job in his administration when he was Mayor of Knoxville, helping Madeline secure the Mayor’s office for herself a few years later.

Knoxville Congressman John Duncan, who is generally the very definition of “conservative,” outraged many Republicans and President Bush the younger by refusing to go along with the war in Iraq, saying it was a tremendous waste of money.

Right here closer to home, State Senator Mike Williams of Maynardville, who once represented Campbell County, outraged the new majority State Senate Republicans from Middle and West Tennessee by compromising to support Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, a Democrat, when the Republicans tried to oust him.

For this betrayal of the GOP, Williams was tossed from the party. That was the only way the Republicans could get rid of him, since his home district voters liked the way he did things and would never have voted against Williams in a Republican Primary.

The reason, my friends, that these East Tennessee Republicans seem out of step with the state and national GOP is simple. They’re not Republicans at all, but Whigs.

So my answer to the gridlock in Washington is simple: revive the Whig Party and elect a Whig to the White House. If we aren’t satisfied with the job they do, we won’t have to suffer long. Whigs are notorious for being short-term Presidents.    (UPDATED AT 6:00 PM ON 09/09/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 09/03/2012)             

A country where it’s easier to buy an automatic rifle than to cast a vote?

The GOP convention successfully dodged Hurricane Issac and Mitt Romney received his coronation with only minor hiccups here and there, such as Clint Eastwood’s conversation with a chair and Vice President wannabee Ryan’s little problem with accuracy.

But then, since when has any politician let a little thing like accuracy or the facts stand in the way of a good speech?

Now it’s the donkeys’ turn to dominate prime time TV and I’m sure Joe Biden is up to the challenge of making at least as big an a** out of himself as anyone in the Republican Party.

Of course here on the home front, Republicans wishing to make horse’s rumps out of themselves will have to get in line behind Stacy Campfield. Stacy has managed to make quite a name for himself of late, even being featured by a national magazine.

Tennesseans, of course, have for decades been featured in various national publications. Howard Baker’s photographs made Photography Magazine and Tennessee Conservationist. Al Gore has been featured in Nature, Audubon and most scientific journals. Pat Summit has more than once been a Sports Illustrated cover girl. Only Stacy Campfield, however, has managed to make it as a subject of Psychology Today.

The voters of opulent West Knoxville should be proud. Having everything that they can possibly want already, the only thing the residents of Farragut and Bearden obviously want out of an elected representative is entertainment value, so they keep re-electing Stacy.

Less entertaining are the myriad of voter ID laws that have been passed around the country by Republican-controlled state legislatures, including our own.

Now I have no problem with political parties pulling every hat trick they can in their quest for power. Re-districting voting blocks to favor the party in power is an old and time-honored practice on both sides of the political aisle. Exaggerations, misconceptions and outright lies by politicians are as American as apple pie.

I draw the line, however, with attempts to deny people their right to vote. That is what the voter ID laws are all about, making it prohibitively difficult for the poor, the elderly and minorities to cast their votes.

Voter fraud? Bull. You can count the number of instances on one hand where Tennesseans tried to vote who are ineligible. Illegal immigrants? They have no intention of attracting attention to themselves by trying to vote illegally.

No, the majority of accusations of voter fraud that I can recall don’t involve voters, but election officials, from the dimpled chat uproar that gave George Bush the election in Florida, all the way back to the missing ballot box that reappeared in time to give a young Lyndon B. Johnson victory in his first Texas congressional election.

The Battle of Athens shortly after World War II had nothing to do with ineligible voters attempting to cast ballots, but a corrupt McMinn County sheriff who seized all the ballot boxes and locked them away in the courthouse while his men changed enough paper ballots to give him the election.

Returning WW II veterans seized the National Guard armory, blasted the crooked sheriff and his cronies out of the courthouse and didn’t stop chasing him until he reached the Georgia line.

Fortunately, the federal courts will have the last word on most of these recent voter ID laws. Two federal three-judge panels have already shot down both the voter ID law and the congressional re-districting plan passed by the Texas legislature, ruling that they discriminate against minorities and the poor.

South Carolina and Virginia will be next and then, perhaps Tennessee. Republican politicians predictably are blaming the Obama administration for federal rulings on the voter ID laws, but they overlook the fact that most federal judges have lengthy terms on the bench. These judges were for the most part appointed during the Bush administration. Their rulings have less to do with politics and more to do with the Constitution.

I predict that most will either be struck down or states will be forced to make photo IDs much more accessible and at no additional cost in order to stand the constitutional smell test. As one political cartoon I noticed said, “You have to wonder about a country where it’s easier to get an automatic rifle than it is to cast a vote.”

While our erstwhile leaders seem intent on increasing security of the ballot box, they can’t even insure the security of nuclear weapons at Y-12.

I notice that while various government commissions have criticized everything from upper level management to maintenance of security cameras and alarms, the only person actually fired for the recent security breach at Y-12 was the guard who finally did respond to alarms and catch the three protesters.

His sin was apparently that he treated the Catholic nun and two old men with kid gloves after he found out who they were, rather than slamming them to the ground, pummeling them with his nightstick and cuffing their unconscious bodies together. For that, the guard lost his job while the higher ups just got transferred around to other positions.

The government appears poised to throw the book at the three elderly peace protesters, but we might consider giving them medals instead, for exposing the flaws in nuclear weapon security before somebody named Osama tried the same trick.       (UPDATED AT 10:00 AM ON 09/03/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 08/27/2012)                        

 

GOP, like Veep Joe Biden, should stay out of storm’s path and not tempt fate

Ho hum. The big commission brouhaha over the budget was a non-starter Monday night, leaving all of us media types and other observers with little in the way of entertainment value.

The squires managed to find another way to come up with matching funds to earn the federal grant for an industrial park railroad spur in Jellico, and passed the budget as advertised, without a tax increase.

With no fireworks to report, our two county newspapers turned to some investigative journalism for a change, both featuring articles that I found both interesting and informative.

The Press carried a front page article on the county’s tax equalization board, which rolled back the property tax appraisal on Emerson Properties by enough to cost the county around 50 grand in potential tax revenue.

Emerson last year bought out much of what had been Villages of Norris Lake, one of those optimistic high end developments that took it on the chin when the real estate bubble burst in the past few years. The new owners lost little time in appealing the appraisals placed on these lakeside and lake view lots when the last state property reappraisal was conducted, claiming that they were grossly over-valued.

The local board agreed, but may have gone overboard in lowering values on some lots by nearly 90 percent. The board was also inconsistent, in that another property owner with lots in the same development had its appeal denied. Property Assessor Brandon Partin appears to feel it was too much of a tax break, and says he plans to appeal the decision to the state board of equalization.

Tennessee is one of a unique handful of states in one respect. All states have some vehicle for appealing your own property appraisal if you think it is unfairly high. Tennessee allows taxpayers who feel that another property owner is paying too little to also appeal, something that is rarely done because hardly anyone knows that the right exists.

The SOCM organization, famous or infamous depending on one’s point of view for its opposition to strip mining, actually got its start back in 1971 when a handful of mountain residents in Campbell and four other counties appealed the appraisals on coal lands owned by a handful of big land companies.

They failed to budge the local boards of equalization, but won big at the state level, resulting in coal lands being reappraised across the state to reflect more accurately the true value of the mineral wealth beneath the surface.

This took a great deal of courage by this handful of people, many of them long gone. The land companies wielded tremendous power, both at the courthouse but especially up in the mountain communities where many people still lived in rented “company houses.”

Most property owners would never take advantage of this right to appeal other people’s property appraisals. We are usually concerned only with what we pay, not what our neighbor isn’t paying, but this appeal process can have interesting results.

Back in the early 1980s, I owned a small tract of mountain land near Lake City, amounting to less than ten acres on a flat natural bench of Vowell Mountain. My land was reappraised at around $600 an acre but I noticed that my neighbor, Coal Creek Mining & Manufacturing Company, was appraised at $90 an acre for identical road front land on the same flat bench. I appealed to the appraisal team.

“What do you think your land should be valued for?” the state appraiser asked.

“Oh, I think $600 an acre is a fair amount, maybe even a little low,” I replied. “But Coal Creek owns around 50 acres identical to mine and they’re valued much too low. They should be raised up to at least $300 or $400.”

The appraiser from the state was dumbfounded. Apparently he had never had this happen before. “Uh, well, we appraise large tracts differently than small tracts because not all the acreage is the same,” he said.

“Still, the land company could divide the road front tract off and sell it for much more than $90 an acre,” I argued.

In the end, the appraisal team wasn’t about to increase the land company’s appraisal and face their battery of high-priced lawyers. They simply applied grease to the squeaky wheel instead and lowered my appraisal, and that of my other two neighbors, down to $150 an acre.

So, if you feel you’re valued too high, don’t get mad, get even. Look around for a few properties similar to yours, find one that is appraised much lower and ask that they pay more. The Board of Equalization, faced with such an unusual appeal, may lower your appraisal so that you will just go away.

The county’s other newspaper, the Journal-Leader, decided to pick apart a school board policy change that basically says the board must grant permission for cameras to be used to take photos or film board meetings.

Of course the school board is not likely to ever attempt to ban cameras from public board meetings. That was just one of several policy manual changes endorsed by the Tennessee School Board Association and sent on for local boards to adopt.

But the principal of the thing was what attracted the attention and condemnation of the newspaper, for good reason. Simply stated, such a policy violates the state’s open meetings law. The TSBA, which I’ve always viewed as a bunch of dunderheads advising a flock of sheep, comes up with a lot of anti-teacher, anti-news media, anti-student and anti-parent policies that make no sense whatsoever.

This was a good example, a policy based on an attorney general’s opinion that was reversed by the same attorney general the same year he wrote it. Somebody forgot to tell the TSBA, or they conveniently ignored the reversal, and now have passed it down to local boards, creating a minor furor.

Sadly, openness has never been a strong point with the Campbell County Board of Education. I’ve been filming the meetings for years for Channel 12 and can honestly say that if cameras were banned, the public wouldn’t miss much.

The board prepares a consent agenda that is approved without discussion, and the agenda provided to the public contains no explanation of what is contained in the various policy changes and resolutions. Much of the board’s work involves personnel matters that are likewise not discussed in public, or the myriad of lawsuits and litigation involving the school system. That is all hashed out in private “executive sessions” with board attorney Dail Cantrell.

It is little wonder that the only people who attend most board meetings are school department supervisors, the news media and teachers or students who are invited to receive recognition of some sort.

The rubber-neckers who regularly attend commission meetings gave up on the school board years ago, after falling asleep for the third or fourth time.

Ah well, at least the national political picture is growing more exciting. Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin, otherwise known as Congressman Foot-in-Mouth, is about to be legitimately raped at the polls by the women of the Show-Me State. Even the national Republican Party, which desperately needs a victory in Missouri to capture the Senate, has pulled the plug on Akin’s candidacy.

The Pachyderms, meanwhile, are about to find out if God truly blesses the GOP agenda, as they prepare to gather in Tampa to nominate Mitt Romney while the season’s first hurricane blows it’s way toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Considering the way Congress has behaved in the past couple of years, smart politicians of either stripe would do well to not risk the Lord’s wrath. Vice President Joe Biden is not about to tempt fate, and has canceled his planned trip to Tampa next week.   (UPDATED AT 11:00 AM ON 08/26/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 08/20/2012)    

Re-thinking the budget – squires eye  ‘James Slusher Honorary Tax Increase’

The cast is off and I’m back to normal, whatever that is, following minor surgery a couple of weeks back. Now I can look forward to months of physical rehab as I train my left hand to function properly once more.

I went in for my first rehab session at Patricia Neal Center in Oak Ridge last week, to be greeted by a sweet young lady who appeared much too young for her nine years of experience, or perhaps I’m simply showing my age.

I made some crack about expecting my therapist to come out wearing black leotards with a whip and taser gun and a “Pain is Good!” tattoo, but she merely smiled and said, “Oh, you must mean Lucretia. You’ll see her next week.”

Sure enough, when I received my two-month schedule, my therapist next week is named Lucretia. This is the last time I will ever try to be a wise*** with anyone who has control over a part of my body.

I would say here that I’ll limit my wise*** comments to politicians such as our own esteemed body of county commissioners, but other citizens, such as career commission watchdog James Slusher, have beaten me to the punch.

When last we heard from Mr. Slusher, he was scolding the county over the findings listed in the state comptroller’s audit, which included the oft-repeated suggestion that courthouse offices need more separation of duties so that the same people who handle money do not keep the records.

This has come up numerous times in the past with the same response – courthouse elected officials run their own offices and decide how many personnel to hire, totally independent of the squires. Most choose to keep personnel, and costs, down by not separating duties.

Of course this is the same Jim Slusher who a month earlier, had been at the commission meeting browbeating the squires, who he called a “failed institution,” for even contemplating a property tax increase. He got his wish in July, when commissioners cut all requests for additional spending, trashed their own discretionary fund and approved a school budget that personnel-wise, is cut to the bone, but with not even a penny of increase to the property tax.

Monday night the commissioners held their workshop, where they might have expected some praise from Slusher and the no new tax crowd for their frugal decisions.

What they got from Mr. Slusher was another browbeating. Everything the squires cut from the budget was the wrong thing to cut, they were told. The county needs an industrial recruiter, the county needs more money in the Road Department for asphalt, the county needs to take advantage of that federal grant to build a railroad spur at Oswego Industrial Park.

What’s more, since Campbell County has no United Way, those commission discretionary funds are critical for the survival of many worthwhile small organizations dong charitable work in the county.

James read the squires the riot act and I can’t say that I don’t totally agree with him on the importance of most of these things. The discretionary funds have been a major source of support for volunteer fire departments, senior citizens and other critical functions of our community. We need industry, and Jellico seems to have taken an unfairly lopsided portion of the budgetary hits.

Where I do differ with James Slusher is in my approach to funding these important functions. I said before that our county is, like all others across the state and the nation as a whole, suffering the effects of trickle-down economics. In our case the trickle-down is when Uncle Sam cuts federal spending and brags about it, but simply passes the costs of doing the public’s business down to state government.

The members of our state legislature, bless their little pea-brained hearts, then cut state spending, thump their collective chest for being watchdogs of the public dollar, and pass the costs on down the line to county and city governments.

The county commissioners turn around to pass the costs on down to  . . . uh . . . oops, nobody left below them to pass the costs to except taxpayers. “Surprise, surprise, surprise,” as Gomer Pyle would say.

For my part, I think a modest property tax increase each year or two would keep the county current with rising costs, fund a few things that we need like paved roads and partially offset the decline in revenues from Uncle Sam and Auntie Nashville. Four to six cents on the tax rate isn’t going to deprive the average Campbell County homeowner of more than a couple of Happy Meals, or more likely, a dozen Poweball tickets.

As for those retirees out on Norris Lake with $700,000 homes, well, if they can afford the home they can afford the extra hundred bucks or so to keep their local volunteer fire department viable and pave the road to their front door.

Slusher, instead, continues to insist that all these important things should be paid for without increasing taxes a cent. His answer is to take a scalpel to the budget and carve out the fat, meaning jobs of county employees. James told the squires, “Government isn’t in the business of providing jobs, but providing services with the fewest people necessary.”

He said this while bragging about his role as chief financial officer at an unnamed college, where he laid off 81 people to balance the budget while receiving threats, nails under his tires and hate emails. I thought for a minute there we were listening to Mitt Romney talking about his days at Bain Capital.

Well, some commissioners responded by pointing out that county employees pay taxes, spend money and contribute to the local economy as well, and massive layoffs would just put more people out competing for the limited number of jobs, drawing unemployment benefits and becoming a drain, rather than an asset, to the community.

Slusher cheerfully pointed out that the federal government is preparing to end the 99-week unemployment benefit and we will all return to a 26-week unemployment cycle, saving taxpayer dollars. Oh joy, more people without jobs and without benefits. When faced with a choice between welfare, starvation or selling drugs, guess what most people will choose? There is something in our natural selection process that prevents most of us from starving ourselves to death for the good of the taxpayer.

Of course I have a more pointed criticism of the “lay off people to buy more asphalt while keeping taxes down” approach. Who’s gonna lay down the asphalt? Who’s gonna collect the taxes? Who’s gonna separate those duties in courthouse offices?

Slusher and his allies, if he has any left after three months of conflicting criticisms, seem to think there are all these dead-enders collecting county paychecks while doing nothing worthwhile.

Some of you out there are now saying, “Yeah. We call them elected officials and all they do is run for office and collect a check after winning the election.”

Perhaps so, but elected officials are mandated by state law. They can’t be laid off. If personnel cuts are made in any county department, those cuts will be primarily among the people who actually do the work, and anyone who has been forced to stand in line at a courthouse office, wait too long for response to an emergency call or sit with a hundred others in a crowded courtroom all day over a speeding ticket probably knows we have no great surplus of people doing the work.

Slusher probably would pick on his favorite whipping boy, the Finance Office, with a staff of thirteen people managing the county’s money, insurance benefits, payroll checks and budgets. If any of those employees are dead wood doing nothing, they do a good job of covering it up. I’m never in that office that everyone isn’t busy doing something, but say you could cut three, even four positions from Finance, what would that get you?

Maybe an industrial recruiter, or half a mile of asphalt, but certainly not everything that the commissioners have had to cut from the budget to avoid a tax increase, or even make a significant dent in the list.

The squires agreed unofficially to take another look at the budget next Monday night before final passage, partly due to Slusher’s protests and partly, I suspect, because several were uncomfortable with the zero tax increase, zero progress budget to begin with.

Maybe they should put some of those things back in the budget after all, and jack up the property tax by a dime or so to pay for them. They could call it the James Slusher Honorary Tax Increase.  (UPDATED AT 10:00 AM ON 08/17/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 08/13/2012)                         

Let’s hear it for the NRA and back yard surface-to-air missile systems

It has taken awhile, but I’ve finally mastered the art of typing with one hand. The trick is to write really long sentences, in which one needs to shift to capital letters less frequently, in order to avoid the need to hit both the shift key and the letter key at the same time, which of course requires the use of two hands.

It also helps to avoid using proper names, such as dennis potter, brandon partin or wendell bailey, so you may notice that I will refer to these gentlemen simply as the “incumbent” or the “victorious challenger” in subsequent paragraphs.

Suffice it to say that there were few surprises in Thursday’s election, at least in this neck of the woods. The incumbent property assessor was re-elected without much trouble, as was the incumbent road superintendent and most incumbent school board members. One school board incumbent, David Lynch, was unseated by a victorious challenger, as was the recently appointed county commissioner, Scott Stanfield.

Scott’s sister swears that the whole family worked hard and is disappointed by the loss, but I wonder if Scott, having seen the details of next year’s budget train wreck looming ahead, didn’t throw the election. We have only his word that he voted for himself, after all. My condolences go out to Wendell Bailey.

The one-hand typing comment is partly in jest. I do have the use of a couple of fingers on my left hand after having surgery last week, but most of my hand is wrapped up from fingertip to elbow in a bandage and cast. This has left me with several things for which I can offer thanks.

Number one, I’m thankful that the surgery went well and I’ve suffered only minor pain and discomfort. The inconvenience has only given me a greater appreciation for those people who must learn to function with permanent disabilities.

Number two, I’m thankful that my surgery coincided with the London Olympics. Three days of TV sitcoms and MASH reruns would probably have been more than my fragile sanity could bear, but I enjoy watching the Olympics.

Being in anesthetic pawpaw land for a couple of days also helped me avoid the final barrage of pre-election political ads. It also gave me an excuse to not jump up to answer my phone every time it rang, which is a good thing.

In addition to political robo-calls from Congressman Chuck “I’m an Obama-hating conservative” Fleischman and challenger Scottie “I’m an Obama-despising arch conservative” Mayfield, Anderson County had two candidates running for county mayor who spent enough money on the race to balance the budget.

They should have both resigned from the race and simply turned over their campaign funds to the taxpayers – it would have done more for the county than either one is likely to achieve as mayor. I received a minimum of one automated call from Terry Frank each day for a week and nearly as many from Warren Gooch, and enough slick campaign mailers to wallpaper my living room. Anyone who wants a public office that badly should not be trusted.

The election results elsewhere around the state held few surprises. Four Democratic state legislators lost their seats to four other Democratic state legislators after the Republican-controlled legislature shifted districts around to match incumbent donkeys against each other.

The Democrats cried “foul” but in all honesty, the donkeys have been guilty of the same tactics in the past when they held the legislative majority.

The GOP didn’t exactly come out unscathed in their primary either. Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart lost her bid for re-election after the National Rifle Association poured $75,000 into the race to help her opponent. Maggart, who votes staunchly conservative on most issues, angered the NRA by refusing to go along with their “guns in parking lots” bill.

The NRA’s decision to punish one of the GOP’s legislative stars has angered many in the Republican leadership, who accuse the NRA of bullying. The NRA, bullies? Surely not.

If the GOP members of the legislature had an ounce of courage and self-respect, they would push a bill next year to abolish possession of automatic weapons in Tennessee and teach the NRA a lesson. That will not happen. Courage and self-respect are woefully lacking in the Tennessee General Assembly, on either side of the political aisle.

Instead, the NRA will probably get their bill passed next session to allow gun owners to carry their firearms in their vehicles onto university campus parking lots, private business parking lots, hospital parking lots and church parking lots, regardless of the wishes of the owners of said parking lots.

After all, our Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to arm bears, uh, bear arms. I’m for that. I firmly believe that every American has the right to possess and carry around at least one muzzle-loading flintlock rifle weighing somewhere around fifteen pounds, along with a powder horn, some spare flints and a bagful of .44 caliber lead balls.

That is the type of firearm that was in use when our founding fathers wrote the Constitution and I firmly believe in adhering closely to the intentions of the framers of the Constitution, just like the NRA does.

As far as automatic weapons capable of firing off a hundred rounds in rapid succession without reloading? Only the police and the military should be allowed to possess such firepower. Automatic weapons are no good for hunting – they are forbidden by most states’ hunting regulations. They are no good for protecting the home  or person – takes too long to get them out, loaded and in action and you can’t pack them into your favorite restaurant.

Automatic weapons are useless in target-shooting competitions and too modern to be considered antique collectors’ items, so of what possible use does the average citizen have for one.

Well, paranoid militia types who believe they will have to defend the homeland at some point from an invasion of turbaned fanatics from Azerbaijan want them. Also, crazy little computer game shut-ins living with their war game fantasies in Momma’s basement want them. When they finally snap, they want their automatic weapons so they can go out and commit mass killings of innocent women and children.

Every time we have a Columbine, or an Aurora or a Virginia Tech, the media leaps into a frenzy about automatic weapons and how easy it was for the nut case who did the shooting to obtain their instruments of destruction. Then the NRA fires off some press releases quoting the Constitution and the same old “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” rhetoric, and the whole debate goes away again.

Until another nut case, say in Tucson or Wisconsin or at a Unitarian Church in Knox County, goes off the deep end and more innocent people die. People with guns kill people. The fruitcake who massacred all those movie-goers in Colorado couldn’t have done it with a slingshot. The lunatic who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords couldn’t have killed all those innocent bystanders with a pocket knife.

The NRA again has blood on its hands. They feed off the paranoia of Americans who need a pistol in their pocket to feel secure. They convince us that any small limits on our ability to own and possess any type of firearm we might desire are the first steps toward taking away all our rights to possess firearms.

“First our automatic weapons, then our handguns and then our hunting rifles and shotguns.” That is the mantra of the NRA and it appears to work.

So to protect our constitutional, God-given right to bear arms, we need to expand the definition of “arms” to include as wide a range of weaponry as possible Let’s hear it for legalization of the back yard surface-to-air missile! Keeping up with Jones could take on a whole new meaning.  (UPDATED AT 2:00 PM ON 08/07/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 08/07/2012)          

East Tennessee should have broken off when we had the chance – in 1865

The big showdown over the budget turned into a no-show last week when tax protesters got their way and the commission passed a budget with no property tax increase.

Finance Director Moneybags Marlow did what the squires instructed him to do and took a scalpel to the budget, trimming a bit here and there, nudging a little more projected revenue where possible and leaving off all of the add-ons from departmental wish lists.

There are, of course, victims. The patient survived the surgery, but not with all body parts intact. Gone are the commissioners’ discretionary funds, which leaves a number of school sports and band programs, volunteer fire departments and other non-profit groups that depended on donations from these funds begging money from other sources. Expect a marked increase in fundraising roadblocks, bake sales and just plain begging in the upcoming year.

Also gone are plans for an industrial recruiter, a new garbage truck and additional driver, modest raises for county employees, 25 percent of the county’s support for Jellico’s ambulance service and a million dollars’ worth of asphalt to pave roads.

The garbage truck may not be needed if the county’s aging fleet holds together. If one falls apart, well, the squires can replace it by pulling emergency funds from the fund balance, then figure out how to replenish the fund balance before the next fiscal year begins.

Many squires through the years treat the fund balance like a rainy-day fund, but it’s more than that. It is the cash on hand that keeps the county operating during the first few months of the fiscal year until current year property tax collections begin to come in after October.

If the fund balance is allowed to fall to a point where it cannot meet spending requirements, the county faces the unhappy prospect of borrowing money and paying interest just to keep the lights burning.

Now, this group of squires can look forward to the next budget, when state revenues will continue to shrink, costs will continue to rise, and all the fat and a significant amount of meat and bone has already been removed from the carcass. I suppose they figure that if roads have deteriorated to a point where the “no tax” crowd can’t drive to the courthouse, dealing with a potential tax increase will be less painful.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but why resist modest increases year after year and then end up having to pass a significant property tax increase, and possibly tack on a higher wheel tax, all at once just to keep things from falling apart?

The six cent increase in the tax rate that was needed this year to offset declining revenues and state-mandated increases in local education spending would have cost a taxpayer with a $100,000 home a grand total of $15 a year. That is much less painful than the combination of a $10 wheel tax increase and ten cent tax increase that these same squires had to pass a couple of years ago because the previous commission refused to pass modest tax increases when they were needed.

And some of the revenues projected to balance this budget are non-recurring and may well be pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. One example is the coal severance tax, projected at $60,000 or so in the current fiscal year, despite the fact that no mines are currently producing coal in the county.

That 60 grand is money that the Finance Director has determined should have been paid to Campbell County by one company, based on coal production statistics. Since that company’s offices are located in Anderson County, it is presumed that the state sent all of the company’s severance tax payments to our neighbor. Moneybags has requested the State of Tennessee to investigate the matter and make sure the funds are re-directed to Campbell County, where the coal was actually mined.

Since the state has nothing to gain or lose in this readjustment, it is taking its sweet time. We may or may not receive this $60,000 in the current fiscal year. The money will have to be withheld from other state revenues owed to Anderson County, as the company is no longer producing coal in either county Good luck with that.

The other big happening in Campbell County this past week was the Congressional candidates’ forum sponsored by county veterans down at the courthouse.

Congressman Chuck Fleishman was there, along with Republican opponents Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp.  I passed on attending this shindig, just to hear each candidate insist that he is more conservative than the other conservatives.

“I’m a rock hard conservative Republican and I’m endorsed by the NRA!”

“Well I’m a cast iron conservative Republican and I’m endorsed by the NRA, Right to Life and Sons of the Confederacy.”

“That’s nothing, I’m a titanium steel conservative and I’m endorsed by Soldier of Fortune Magazine, the KKK and Sarah Palin!”

I don’t quite get the part where these candidates forget that East Tennessee Republicans tend to be moderates who have elected people like Howard Baker, Lamar Alexander and Governor Bill Haslam. They were speaking to a crowd in Campbell County, the only county in East Tennessee that voted for Al Gore as president over George Bush because, after all, Al was a Tennessee boy regardless of political persuasion.

In fact, East Tennessee Republicans have always been more or less moderate, dating back to Abraham Lincoln. East Tennesseans supported the Union, Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. West and Middle Tennesseans supported the Confederacy, Jeff Davis and the Democratic Party, which at the time was the party of Southern planters and slaveholders.

After Reconstruction ended, Democrats continued to rule Tennessee politics for nearly a century – conservative Southern Democrats. Then the national Democratic Party embraced the Civil Rights Movement and all those Southern white racists switched to the Republican Party.

This has finally given Tennessee a Republican majority in the legislature but folks, it’s not the Republican Party of my grandmother. Too many conservative Southern white former Democrats have caused the party of Lincoln to tilt much further to the right than most folks are comfortable with.

Governor Bill is getting a dose of this right now, as GOP leaders in a number of counties have all condemned him for retaining too many state employees who are gay or worse yet, Democrats. They are especially hard on him for hiring a Muslim woman, Samar Ali, to head up international marketing in the Office of Community & Economic Development.

Accusing Ms. Ali of intending to bring Shariah Law into state government, some Republican leaders in Williamson, Stewart, Carroll, Humphreys and several other counties have circulated petitions that basically call Governor Haslam a turncoat.

I wonder how Samar Ali, who grew up and attended high school in Waverly, and her family feel about Republican leaders in her home town criticizing her hiring. I notice that all of the county Republican groups that signed on to this criticism are in Middle and West Tennessee. I also can’t help but wonder how many of these racist jerks used to be Southern Democrats before the Civil Rights Era.

When West Virginia mountain folk decided they didn’t want to fight against their country for a gang of rich Virginia plantation owners, they broke away and formed their own state. I often think it’s too bad that we in East Tennessee didn’t do the same thing.

The only thing Nashville’s got going for it is the home of Country Music, and let’s face it folks, the Grand Ole Opry stole all the music from East Tennessee. Maybe it’s still not too late to restore the State of Franklin.  (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 07/30/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 07/30/2012)          

Forget snake handling; it’s little ole us versus the United States of America

Just as I predicted, we had company at Monday night’s county commission meeting. Channel 12’s little camera was dwarfed by crews covering the meeting for WATE, WVLT, WBIR, CW and Fox.

They were all present to see if Campbell County would go down in history as the first local government to vote for the legalizing of snake handling at religious services. Well, technically the commission would be voting to ask the state legislature to legalize the handling and keeping of poisonous snakes.

It didn’t happen, The squires lost little time debating a motion by Beverly Hall, seconded by Thomas Hatmaker, to send a resolution of support to Representative Dennis Powers. They voted the motion down 10-2, but Reverend Andrew Hamblin at least got his moment in the sun. He was interviewed by every TV network in Knoxville, pledging to go pray about it and keep on trying.

The only fireworks at the meeting came when a few other folks tried to horn in on Reverend Hamblin’s moment by grandstanding for the TV cameras. Local blogger Jerry Chadwell and constant Finance Department critic and tax protester James Slusher conspired to take advantage of a clerical oversight that has existed for months.

While the squires voted last year to allow citizens to address the commission only at the workshop held one week before monthly commission meetings, the commission agenda continued to have an item labeled “Citizens wishing to address the commission” printed on the front cover.

Chadwell admits he pointed this out to Slusher, who demanded his right to speak at the meeting. Mayor William Baird finally relented after County Attorney Joe Coker ruled that since the item was on the agenda, the squires would have to vote to remove it or allow Slusher to speak.

The commission voted 7-5 to remove the item but with three squires absent, the vote fell one short of a majority. Slusher then launched into a re-play of the same complaints he had addressed to the commission a week earlier, about the findings of an annual state audit which pointed out several deficiencies. Nearly everything was old news that has been discussed at commission meetings before, but this time there were all those television cameras rolling.

I’m not at all sure that the squires had to allow anyone to speak, despite the county attorney’s opinion. The rules set down by the commission require that members of the public wishing to address the commission must sign in on a sheet provided for that purpose before the meeting is convened. There was no sign-in sheet so Mr. Slusher did not sign up to speak before the meeting began.

At one point, Slusher crowed, “The Director of Finance is on defense and I’m on the offense. It’s the offense that scores points.”

Predictably, after that, Finance Director Moneybags Marlow had to defend himself and explain the audit findings. His explanations were adequate, but lengthy. Accountants do not offer short explanations of anything.

After entirely too much of this circular discussion, Bobby White had heard enough and made a motion to adjourn the meeting, stating, “We’re not down here doing the business of the people.”

Jerry Chadwell, sitting on the front row next to Slusher, told White, “You ought to resign.”

White told Chadwell to “Stick it,” and invited him to run against him. Chadwell replied, “I don’t live in your district,” and White shot back, “Move into it!”

By this time, William Baird had seen enough and called a five-minute recess to allow things to cool off. After the recess, White apologized but Chadwell said something else critical and received a warning from Baird: “The next comment from the audience and I’ll ask the Sheriff to remove you from the room.”

Alas, James Slusher’s efforts were mostly in vain, as all those Knoxville TV stations were present to report on snake-handling, not Campbell County politics. He has constantly harped about the need for the county to set up an audit committee to oversee the Finance Department.

This harping started shortly after Mr. Slusher was removed by the commission from membership on the Financial Management (FMS) Committee, which already provides oversight, theoretically, over the Finance Department. James appears to feel the FMS Committee doesn’t provide enough oversight, now that he’s no longer a member.

As for Jerry Chadwell, he might be an activist, a reformer, or a crusader, but one thing he is not is a journalist. Journalists observe, interpret and report, but they do not insert themselves into the story. If they have opinions, they reserve them for the editorial page.

Meanwhile, the most questionable thing I saw the squires do on Monday night had nothing to do with snake handling, audit findings or comments from the audience.

Attorney Mark Silvey, representing the Greg Coleman law firm, approached the commission about joining a class action lawsuit against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, those two controversial, federally connected agencies that buy mortgages from lenders and issue guaranteed securities in exchange.

Freddie and Fannie were established to help make home ownership more affordable for middle class families, but their tendency to guarantee loans to people who couldn’t repay them contributed to the collapse of the housing market and resulting recession.

As a result, Fannie and Freddie have been busy in recent years foreclosing on a lot of homes, placing them on the market and re-selling them. Attorney Silvey told commissioners that there is where the rub is – Freddie and Fannie claim that like the federal government, they are exempt from paying the transfer fees and taxes when those homes are resold.

Silvey explained that the counties, including Campbell, are losing money when those properties are transferred without collecting the fee, 37 cents on each $100 of value.

Joe Coker pointed out that around 97 percent of that fee goes to the State of Tennessee, with the county retaining only a small portion. On a $100,000 sale, the State would collect $370 but the county’s share would only be around nine dollars.

Thomas Hatmaker pointed out that since the county receives money from the state, it can only help if the state gains more revenue. Bob Walden made a motion to join the class action, Hatmaker seconded the motion and all twelve squires present quickly approved the motion.

Silvey then congratulated Campbell County on being “our first plaintiff.” That is when I began to have this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“If this is such a good deal, why is Campbell County the only county to sign on so far?” I asked myself, “And why, since the State of Tennessee stands to collect considerably more than the counties, has it not already filed a lawsuit challenging Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s claims of exemption?”

By Thursday, I got at least part of my answer when the Knoxville News Sentinel ran a story about Mayor William Baird filing a lawsuit on behalf of Campbell County in federal court against Fannie and Freddie.

Of course William had done no such thing, but with the commission’s vote on Monday night and subsequent vote to authorize Mayor Baird to represent the county in this matter, they had given the Coleman law firm permission to sue on Campbell County’s behalf.

Apparently the Coleman firm didn’t feel a need to approach any other counties to join the class action suit, once they had Campbell County as the poster child for the entire state. So it’s little ole us against Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and oh yeah, the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Attorney Silvey failed to mention that Uncle Sam would be a direct plaintiff in the lawsuit as well.

This may not be a bad thing. Campbell County could stand to gain a couple of thousand dollars at most, and by being the primary plaintiff in a class action, help a lot of other Tennessee counties collect a few hundred or a few thousand dollars at most and help the state collect a few hundred thousands or millions of dollars.

It seems that perhaps the federal government, which is already battling record deficits, will end up paying the bill on this in one way or another, which means all us taxpayers will pay the bill. That includes the legal fees that will be earned by the Coleman law firm if they are successful, and you can bet that will be a few hundred thousand bucks at the very least.

Maybe the commission should have taken this matter under advisement and inquired further into why the state and other, larger counties had not already jumped on the bandwagon. Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a problem with enriching a gang of class action lawyers at taxpayers’ expense.   (UPDATED AT 4:00 PM ON 07/20/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 07/23/2012)           

 

Answer to county’s road woes: build bike trails - very wide bike trails

After much posturing and gnashing of teeth, the Battle of the Budget kicked off for real this week. County commissioners have heard from all sides now. Moneybags Marlow has laid out the cold, hard facts that loss of revenue from the state means at least a six cent increase in the property tax while various “wish list” items from department heads add another twenty cents or so to the pot.

With James Slusher as lead spokesman, the squires have heard from the “no new taxes” crowd, consisting largely of people with no children in the school system. Without coming right out and saying it, this group’s message seems to be, “Our kids are already educated and on their own; your kids can always get jobs at Taco Bell. We’re not paying for their schooling.”

If this sounds a bit harsh, I meant it to be. I pay taxes down in Anderson County, where the county commissioners in recent years have seldom seen a money request from the school board they didn’t like. Anderson County taxpayers have not only a higher tax rate than Campbell County, but generally higher appraisal values on their property, so it’s costly to live there.

But one of the reasons that property values are higher is that the schools are better and jobs more plentiful, a result of all that spending on education. You get what you pay for. Campbell County watches the parade of cars coming and going at Caryville each day on its way south to Clinton and Oak Ridge – where the jobs are. Meanwhile our young people can always work at McDonalds . . .  or sell drugs.

But all the screaming and crying did accomplish something. School Director Donnie Poston and Moneybags got together, pulled a little money out of the schools’ capital outlay budget, carried over some once-in-a-blue-moon savings from utility costs thanks to our mild winter, and were able to scale back the Board of Education’s request from ten cents to four.

Of course the next time we don’t have a mild winter, that $290,000 will have to be made up somewhere so it’s a temporary fix at best.

Still hanging over the squires is that other twenty-cent increase in “discretionary” spending. A couple of pennies can be saved by just saying no to Mayor William Baird’s proposal to give non-school employees a 2 % raise. Another penny or two can be cut by denying the sanitation department a new truck and driver to operate it. That just leaves the small matter of a ten-cent tax increase to buy asphalt for the Highway Department.

Ironically, spending on the asphalt is the least objectionable thing on the tax protesters’ hit list. They may not worry too much about education, but they all have to drive on the county’s increasingly-potholed roads. But ten cents, added to six cents that seems unavoidable, means a pretty hefty tax increase.

Those opposed to increasing taxes would, I suspect, prefer to see their roads paved by laying off a few courthouse clerks here and there, stopping any further work on the Justice Center, maybe shutting down the recycling center or the animal shelter or the health department. I’ve got it! We can close the property assessor’s office and lay off all those people, since we won’t be making any changes to the tax rate or the tax base in the foreseeable future.

Nah, state law won’t let us do that, and while James Slusher was protesting proposed tax increases on the one hand, he was complaining about an oft-repeated audit finding that there is inadequate separation of duties in the courthouse clerical offices on the other hand.

To separate the people handing money in those offices from the people keeping the records would be commendable, but would also require hiring additional clerks, which would require an increase in the tax rate.

Read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Catch-22” for the answer to this riddle. The book focuses on our hero who wants a medical discharge from the Army because of insanity, but in order to receive a discharge he must apply for it. However, anyone who is sane enough to apply for a discharge on the grounds of insanity is judged to be too sane and the application denied.

However, we may after all have an answer to the problem of getting our roads paved without raising taxes by a million bucks.

At last Monday’s workshop, squires were treated to a number of fascinating presentations. Todd Fisher explained the business incubator program, wherein trained professionals will help prospective entrepreneurs with business start-ups. He was there presumably to justify the county leasing an upper floor of a bank building to provide professional office space, although I’m not sure their clients so far, an individual who wants to open a metal-working shop and someone interested in growing beans, really need professional office space in a bank building.

Next came Reverend Andrew Hamblin from the Tabernacle Church of God, who explained that his congregation believes in a literal translation of the Bible, including the taking up of poisonous serpents. He asked the squires to pass a resolution in support of legislation to repeal Tennessee’s law against keeping and handling poisonous reptiles. I could write more about this but think I’ll wait until next week, after the squires discuss this request at their regular meeting on Monday.

Of course if word gets around, I’ll have competition from WATE, CNN and Jay Leno. We’re going to make the big time once again, pilgrims.

Finally, a young CCHS teacher, Jennifer Seals, made a presentation about the county’s declining health statistics and the need for bike and walking trails out in the communities to encourage physical exercise.

Jennifer pointed out that a third of Campbell Countians are obese and 13.2 percent are diabetic. She admitted that in a tight budget year, spending money to construct paved bike trails alongside county roads is not likely a popular idea. “But with our terrible statistics for obesity and diabetes, Campbell County could qualify for many of the numerous federal and private grants that are available to construct trails,” Jennifer added.

My first thought was, “Oh no. If we build bike trails along the sides of Demory and Pinecrest Roads, when the roads get so potholed that locals can’t drive on them, they will start driving on the bike trails and take out a cluster of power walkers or bicycle riders.”

Then it hit me. Dennis Potter can apply for grants to construct bike trails, paid for with physical fitness dollars from the federal government and various foundations, and make the trails wider than usual, say wide enough for a Ford F-150 and a Toyota to pass each other on the curves. People, when money is tight and the natives are restless, you’ve got to think outside the box.     (UPDATED AT 5:30 PM ON 07/13/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 07/16/2012)  

Campbell County may still get their fireworks show – at the courthouse

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s hot. It’s still hot. But the timely rainfall last Thursday night accomplished two things, in addition to raising havoc over in the Smokies and parts east of here. 1) It saved local gardens, including my own, from completely burning up and 2) it encouraged my grass, which always seems to grow when nothing else can, to take off again, requiring mowing.

This weekend I bit the bullet and got out the lawnmower, despite the near-100 degree heat. As a prelude to a little minor surgery I have scheduled later this month, I must have an EKG. I just decided to self-medicate and do the EKG myself by mowing grass in this heat. I must have passed, as I’m still here to write about it, but it was brutal.

My personal approach to surviving the current heat wave while working outside is simple. Work or mow for ten minutes, cool down in the shade of the back porch for another ten, then go inside and cool off in air conditioned comfort with a glass of ice tea for another twenty. Then, if you don’t doze off on the couch, repeat the process.

I may get the whole lawn mowed sometime late next week, just in time for the next rainstorm.

Neither heat nor rain was a deterrent last week to Lake City’s July 4th festivities. While LaFollette cancelled their fireworks show due to the hot, dry weather, Lake City’s fathers couldn’t afford that luxury. One thing my small dysfunctional hometown gets right is the 4th of July. The music, carnival atmosphere and ball games are prelude to one of the best small town fireworks shows in East Tennessee.

The show attracts thousands of spectators into town from miles around, and gives local merchants a big financial boost. Any hint from City Hall that the show would be cancelled might result in a lynching of the mayor and board of aldermen. As a result, the show must go on regardless.

Lake City did make one concession to the heat and dry weather this year, hiring Pyro Shows to shoot off the fireworks instead of the local fire department, which left firefighters presumably better prepared to deal with any brush fires resulting from said pyrotechnics.

The Pyro Shows crew selected a different launching site as well, moving their mortars and shells further away from the maintenance yard of Powell-Clinch Utility District. For many years I sat in my back yard and awaited the “really big shew,” when a wayward rocket would slam into the Powell-Clinch propane tanks. Alas, those in the know tell me it could never happen, as the tank’s metal walls are much too thick to be affected by the explosive potential of mere fireworks. But one could always hope.

My back yard is arguably the best seat in town, as the launching pad for the show is behind the football bleachers, directly across Coal Creek from my garden and back yard. I always distribute caps to guests in case the wind shifts in our direction, as spent shells and debris sometimes rain down on our seats. This year the wind cooperated and the debris landed in the creek bed, so all we got was the show and the traditional ice cream and berries afterward.

Campbell County may still get its fireworks show on Monday night, when the county commission meets in the first of a series of budget meetings to try to figure out a way around a tax increase ranging from a low of six cents to a high of 32 ¾ cents.

The six-cent increase is pretty much a foregone conclusion, as most of it is mandated by state requirements to boost the local share of education dollars. The other 26 ¾ cents can be avoided if: 1) Campbell Countians don’t mind waiting around for that once-in-a-lifetime re-paving of the road leading past their front door (ten cents) 2) the sanitation department does not receive a new truck and additional truck driver as requested (1.5 cents) 3) county non-school employees do not receive the 1.6 percent raise proposed by the mayor (two cents), 4) the county does not hire an industrial recruiter (one cent) and 5) the school board’s request is denied for additional money for improvements to education not mandated by the state (six cents).

I’m sure the tax protesters will be out in force once again to threaten and cajole the squires to hold the line and deny all spending increases and promise that not a one of them will be re-elected two years from now if any tax increase is approved.

Meanwhile, I notice that Campbell County’s representative in the State Senate, Ken Yeager, and our representative in the House, Dennis Powers, both are running uncontested in their primary and will be uncontested in the general election, as no Democrats have stepped forward to challenge for the seats.

This can only mean one thing: the voters are one hundred percent in favor of what the General Assembly is doing down in Nashville, which is laying more and more mandated expenditures off on local county government while providing no additional state money to help with the funding.  (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 07/09/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 07/09/2012)    

 

Coming soon: the American people on trial for “Contempt of Congress”

It’s hot, just plain hot. But not nearly as hot as the Republicans are over the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare.

I haven’t figured out what all the fuss is about. We already pay for health care for everyone as it is. Those without insurance, when they get sick enough, just rush to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. The ERs can’t turn them away, but charge about twice the amount that regular care costs.

Since the uninsured often cannot pay these outlandish charges, the hospitals write them off as charity care, for which they receive tax breaks from Uncle Sam. We all pay for those tax breaks when we pay our taxes, which are a little bit higher because we’re paying for health care for the uninsured.

Insurance companies also get into the act, by charging all of us a little bit more on our premiums to cover losses due to under-insured patients who cannot pay their bills or are late paying them. Meanwhile, since uninsured people often put off treatment until they are seriously ill, costs are greater, losses greater and our tax bills and insurance bills are higher to cover the difference.

When are people going to realize that there are no free rides? Those complaining about the “individual mandate” seem to be of the mind that if someone who is uninsured gets sick, we can simply do as the Eskimos once did and set them out on an iceberg to die, or a good health care fairy will suddenly appear and take care of everything.

I’ve got decent insurance now that I work for the county, but for years I had to get by without coverage, when I worked for a series of small newspapers that couldn’t afford to carry insurance for employees and didn’t pay enough for employees to afford their own. Complicating my own situation was the fact that I’m diabetic and therefore in the expensive “high risk” insurance category.

I also suffer from a hereditary condition called “Dupuytren’s Contracture.” Small cysts form on my hand that pull my small and ring fingers inward until they are bent upon my hand. Makes it hard to toss a baseball, or hold a canoe paddle, a fishing rod or do any of a dozen fun things I used to do. Eventually it can make typing difficult as well, affecting my livelihood.

About eight years ago my doctor sent me to an orthopaedic surgeon in Knoxville. He spent about ten minutes quizzing me about why I didn’t have health insurance, and about three minutes telling me that he did not recommend surgery to treat my Dupuytren’s.

 “Surgery sometimes results in losing the feeling in part of your hand, and generally the condition comes back after surgery in just a few years. I would just let it go,” the specialist told me.

A good friend of mine also suffered from the same problem. I told her what I had learned from the orthopaedic specialist, but her doctor insisted on sending her to a different specialist in Oak Ridge. That doctor had a different song to sing.

“Surgery is the only treatment. It is almost always successful, rarely ever comes back, and loss of nerve feeling in the hand is extremely rare if the surgeon knows what he’s doing,” he told her.

She had the surgery performed on both hands and today her fingers are straight and fully functional. When she first saw her orthopaedic specialist, she had excellent insurance through her employer.

My fingers are now bent more severely than they were eight years ago, but the surgeon in Oak Ridge thinks he can completely straighten the all-important right hand while the more severely malformed left hand stands a 50-50 chance of complete recovery. If that other doctor had told me the truth eight years ago, those 50-50 odds would be 100 percent instead.

But I didn’t have health insurance, the surgery is somewhat expensive, and the truth was apparently less important than whether I could afford to pay the bill.

The Affordable Health Care Act, if fully implemented, will mean that nobody ever needs to be lied to about treatment they need, simply because the doctor is worried about getting paid. It will mean nobody needs to wait until a condition grows life-threatening enough to send them into an emergency room before getting treatment. It will mean that when someone becomes seriously ill, their friends, family and members of their church will no longer have to take up collections to help them pay for the treatment to keep them alive.

The politicians who are stirring up opposition to universal health care are shameless opportunists, more concerned with gaining political power than they are with the well-being of their fellow Americans. Those average Americans who are opposed to universal health care are at best, uninformed and misled.

The Congressional Pachyderms, thwarted in their effort to erase Obamacare by their own Bush-appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice, lost no time in firing back. They immediately voted to hold the Attorney General of the United States in criminal contempt of Congress for supposedly withholding documents related to ATF agents who supposedly allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico in an effort to trace the buyers.

The DA for the District of Columbia lost little time in announcing that since the Attorney General was protected by the President’s declaration of Executive Privilege, there would be no criminal charges in this political parlor game. The Congressional Pachyderms, however, can now claim a moral victory and can scream “cover-up” right up until Election Day.

Personally, I think it’s a shame that Eric Holder won’t go on trial for “Contempt of Congress.”  His defense could be to poll a few hundred thousand American voters about how they feel about Congress.

I can hear the defense attorney now, addressing the judge in this case: “Your honor, I contend that Mr Holder is indeed guilty of contempt of Congress. However, our polls indicate that 250 million American citizens also hold Congress in contempt. If you prosecute this man for being in contempt of Congress, you must also prosecute the entire country for being in contempt of Congress.”

That, my friends, would be a trial worth watching.  (UPDATED AT 7:00 PM ON 07/01/2012 FOR THE WEEK OF 07/01/2012)    

 

Common sense solutions to growing cost of prisons? Not likely to happen 

Campbell County been singin’ them “jailhouse blues.” Not just in our county but in most places that you look around East Tennessee and the rest of the state, taxpayers are being asked, no told, that they need to pony up more of their hard-earned cash to build bigger jails, hire more jailers, pay more for inmate health care and so on.

Here at home everyone is well aware of the multi-million dollar Justice Center that just keeps on expanding and costing. The new expanded jail, once complete, will increase inmate capacity from 225 to 400 or so, capable of holding roughly one out of every hundred Campbell Countians behind bars at any one time.

Anderson County raised property taxes a couple of years back to expand its jail. The sheriff was before commissioners this month, arguing that without money to hire at least eight additional jailers, the new, yet-to-be-completed lockup can’t function.

Last Monday, Finance Jeff “Moneybags” Marlow gave our squires the bad news that another hundred grand must be taken out of the county’s rainy day fund to pay for increased costs of keeping prisoners healthy. That’s an amendment to this year’s budget. The commission will have to find additional revenue to pay those costs going forward.

Last year, Fentress County citizens staged a taxpayers’ revolt, to little avail, when they learned that their new jail would result in doubling their property tax rate in one year.

By now we could not be blamed for asking, “Where will this all stop?” We need money to keep our roads from falling apart, money to keep volunteer fire departments viable, money to meet ever-increasing standards for our schools. Instead, we are pouring dollar after dollar into keeping criminals off the streets at an ever-increasing rate.

I suggested several years ago that one way to decrease the costs of incarceration would be to decriminalize or legalize marijuana. Too many young people were being saddled with criminal records and too many taxpayers having to pay the costs for fighting a drug that is arguably no more dangerous than our nation’s legal drug, alcohol.

I also reasoned that kids smoking pot did not instantly say, “Wow, now I want to try cocaine or meth or Oxycontin!” Most people start with marijuana, but since it is illegal, they have to turn to dealers for their supply, dealers who also often sell pills, or cocaine or can show someone how to make meth.

Legalize pot, regulate the sale as we do booze, and tax it. That will cut down on the costs of law enforcement, decrease young people’s exposure to harder drugs and add tax dollars to government coffers without straining taxpayers further.

Of course that might have been a good argument a decade ago, but things have changed. Meth and various prescription painkillers are the major drug culprits these days and I would venture that not enough people are being jailed just for marijuana to make a significant dent in the demand for jail cells. Still, any dent at all is worth looking at closely, so I stand by my argument that legalizing pot would be a wise move.

If marijuana laws are not responsible for the ballooning rate of convicted criminals, what is? The Knoxville News-Sentinel started last Sunday with a series on the problem of drunk drivers that was eye-opening in many respects.

The numbers help explain, in my mind, why we are constantly being forced to pour more money into jails and prisons. In 2011, Campbell County had 181 DUI arrests, Anderson had 201, Roane had 290 and little Union County, 133. Statewide there are 54,081 three-time DUI offenders and 16,602 five-time offenders. Between a quarter and a third of all traffic fatalities in the state involve alcohol.

The newspaper listed Knox County’s six top repeat DUI offenders, who have collectively spent 4,005 days behind bars and cost taxpayers $288,360 to keep them there.

I have great respect for the dedication of MADD and others who have worked diligently to get drunk drivers off the streets, but let’s face it, the increasing pressure on taxpayers to build more and bigger jails coincides to a large extent with the enactment of laws requiring DUI offenders to do jail time.

First time offenders spend a minimum of 48 hours behind bars, ranging up to seven days for higher levels of intoxication. Second offenders spend a minimum of 45 days in jail, third offense nets 120 days minimum while fourth offenses are treated as class E felonies with a minimum of 150 days in jail.

Jail time is no cure for an alcoholic. As soon as those boozers get out, their first stop is likely to be a package store for a fifth or a convenience store for a six-pack or two. If we’re lucky, someone else is driving the car, but you can rest assured that the boozer will be back behind the wheel eventually.

 The same can be said for addicts, and an increasing number of DUI offenders are on pills rather than alcohol, or a lethal combination of the two.

Many law enforcement officials, judges and DAs, including our own Criminal Court Judge Shane Sexton, support even more stringent penalties for repeat DUI offenders. Shane has gone on record as supporting a special class D felony for serious multiple offenders that would put them away for two to twelve years.

That’s two to twelve years for which taxpayers must foot the bill, paying for cell space, jailers, meals and the ever-increasing costs of medical attention, dental services and hospitalization for this largely unhealthy segment of our population.

I’ve got another suggestion for how to keep drunk drivers off the streets, but it appears to have gotten little leverage among officials and lawmakers for some mysterious reason. Take their cars away from them!

Why, instead of locking a first-time DUI offender up for 48 hours, requiring construction of an expensive jail cell, can the courts not simply fine them and impound their vehicle for 30 days?

Going without a car for a month will be a wake-up call to many first time offenders, when they are forced to beg a ride to their job, rent a car or walk to the post office and grocery store. Some might even decide drinking and driving aren’t worth the costs. And those costs will be increased when the offender has to pay an impoundment fee and tow bill to reclaim the vehicle after 30 days. Why should taxpayers pay for that?

On a second offense, drunk drivers who haven’t learned their lesson will have to pay a fine and do without their vehicle for three to six months, which wouldn’t be a wake-up call, but a slap in the face.

Third offense or greater? The county or state seizes the vehicle and sells it at auction to help cover the costs of impoundment and enforcement. Before long, alcoholics who insist on getting behind the wheel while drunk won’t have a car, won’t have a friend or relative willing to loan them a car and won’t have a car dealer willing to sell them as much as a bicycle. They will be off the roads, and taxpayers won’t have to house and feed them.

Legal minds will argue with me on this idea, pointing out that often a bank or dealership or finance company has a financial interest in the vehicle and is faultless when a driver is caught driving while intoxicated. Car dealers could be required to refer to a state database of DUI offenders and refuse to sell to anyone with a history of multiple offenses. If they choose to make the sale anyway, they lose any financial interest they might have if the vehicle is seized.

Or the courts could allow dealers and financial institutions to reclaim their property by paying the impoundment fee and tow bill, as long as the vehicle is not returned to the offender. The drunken driver would still lose any financial investment he or she has made in the vehicle, all those car payments down the drain.

For those who feel that taking a person’s car away is not punishment enough for driving while intoxicated, and that they should be forced to spend time in jail, I just ask, who is really being punished here? Taxpayers have to pay more and more of their hard-earned dollars to lock up people who have a sickness, while the offender gets free room and board and all medical expenses paid. For some people out there, getting locked up is an improvement over their normal existence.

Finally, one more factor can play a role in our burgeoning jail population. We in America have always claimed that we don’t have debtors’ prisons, that you cannot be jailed for being in debt. That is, of course, unless you fail to pay fines imposed upon you by the courts.

Convicted criminals who serve their time and are released on parole or probation are often saddled with fines and incarceration costs that they can’t pay and end up back behind bars. Sounds like debtors’ prison to me. Let’s work out a system to allow those who can’t pay to perform community service instead. Putting them out on the roadsides or cleaning up parks is better than paying to put them back behind bars.

Will any of these common sense ideas ever take hold among those people who make our laws? Probably not. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once warned Americans about the dangers of developing a “military industrial complex” where the builders of bombs and warplanes drove our economy and made war a necessity for economic health.

What we are seeing instead in America is a judicial industrial complex where far too many people, from cops, judges and lawyers to the companies operating red light cameras and privatized prisons, depend on a certain number of criminals being arrested, convicted and jailed for their economic well-being.   (UPDATED AT 6:00 AM ON 06/21/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 06/18/2012)    

 

Could tax hike doom squires’ re-election chances?  They should be so lucky!

The natives were restless Monday night down at the ol’ courthouse. Well, “native” might be a misnomer, since a good majority of the folks I observed in the audience at the county commission workshop are residents of a more recent variety, having retired to beautiful Campbell County for the lake, the mountains and not least of all, the low tax rate.

And that was the rub, it seems. The crowd of concerned taxpayers had read in the Journal-Leader that the squires might be facing “the largest tax increase in county history,” and they were in attendance to let it be known that they feel very TEA (Taxed Enough Already) about things.

Jim Slusher, the former chairman of the Financial Management Committee, was particularly hard on county officials. Jim referred to Finance Director Moneybags Marlow as, more or less, a fiscal dictator. He told the squires that they were a failure, that David Adkins in particular should resign due to absenteeism, and that the Justice Center is a “monstrosity” and a “boondoggle.”

Jim reserved his only praise for Road Superintendent Dennis Potter, who he pointed out, had balanced his budget by laying off people and cutting costs instead of asking for a tax increase.  “His reward?”  Slusher concluded, “No budget increases for asphalt.”

Slusher’s protests were echoed by others, Don Feeney saying simply, “Me too,” before pointing out how roads out around the lake are in need of repair.  Bill Deguire added, “I’m sick of paying over and over, higher and higher.”

The rest of the crowd sat in silent agreement with the speakers, seeming to stir a bit only when a discussion about the future of Pinecrest Volunteer Fire Department, now called Norris Crest VFD, came up. Squires told department treasurer James Gross that they want to help the embattled department survive by agreeing that it can commit the county’s annual $8,000 donation toward paying off debt, but there is no promise that the money will be there year after year.

What’s that old saying, “Beware that you may get what you wish for?”

This group of residents, many of them retirees with no kids in the school system, want no new taxes and cuts in county spending. The State of Tennessee is determined that the state’s share of funding for the Better Education Program, BEP, will grow smaller each year as local government takes a larger share until each entity is an equal 50-50 partner.

This is bad news for county governments across the state.  Our fearless state legislators can wave their conservative credentials around and brag about cutting state spending, when all they’re really done is pass the costs on down the line to local government.

Another old saying is “SH** always flows downhill.” Washington D.C. is at the top of the hill.  Nashville is a good way below the top and guess who is at the bottom.

Anyway you cut it, the school system is faced with a $250,000 increase in spending for its share of BEP.  To fail to meet that requirement is not an option as long as the state holds the purse strings for education.  Other increases, such as utilities, insurance, workman’s comp and so on, can be offset by cuts elsewhere, but that won’t help our schools get better.

Of course, if you’re retired, if your kids were educated in Michigan or Ohio, or even Anderson County, you don’t have a dog in that fight, do you?  In that case your concern is that the road past your front door is paved and you have adequate fire and police protection.

I know that the expensive properties out around Norris Lake contribute a significant portion of the county’s tax base.  A nickel increase in the tax rate only costs someone with an average $50,000 home a little over six bucks. The feared 29-cent increase would mean a property tax increase of less than the annual cost of the county’s wheel tax sticker.

If you own a half-million-dollar home out at Deerfield, then you’re facing another $400 a year and that’s not pocket change in anybody’s book.  Can’t blame those folks for protesting but they need to keep things in perspective.  They could be living across the line in Anderson County where the tax rate is even higher, not to mention property values.  Or, they could be paying property taxes in Ohio, Illinois or New York and freezing their behinds off in January.

As far as the projected tax increase, that is all it is at present, “projected.”  The squires have now heard from one segment of the peanut gallery.  In coming weeks they will hear from department heads about how this or that department has eliminated positions, cut to the bone and still needs more money.

They’re already heard from the insurance carriers about increases in the county’s casualty and workman’s comp coverage.  They will hear from fire departments, non-profit groups, libraries, health care providers and others, all claiming they have cut costs as far as possible but need a little more to function.

Jim Slusher predicted Monday night that most of the squires will not be re-elected come the next election.  I predict, the way things are going at present, most of them won’t care. I ride the commissioners frequently in my columns, always have, but for the most part they have a thankless job that most reasonable people wouldn’t want.   (UPDATED AT 9:00 AM ON 06/15/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 06/11/2012) 

The secret of our dysfunctional county has finally been revealed

Taxpayers and voters are constantly wondering what is wrong with government, whether up in Washington or right here at home in Campbell County. You hear it all the time, sometimes coming from the peanut gallery at county commission meetings, other times down at Hardee’s among members of the old timers’ breakfast club.

“What’s wrong with that bunch down at the courthouse?  A new jail that was already too small before the concrete was dry, roads that are crumbling, deputies driving into the sides of houses, school directors indicted for fudging resumes . . Don’t nobody know how to do nothing around here?”

Pilgrims, I believe I’ve finally put my finger on it!

In my little drop box over at the Finance Office this week was a packet of forms, identical to those that went out to every county employee, to be signed and returned before the next payroll check can be issued.

The forms represented the “latest revision to the Campbell County Personnel Policies dated January 17, 2012” and required employee’s signatures to be on all forms and to be received by the Payroll/Benefits Department by June 15. They included the usual - acknowledgements that employees are aware that tampering with government records is illegal, that employees agree to use computers only for authorized county business, agreement with the county’s policy regarding comp time, acknowledgement that employees will abide with the county’s drug abuse policy and so on.

Then there was that other form, tucked in the middle of all the rest, that I believe explains a lot about why we at times seem to have a dysfunctional body politick.

The form reads, and I quote word for word, “Admission of Drug Use or Alcohol Misuse: I ______, freely and without duress and without coercion admit to the use of _______________ (i.e. amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, opiates, phencyclidine or alcohol misuse as defined within the policy). I acknowledge that such use is a violation of Campbell County Government Drug Abuse Policy which prohibits such use. . . . My admission of use and acknowledgment and agreement to the terms of this statement is indicated by my signature below.”

To make things simple, all county employees are required to sign a form admitting to drug use or alcohol misuse, or not receive a paycheck on June 15.

There was no indication in the collection of forms as to where county employees might go to find said drugs, so I assume employees are on their own there, to seek out the dealer of their choice in order to conform to the requirements of the policy.

Now obviously there is a major typographical error in here somewhere, but at least one courthouse employee I know had already noticed the conundrum and solved the problem by writing in “Non” in front of “Admission of Drug Use” and signed the form, rather than rushing off to buy drugs in order to meet the county’s new policy.

This could, however, explain all the things we have wondered about concerning Campbell County throughout the years, from Caryville’s missing tractor to the time the county nearly drowned a boatload of touring industrial prospects to the notorious gas well at Oswego Industrial Park.

Everybody in Campbell Count government is not stupid or dysfunctional; perhaps they’re just high. This also might explain the unprecedented success of the Sugar Shack bakery a mere two blocks from the courthouse.

Actually, I accosted Finance Director Jeff “Moneybags” Marlow about the aforementioned form, since it originated from his office. Jeff explained that Employees can just write “no” in the blank space and that yes, the wording does seem a bit unfortunate but the forms were drawn up by personnel with the UT County Technical Advisory Service.

That explains a lot. Often throughout the years when reviewing some of their technical advice, I’ve wondered what those people over at CTAS have been smoking. Now we know.

Ah well, at least we don’t live in Wisconsin, where citizens recently had to live through a bombardment of negative political ads costing more than the GNP of most Third World countries. In the end, notorious Governor Walker survived the recall election, raising the spirits of conservatives across the nation.

Many conservative Pachyderms predict that Wisconsin’s vote foreshadows the defeat of President Obama in November, but I’m not so sure they’ve read the results properly.

Wisconsin’s governor survived because the election was all about being “against” him, not “in favor” of his Democratic opponent. Walker’s opponent, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, appears to have not excited voters much and that’s the rub.

Voters have to be excited about their candidate if they’re going to turn out in sufficient numbers to win an election. Since most folks to a certain extent distrust all politicians, campaigning against one is simply not enough of an incentive. That may be exactly why Barack Obama could win re-election in November. Conservatives and Southern racists may despise the man, but nobody can get overly excited about Mitt Romney.

Personally, when all the mudslinging and negative advertising gets into full swing later this summer, I plan to unplug my TV, cancel my newspaper subscription and retreat to my back porch.

There I can watch my garden producing the last vegetables of summer and the birds frolicking in my back yard and pretend that it’s not an election year. I’ve gotten quite a bit of pleasure from my birds this spring. Swifts are nesting inside my storage shed while another family of birds constructed a nest in a boarded up windowsill on my utility building.

That family turned out to be Starlings, not exactly the most popular of our feathered friends, but I’ve enjoyed watching them anyway. The mother bird found a small crevice where the plywood has buckled with age and built her nest on the windowsill. Once the chicks hatched, she spent hours roaming around the neighborhood, collecting insects and other morsels, and darting back through the small crevice to feed her young.

I could always tell when momma Starling had flown in with another treat, as the chicks would raise a ruckus, then she would emerge and silently glide off to find more food.

Meanwhile, once the chicks were hatched and making a racket, Papa Starling finally arrived on the scene. He would fly to the top of the building, making this ugly gawking sound and just sit there, occasionally flitting to a nearby tree and then back to the roof.

After a couple of days of doing nothing, Papa finally gathered up a mouthful of insect himself, apparently intent on helping out the exhausted mother. Alas, the male bird flitted around the small crevice leading to the nest several times but couldn’t seem to figure out how to fly inside. He finally gave up and returned to his perch while Mama Starling continued to enter and emerge from the nest without any effort at all.

I watched this little drama unfold and thought to myself, birds are really not that different from humans – when it comes to child rearing, males are about as useless as hair on a doorknob.   (UPDATED AT 7:00 PM ON 06/10/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 06/04/2012) 

Memorial Day - pausing to reflect on men and women we never knew

Many people gathered Monday afternoon across the nation, in many cases such as here in East Tennessee braving 90-degree heat, at various monuments and public venues to pay respects to our fallen heroes.

I decided to observe Memorial Day in a more private manner, by digging into my late grandmother’s letter box. There, among various birthday cards, graduation announcements, obituaries and the like, were a couple of dozen yellowing envelopes. Most were postmarked as military mail from places like Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, dated from 1942 to 1944.

These letters were all from my father and didn’t originate in New Jersey, but North Africa, from places such as Egypt and Tunesia. Most were vague as to where he was writing from, checkered with blacked-out lines where military censors had obliterated any hint of location or mention of anything that might provide useful information to the enemy.

Only when my dad returned home at war’s end, were the missing lines in these letters filled in, that his Signal Corps company had been secreted across the ocean long before American troops invaded North Africa, to be attached to the British Eighth Army under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

The British, it seemed, had lost most of their trained radio operators on the beaches of Dunkirk, and had begged their American allies for men who were trained to repair and operate long-distance radio centers. As a result, Papa Winfrey spent a longer time overseas, over three years, but never served on the front lines. I’m not complaining; that could be the reason I’m here – he came home.

Also among my granny’s letters were two or three others from overseas, from a different part of the world. These were letters from my grandmother’s baby brother. Although he was my father’s uncle, Tom Sharp was more like a brother, the two of them being only two years apart in age and raised together in the same household.

I gingerly opened the first one to read. It was on military stationary marked “U. S. Coast Artillery, Forts Mills, Philippine Islands.”

“Dear Sis, I hope this finds you well. Now that Jiggs (My dad’s nickname) has graduated from high school, he should think about joining up. With his radio skills, he would be a cinch to get a good posting and quick sergeant’s stripes.”

“The army isn’t a bad life, especially these overseas posts. The weather here is like summer year round. It can get pretty hot at times but I’m posted near the ocean and there’s always a good breeze, most at night.”

“The thing I’ll remember most about the Philippines are the sunsets. The sun kind of melts into the sea in a brilliant play of color. As it grows dark, the jungle birds begin a chorus of squawks, caws, chirps and coos that lasts through the night. You would love listening to the sounds.

Military life overseas is different from stateside duty. Not as much spit and polish. As long as we do our job and stay out of trouble, the officers are pretty easy on us. My captain is pretty easy-going and I manage to get regular passes to go into Manila.

I’ve got a girlfriend there and I think you would like her. She works at a Catholic school and speaks good English. Who knows, you might end up with a Filipino sister-in-law! If Jiggs were to end up over here, you might get yourself a Filipino daughter too. The girls are all very pretty and eager to marry American boys. Ha.”

Got to sign off now. I’m in barracks tonight and it’s near lights out. I’ve written Cliff a letter and tell Ola I love her and will write her, as well as Jiggs soon. Love, Tom”

The letter was stamped and postmarked “October 16, 1941.”

The first time I read this letter and two others, I was struck by my great-uncle’s writing ability. Compared to letters from my dad and other family members, Tom wrote beautifully and his spelling and grammar were nearly flawless. Perhaps, I thought, this is where I inherited my gift for gab. I felt like I knew him, although we never met.

Tom sent one more letter from the Philippines in November, including a studio photograph of a very pretty Filipino girl.

Those of you familiar with American history can guess the rest of the story, or at least part of it. Less than two months after that letter was written, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was at war. The Philippines were soon invaded. After a courageous stand, the heavily outnumbered American and Filipino troops on Bataan were forced to surrender. The island fortress of Corregidor, where Tom Sharp was stationed, held out for another month before Japanese troops landed and overwhelmed the garrison.

The next letter my grandmother received from her brother was on a plain printed postcard. Most of it was in Japanese, but there was a message in English on one side: “Cpl. Harry L. Sharp is a prisoner of war of the Japanese Imperial Army. I am interned in camp number ___ , Philippine Islands. My health is ( ) good (x) fair ( ) poor. I am being well treated.”

That was it, end of message. The postcard was dated sometime in 1943. The next year, General Douglas MacArthur kept his promise to return to the Philippines at the head of an American invading force. The Japanese, not wishing their American POWs to be liberated, loaded the healthy ones on so-called “hellships” bound for forced labor camps in Japan.

Tom Sharp joined 1,782 other American prisoners on one of those ships, the Arisan Maru where men were packed so tightly together in suffocating heat that those suffering from dysentery simply relieved themselves while standing. The Japanese guards lowered one bucket of food and one bucket of water into each cargo hold daily, where desperate men fought each other for a handful of rice loaded with weevils. Men died on their feet and were eventually lifted from the hold to be dropped into the sea.

Somewhere in the middle of the South China Sea, the American submarine USS Shark launched two torpedoes into the unmarked cargo ship, unaware that it carried American POWs. Many of the desperate men in the holds reportedly cheered when the torpedoes struck, knowing that their misery would soon come to an end with peaceful death.

Five Americans survived the sinking, five out of nearly 1,800. They found an abandoned lifeboat, avoided Japanese ships and eventually drifted to the Chinese coast where they were rescued. After the war, one of those men, who served in the Coast Artillery and spent two years in a POW camp with Tom Sharp, visited my grandmother. He downplayed the suffering of the POWs, out of compassion I guess, but his visit gave my grandmother the closure that the official War Department letter could not.

Each Memorial Day, Americans pause from their daily activities to honor those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. They deserve to be honored. Their sacrifices are all the greater because most of them, like Tom Sharp, were at the beginning of their lives rather than the end. Many never had the opportunity to have families and of those who did, most never got to watch their children grow up.

It is truly a shame that, as one writer observed, “Old men make wars and young men must fight them.” Imagine a world where only those of us over 50 were allowed to fight in wars. If that were the case, I imagine there would be no more wars.  (UPDATED AT 11:00 AM ON 05/30/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 05/28/2012)  

Vehicular headaches are nothing compared to air travel nightmares

I’m having headaches this week of the vehicular kind. The ancient Plymouth van has finally bit the big one, namely blown head gaskets – more to fix than the van is worth.

I’ve been shopping around for something in my price range, which is somewhere between “charitable contribution” and the cost of a Mother’s Day dinner at McCloud Mountain, without much luck. Seems like everything I look over has two things in common: 1) not likely to make it another twelve months and 2) the air conditioner is shot.

The twelve-month factor I can live with. I’ve been driving a vehicle for five years that my mechanic kept predicting wouldn’t last another six months. That was each time he worked on it, installing one by one a rebuilt transmission, a fuel pump, an oil pump, a radiator, timing belt and water pump and various small parts here and there.

The air conditioner is another matter entirely. With temperatures predicted to be in the 90s on Memorial Day weekend, you can expect another long, hot summer. I practically live in my vehicle, between commuting from Lake City to Jacksboro each day and driving around on my job. Add at least $800 to whatever heap of junk I buy to repair the air conditioning unit and I’m at least a hundred happy meals over my budget.

For the time being, the county has been kind enough to loan me the “airport car.” That’s a retired Sheriff’s Department cruiser that is kept out at the Campbell County Airport to accommodate state and federal officials, industrial prospects and other VIPs that fly in and need ground transportation.

One neat thing about driving a car with government tags and a spotlight still mounted above the driver’s side mirror – it creeps other motorists out. I like to take my time on the road, usually dawdling along on I-75 at a modest 65-70 and keeping to the 45 mph limit on the four-lane between Caryville and Jacksboro.

When driving my old van, everybody else blew me off the road, pushing well beyond the edges of the speed limit in their rush to go nowhere fast. I love driving the former cop car around. I’ll head up I-75 toward Caryville at my usual 65 or so, cars will approach in my rear view mirror doing 75 or 80 and then they will notice the government tags and spotlight and drop back. Next thing you know, I’ve got a convoy.

Sometimes I drop down to 60, just to be naughty. Sure enough, some cars still hesitate to pass me until they’re sure the speed limit is still 70. Such is the power of fear and the cost of a speeding ticket these days.

But all good things must come to an end and the airport car returned to the airport. I’ll have to choose soon between bad, worse and worst of all and purchase another heap. Looking at my options, pumping a grand or so into keeping my old van on the road another year is looking better all the time. At least the air conditioner worked.

I can’t say all the repairs I’ve had to make on the van weren’t deserved. It had a hundred thousand miles on it when I bought it. I piled another 160,000 miles on the old girl in five years, driving everywhere from Chicago to New Orleans and St. Louis, numerous trips to Alabama and some rough miles in western North Carolina. That is to a degree because after 9/11, I resolved to not fly anywhere to which I could drive in twelve hours or less.

It wasn’t the fear of terrorists that kept me on the ground, unless you count the terrorists at the airport security checkpoints. I just got tired of being treated like livestock by airlines and airports, and overcharged for the privilege.

Funny thing is, that decision was made back when airlines still let you check baggage for free, fed you a snack and beverage and actually tried to accommodate passengers as much as possible to make your trip comfortable and enjoyable, once you got past the misery of airport security.

No more. Airlines now charge for checked bags, blankets, pillows, diet sodas and the little bags of pretzels. Just this week they heaped what to me is the final indignity upon passengers – extra charges of up to $25 each way for window and aisle seats that mean couples and families must pay extra to sit together on most flights.

To me, this is beyond ludicrous. Not only are the airlines penalizing families by dividing them on flights, but penalizing passengers who paid that extra money for a window seat by asking them to sit next to someone else’s eight-year-old for up to six hours.

I have now officially expanded my boycott of airline travel to include anywhere to which I can drive within two twelve-hour days, which should pretty well cover everything as far as the Rocky Mountains, eastern Canada and northern Mexico.

I once had a credit card that gave airline miles. That, dear readers, is a fool’s errand if ever there was one. I didn’t fly all that often, but my miles accumulated each time I used the card for purchases. My goal was to collect enough miles for a trip to Europe, Only thing was, I accumulated miles so slowly that they kept raising the required number of miles for trips and I never quite got there.

Finally, Bank of America decided I had accumulated too many miles, meaning I let my balance on that particular card get too high for their comfort and they proposed to double my interest rate. I “opted out,” halting use of the card to freeze the interest rate while I paid it down.

My accumulated miles, 50,000 or so, ceased to build and activity on my miles account stopped. Naturally, the airline let me know that all the miles I had earned would expire if I didn’t pay a fee to extend them.

I decided to take a vacation to San Diego, a place I have never seen, just to use some of my miles before I lost them. Handling charge for using the miles: roughly $100. Then I had to cancel the trip due to unexpected work requirements. Re-scheduling charge to change my reservation: an additional $100. I let my miles expire, and with it, any desire to give airlines another plugged nickel if I can help it.

I’ve still got Hawaii on my bucket list of places I would like to see while I’m still capable of enjoying travel, along with Spain, Italy and Tierra del Fuego. Maybe I’ll get there by booking passage on a tramp steamer or a banana boat. Alex Haley wrote “Roots” while traveling as a passenger on a tramp freighter in the Pacific. That was before global warming softened up the Antarctic icecap. With my luck, the boat I would pick would be the one that hits an iceberg.

(UPDATED AT 4:00 PM ON 05/25/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 05/21/2012)                          

Politicians know how to make points while getting nothing accomplished

You’ve got to give Road Superintendent Dennis Potter an “A” for effort, and while we’re at it, another “A” for political smarts. He met with officials with the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation Thursday, a meeting that was well covered by Knoxville television stations along with local newspapers, to toss out his proposal for solving the I-75 traffic woes.

Instead of detouring all those interstate travelers and large trucks down crooked Highway 25W and through LaFollette and Jacksboro, why not take cars off at the Stinking Creek exit and down the less than four miles of Stinking Creek Road west to Highway 63, then right back onto the interstate at the Royal Blue exit?

Of course, that stretch of Stinking Creek Road is little used by anyone except deer hunters and is gravel the entire length, so TDOT would have to pave it to make it safe for interstate traffic. Trucks could remain on the one southbound lane of I-75 that is going to re-open this weekend, but paving that little stretch of Stinking Creek Road would prevent the inevitable long delays on I-75 as Memorial Day weekend and summer vacation traffic approaches.

“Of course TDOT rejected the idea, they didn’t think of it first,” Dennis complained after the meeting, “but I tried.”

Yup. Dennis got nothing but sympathy from the county commission this year when he asked for more money with which to pave roads. Why not pull a Tom Sawyer on the State of Tennessee and get four miles of county road paved on TDOT’s nickel?

If state officials had accepted the proposal, Dennis gets four miles of pavement. They rejected the idea, so Dennis still gets credit with Campbell County voters, well documented by news media, for trying to alleviate the traffic problems. It is an election year, after all.

TDOT officials did toss Campbell County a few bread crumbs while they were in town. I noticed that they announced on TV that they would approve some emergency grant funds to LaFollette and maybe to the county to pay for overtime by police and deputies for traffic control and other related expenses. Of course TDOT also explained the reimbursement will take time to work through the system, maybe a year or two down the line.

Meanwhile, has anyone driven in the far right lane of westbound Appalachian Highway recently? That’s the lane most of the eighteen-wheelers are driving in while following the detour route. I noticed it is becoming increasingly rough already, compared to the eastbound lanes and even the inner westbound lane.

Heavy trucks tend to do that, you know, destroy roads that aren’t designed for them. It’s liable to be a long, hot and bumpy summer.

On the positive side, I noticed that Jacksboro Metals is busy erecting a fence around their recycling business off Towe String Road. State laws about fencing off junkyards and the like don’t apply to county roads, but the company appears to be trying to diffuse some of the criticism from neighbors.

Those neighbors were out in force at Monday night’s commission workshop, complaining about everything from noise and traffic to loose metal bolts spilled on roadways. The squires gave them little more than sympathy, since Campbell County has no zoning laws to restrict commercial activity from residential areas.

Even if the county were to pass zoning ordinances tomorrow, Jacksboro Metals would not be affected. Under the “grandfather clause,” government cannot retroactively restrict use of private property.

Also, let’s face it, if the county had a zoning law already in effect, that area out along Towe String Road would most likely be zoned industrial and commercial. You’ve already got Hatmaker Trucking, Creative Metals, the Rogers limestone quarry, the county recycling center, C & C Concrete and more.

That, of course, didn’t stop Thomas Hatmaker and Scott Stanfield from inviting the unhappy neighbors down to a town hall meeting to vent their anger. Dennis Potter isn’t the only public official who’s quick to take the opportunity for a little political grandstanding.

No harm done as long as people don’t get the wrong idea about what the county can or cannot do. The county can “encourage” the recycling business to fence off their property and perhaps keep the noise down. The county cannot “force” it to do anything as long as Jacksboro Metals avoids violating any laws, such as water or air pollution.

All of those people who have shown up at the courthouse in past years, whenever zoning or planning is being discussed, to loudly protest big government telling them what they can or can’t do on their own property, need to take note. That tree falls both ways.   (UPDATED AT 9:00 PM ON 05/18/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 05/14/2012)                         Legislature may have answer to I-75 slide – repeal the ‘Law of Gravity’

So many things going on that invite commentary! It’s difficult to decide where to begin – our dysfunctional legislature, even more dysfunctional Congress, traffic jams in LaFollette, shady politics, schools, you name it.

I believe I will start, however, by discussing dinosaur flatulence. That’s right folks, another British university researcher has spent another small fortune in grant money to look at whether dinosaur flatulence may have contributed to global warming a hundred million years or so ago.

The conclusion of Professor David Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University is that the large herbivorous dinosaurs known as sauropods, which were mainly just oversized cows, may have emitted as much as 570 million tons of methane. That’s roughly equivalent to today’s worldwide totals produced by livestock and the agricultural industry.

Of course, the world during Barney’s time was already much warmer than it is today, so the conclusion of the scientists is that flatulence may have contributed to keeping a warm world yet a little warmer. Whew, must have been a smelly place back in the Jurassic. Perhaps, rather than being done in by a meteorite, dinosaurs were victims of a teenaged dinosaur prankster with a Bic lighter, setting off a mass explosion.

Dinosaurs, and the myriad of ways that university professors can find to waste money, are on my mind because my third graders at Valley View just finished their Earth Day project last Friday. The kids set up a table with a variety of minerals that are found in the ground and another holding products made from those minerals.

They then challenged children from the other classes to match minerals with the products they make and gave out polished rocks as prizes for three correct answers. I don’t know if the other kids learned much from the demonstration, but my “teachers” certainly knew, by the end of the day, that the blue crystals known as Celestine actually produce the red color in fireworks, while the colorless mineral Calcite is the main ingredient in concrete.

I may have made things too easy for the kids doing the guessing with some of my clues. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a purple mineral called Fluorite that “you put in your mouth every day” might be the fluoride in toothpaste.

Working with kids in grades 3-5 in my after-school science enrichment program is still fun, most of the time. Each year it seems more and more activities fill up the schedules of the kids in fourth and fifth grades, with fewer of the older children having time to spare for extra science instruction. This year, I had to cancel classes for over a month while most of the students endured “TCAP boot camp,” an intense preparatory period to get the kids ready for the yearly TCAP tests.

Don’t get me started on how I feel about teaching to a test. Suffice it to say that under George W. Bush’s “No Child Left” program, the test, and resulting rewards or punishment, are really a test of the schools and the teachers. As a result, everything else takes second seat to TCAPs, for better or worse.

One has to wonder, however, how much of the material that is force fed into young minds in a few weeks leading up to tests, remains with them after it’s over. I used to cram for exams at UT during my college days. I remembered material that I had picked up along the way throughout the year and carried that knowledge with me into life. I recall precious few of the factoids that I memorized for final exam week.

One of the gems of knowledge that does come back to me every so often is a discussion I once heard from Dr. George D. Swingle, who taught structural and field geology at UT-Knoxville. George was a highly respected geologist whose name remains to this day on many of the geological maps published by TVA and the Tennessee Division of Geology.

When federal and state highway departments were designing and planning the route for Interstate 75 back in the early 1960s, it was predictable that they would turn to Doctor Swingle for advice.

“My first advice to them was to move the route about fifty miles to the west,” Swingle recalled, “to a more stable topography on top of the Cumberland Plateau. They didn’t like that suggestion.”

That more westerly route would have been too far off the main north-south route linking Cincinnati and Atlanta, at the time following old US Highway 25W. It also would have required costly bridges across huge Lake Cumberland in Kentucky and by-passed population centers such as LaFollette and London-Corbin.

Swingle then advised that if engineers were determined to build an interstate along the top of Pine Mountain, they needed to re-think their plans for filling drainage areas. “They proposed to fill in low areas with dirt and shale and construct French drains at the base of the fills to carry water,” Swingle pointed out. “I told them the French drains would eventually become silted in or collapse from the weight of traffic. The only way to fill those draws permanently would be with large angular rock fills that would hold the weight and carry the water.”

On thing about highway engineering departments, they always hire geologists to advise the engineers, then ignore the advice. We can see the results of ignoring George Swingle’s advice today, as LaFollette endures periods of bumper-to-bumper traffic and motorists crawl along old 25W for two hours on their way north and south.

Up on the mountain the problem has become clear – a fill of slippery gray shale has become saturated with water, presumably after the French drain at the base filled in and ceased to function properly. And the “whole kit and kaboodle,” as George Swingle would have put it, is on its way downhill to Elk Valley.

Perhaps, in its next session, the Tennessee General Assembly can come up with an answer to the problem. Senator Stacey Campfield will probably be more than happy to introduce a bill that repeals the Law of Gravity. That would make about as much sense as some of the other things that came out of the legislature this year.    (UPDATED AT NOON ON 05/11/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 05/07/2012)    

 

“Tough on immigrants” states are actually getting tough on taxpayers

Last week I wrote about delinquent property taxes and how the cost keeps going up the longer one waits to pay their bill. One thing about it, the county will eventually get its money one way or the other. A property tax lien takes precedent over all over liens. Banks and finance companies must pay the taxes to protect their investments and if there is no mortgage, the property owner pays or loses.

Collecting some of the county’s other taxes can be more complicated. The wheel tax, about as unpopular as any tax ever created, cost half the county commission their jobs when it was first passed a couple of decades ago,

Many of the county’s drivers went to great lengths to avoid paying the tax, driving to Clinton, Knoxville or Tazewell to buy tags and save thirty bucks. A wheel tax enforcement officer was hired to run around checking tags and prosecuting violators. Alvin Sanders would at times run up a thousand miles a month just checking license plates.

Since that time much has changed in Tennessee as far as wheel tax collections are concerned. Campbell County was one of only three counties in the state to require drivers to buy a local wheel tax decal when the commission first created the tax, as an emergency fix to balance the school budget.

Today over 65 of the state’s 95 counties have a wheel tax of some sort or another. Campbell County increased the tax from $30 to $45 over a year ago, to make up for shortfalls in other revenue and pay for the increasingly expensive new jail. Still, we are merely in the middle of the pack, as some Middle Tennessee counties have wheel taxes ranging from $70 to over $100.

This has meant changes in state law that make avoiding the wheel tax more difficult as well. County clerks cannot issue a license plate to anyone who does not have a home address in their county. A person living in LaFollette can no longer obtain a license tag in Anderson County, which still has not enacted a wheel tax.

The one exception that continues to cause confusion is that car dealerships can still issue new tags for the county where the vehicle is purchased. Under the law, the new car owner is still required to drop in at the Campbell County Clerk’s office and purchase a wheel tax decal, but many owners wait until their out-of-county license expire, then pay the wheel tax for a new Campbell County license plate.

This obviously gives new car owners the opportunity for a year’s free ride, while those drivers keeping the same vehicle for several years have to renew tags in Campbell County and pay the wheel tax each year.

The drivers riding around with plates from Knox, Anderson or Blount counties and no wheel tax are not necessarily violating the law on purpose. Many assume that they are not required to pay the wheel tax until they renew their plates in Campbell County. Some are purposely misled.

One driver told me that when they bought their new vehicle, they asked the dealer to transfer their old Campbell County tags instead of issuing new Knox County tags. The salesman told them, “If you do that you will have to pay the wheel tax. If you take our plate, you won’t have to pay it until you renew.”

Over a thousand drivers, since last April, have received letters telling them that it just ain’t so. Most have come in, without any further nudging, within a 30-day grace period and shelled out the $45. A few have needed a second reminder, spelling out the penalty for failing to have a wheel tax – an additional $50 fine plus court costs up to $193.

One thing that the increased wheel tax cost has caused appears to be theft. The Clerk’s office has seen an increase in the number of people reporting that their wheel tax decal, their license plate decal, or both, have been stolen from their plates.

If the estimates of stolen decals are accurate, a lot of thieves will be in for an unpleasant surprise. Any tags registered in other counties with stolen wheel tax decals will still show up on the list maintained by the Tennessee Division of Motor Vehicles as a person living in Campbell County but lacking a wheel tax decal.

The county gets a regularly updated list from the state and those people will still get the letter of violation, regardless of what they may or may not have on their license plate.

If a vehicle license is registered in Campbell County, drivers have to pay the wheel tax, unless they have also stolen the state tag. Anyone driving around with stolen tags runs the risk of being pulled over by deputies, local police or the highway patrol on some minor driving infraction. If the officer runs the tags through the state computer to check on outstanding violations, guess what he will find. Right – expired tag, despite having a current decal.

The simple speeding ticket then turns into a trip to jail for theft. It would take somebody pretty gutsy – or incredibly stupid – to drive around the county under those conditions.

Speaking of “gutsy or stupid,” either term might apply to undocumented immigrants, otherwise known as “illegal aliens” living in a number of states that have passed new immigration laws.

Uncle Sam merely rounds up undocumented immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere, holds them a few days and then deports them back to their country of origin. States like Arizona want to go a step or two further, making it a state crime to be in the country illegally. Arizona would find violators guilty of a misdemeanor with punishment ranging up to six months in jail and fines up to $2,500, with repeat offenders guilty of a felony with longer jail terms.

Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah have all passed similar laws. It’s interesting to note that most of those states at one time tried to avoid being part of the United States altogether – three through secession and civil war while Utah as a Mormon enclave also resisted federal control in the 1800s.

Gettin’ tough on them foreigners” might play well with certain conservative voters, but you should always be careful what you wish for. The federal government invests a little money to patrol borders and round up illegal immigrants and a little more money transporting them back to Mexico, El Salvador or wherever. Uncle Sam does not have to spend a fortune on new prisons and jailers to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants simply for not having the right paperwork.

That is what Arizona and the rest of the “get tough on immigrants” states are proposing to do – fill up the jails with poor Hispanic farm workers and restaurant busboys. Then, while mama and papa are behind bars, the state can pay for foster care for all their children.

Here in Campbell County we know a little about the cost of increasing jail populations. Can anybody spell “w-h-e-e-l t-a-x”?

The U. S. Supreme Court is about to rule on the constitutionality of Arizona’s law and indirectly, the laws passed by the other states. If the Court strikes down the state laws, they will be doing Arizona taxpayers a favor.   (UPDATED 3:00 PM ON 04/27/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 04/23/2012)             

 

Delinquent taxes and floating houses, don’t forget the sunscreen, Brandon

On the weekend of April 14, I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed the mop, broom and other implements of destruction and tackled spring cleaning. That, unfortunately, also meant cleaning out my outdoor storage shed.

By the time I finished sweeping and dusting all the mold spores, spider webs, insect parts, rock dust, garden dirt, grass clippings, fertilizer and mouse droppings and dumping same into trash bags, I was already beginning to cough. Not the little shallow sneezes brought on by allergies, but deep-seated Black Lung-type hacks reminiscent of my coal-mining ancestors.

This punishment to my system must have lowered my resistance enough that I quickly caught one of the upper respiratory infections going around in this changing weather. Last week was an up and down roller coaster of good days, sleepless nights, bad days, worse nights and so on.

Somehow I managed to pull myself together enough to go to court Friday, where the judge was scheduled to hear the first half dozen cases of people who had failed to get a wheel tax decal and had failed to reply to all of the warning letters I sent them.

The court cases were an anticlimax. I showed up armed with all my evidence, from utility bills to property tax cards to voter registration records to prove the defendants were still residents of Campbell County, along with printouts of their license plate information to show they had a current license without the wheel tax, copies of the letters they were sent and so on.

Every defendant had already been to the Clerk’s office and purchased their wheel tax decal before court, so the Judge, being in a forgiving mood, let them off the hook without a fine or court costs. I got the sense that his generosity has its limits, however, if he keeps seeing a parade of violators cluttering up the court docket each month.

What I fell behind on last week was one of my other tax-related duties, and that will keep me heavily occupied for the next few days. On May 1, the first advertisement will appear in the local newspapers announcing a delinquent property tax sale in May. I always try to serve the delinquent tax notices to as many as possible of those owners who failed to receive the notice by certified mail, before the ad appears in the paper.

My goal to beat the newspaper ad has nothing to do with bragging rights and everything to do with saving people some money. A new state law was enacted around three years ago, dictating that delinquent taxpayers must pay an extra $100 if their name appears in the published tax notice.

Unfortunately, too many property owners, having gotten into a pattern of paying their taxes late, wait until the very last moment and rush in to pay the delinquent taxes, penalties and interest during the last couple of days before the actual tax sale, often after seeing their name in the newspaper notice.

By then it is too late to save the hundred bucks, and a tax bill that may have originally been rather modest has ballooned, adding 18 percent interest for two years, another penalty added by the Clerk & Master’s office, a fee to cover service of process, a fee to cover the delinquent tax attorney’s title search and now the $100 publication fee.

A original tax bill of say, $200, can end up costing the taxpayer anywhere from $450 to $600 by the time its all over, and that extra money does not go to support your schools or build roads, but is eaten up in clerical fees, attorney’s fees, postage fees and newspaper advertising costs.

Some property owners get blindsided by a misunderstanding concerning their mortgage holder, whether that be a local bank, a finance company or some distant banking chain such as Wells Fargo or CitiBank.

I have property owners who complain when I deliver their delinquent notice, that “The bank is supposed to take care of this for me.”

True enough, if you have an agreement in your original mortgage that requires the bank or finance company to pay all taxes and add those costs back into the mortgage each year. Most often, if that clause is part of your mortgage, the lender will take care of everything in a timely manner.

The problem comes in where property owners read clauses in their mortgage that state if the property owner fails to pay taxes, the lender may pay those taxes to protect their collateral and charge the taxes and penalties back into the loan amount. In such cases the property owner is responsible for paying the taxes on time and if they fail to do so, the bank will most likely step in and pay the taxes at the last minute to prevent the collateral from being sold by the county.

In such cases, last minute means just that – last minute. All penalties, interest, fees, fines, publication costs and attorney’s costs will already by tacked on to the original tax bill. If a bank is going to be forced to cover your behind to protect their collateral, it’s gonna cost you.

Local banks will sometimes pay delinquent taxes as soon as they receive a lien holder’s notice, usually several months before the actual tax sale, saving the property owner at least some interest and publication costs. Finance companies and big banking chains take their time, and in some cases it is impossible for the county to notify the lien holder before a tax sale because mortgage loans are passed around from one company to another.

This year, while serving lien holder’s notices in Oak Ridge, I found that four out of five finance companies had gone out of business. Somebody bought up their outstanding loans, but the new mortgage holder is unlikely to  cover the taxes before the property is sold. If a property owner or lien holder waits until the property is sold by the county, they can redeem it for up to a year, but the costs keeps going up, as you must now also pay interest to the buyer.

The moral of all this is simple – the longer one waits to pay property taxes, the more expensive it gets, at an accelerated rate. If you can’t pay on time, at least pay within the first year after they are due, when your only extra cost is interest on the original tax bill. After your taxes become “delinquent” – over a year past due – the costs go up in leaps and bounds.

Speaking of property taxes, one group of homes that has long escaped any tax liability is about to be added to the tax rolls. So-called “floating houses,” large houseboats out on Norris Lake, tethered to buoys or shore by cables at some of the marinas, have escaped the reach of the tax collector for a number of years.

The problems were 1) difficulty in determining whether such structures were technically “houses” and subject to real property taxes, or “boats” that are not and 2) tagging the floating houses to an actual property tax map and parcel number for assessment purposes, since Norris Lake is part of the “waters of the state” and has no map and parcel number.

The legislature recently solved the first problem with a law that defines floating houses, houseboats, marinas and docks as real property subject to real estate taxes. Property Assessor Brandon Partin has solved the second problem by assigning the map and parcel number of the marina where the houses are docked, identified as a “special interest” in the same way that mobile homes are identified in a mobile home park.

The challenge for Brandon and his employees now remains to go out and personally inspect floating houses, confirm that they are not capable of propelling themselves through the water (which makes them technically a boat) and determine their value for tax purposes.

Poor Brandon. I imagine he might need to look into the whereabouts of former Sheriff Ron McClellan’s speedboat and put aside a little money in his budget for sunscreen. It will be a very difficult summer for the personnel in the Assessor’s office.  (UPDATED 7:00 PM ON 04/22/12 FOR THE WEEK OF 04/16/2012)                            

 

Global warming could sink Florida, perhaps that will be a mercy killing

Governor Bill Haslam, being perfectly capable of adding and subtracting, declined to veto the legislature’s infamous “monkey bill” this week. Since it only requires a simple majority to override a governor’s veto and since both House and Senate passed the bill by substantial margins, Governor Bill decided to let a sleeping dog lie.

The bill, in its final form, does very little, of course. It simply states that teachers cannot be punished for allowing a discourse and discussion in their classroom about alternatives to “controversial” theories such as evolution or global warming.

Scientists the world over, were not amused, however. With members of the scientific community, it was the principle of the thing, that an elected government would give a backhanded blessing to the mere idea that evolution and global warming are controversial theories that invite debate.

Evolution may be controversial in a theological seminary, and global warming may be controversial in the boardroom of ExxonMobil or among conservative politicians, but among scientists there is little controversy. Evolution is fact, and scientists have relied on that premise to help them do everything from locate pools of oil deep beneath the earth’s surface to develop cures and treatments for disease.

Global warming is fact as well. For every scientist, usually supported by grants from oil companies or conservative think tanks, who publicly questions the idea that we are making the world hotter, a thousand scientists agree with the concept.

The naysayers usually agree that the world is getting a bit warmer and that our climate appears to be changing, but deny that humanity pumping carbon dioxide into the air has anything to do with it. “It’s a natural cycle,” they claim, that has occurred at various times throughout earth’s history.

True, the problem is, it has never occurred as quickly in the past as it is now, thanks to our inability to control our ravenous apetite for energy.

When the earth has undergone periods of severe climate change in the past, the change has occurred over such a long period, thousands or tens of thousands of years, that life has had time to adapt, that is, to evolve to meet the challenge.

The one time when climate change occurred too rapidly for life to adapt was around 65 million years ago, when a giant meteorite struck earth and caused a global winter that lasted for years. The dinosaurs were in charge then, and we all know what happened to them.

Oh, but then if you deny the existence of climate change, you probably deny the existence of evolution, right? So, how can one argue against climate change and still point to “natural” shifts in climate that occurred millions of years ago? After all, according to one Catholic Bishop who worked it all out a few centuries back by counting backwards through the “begats” in the Bible, the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Well, you get the picture. Some things are controversial only if you toss all scientific knowledge and discovery for the past two hundred years out the window as if it never existed at all. Treatments for cancer, a cure for polio, control of smallpox? Never existed. Man on the moon? Never been there. As a matter of fact we can’t fly either. Airplanes are pure science fiction.

The Tennessee legislature’s monkey bill will not do much actual damage, since most classroom teachers are sensible enough to help students work out the fallacies in “alternative theories.” But there are exceptions. I once was invited to a middle school science class to speak about geology and after I finished discussing the age of the earth, the march of life as evidenced through fossils and the shifting landscapes over time, the teacher added his two cents’ worth.

“This is all one theory, of course. Another theory states that the earth is only 6,000 years old,” the teacher told his students. I never went back.

As far as the concept of global warming and climate change, the coal and oil companies and their political puppets are finding their arguments a bit more difficult to swallow with each passing year. Radical shifts in temperature and rainfall, continued melting of polar ice, longer and more devastating tornado seasons, wildfires, droughts, 80 degree February days – these are things we can see with our own eyes. We don’t need a scientific theory to tell us the weather is changing.

The only question is whether human activity is playing a role, and how much of a role. This is a rather important question, since it determines whether we can do anything to stop the changes in time to avoid global catastrophe. The energy companies and their allies would have us believe that climate change is natural and inevitable, that decreasing our carbon footprint will not help, merely increase the price of a gallon of gas.

Since most people have difficulty envisioning life fifty, a hundred years from now, but can readily feel the impact of $4 a gallon gas versus $3 a gallon gas, climate change denial seems to be on the upswing.

I saw a statistic that said the incidence of the terms “global warming” and “climate change” in major newspapers decreased by 33 percent in 2011. The same article pointed out that President Obama mentioned “climate change” only one time in his State of the Union address while mentioning “energy” 23 times.

Many folks obviously are more concerned with today than tomorrow, with their own well-being than that of their grandchildren. I can live with that. I have no grandchildren. My advice to everyone is, stop worrying about global warming. Go down to Macon, Georgia and buy up some of that cheap swampland along the Ocmulgee River. Someday, perhaps in your grandkids’ lifetime, it will be valuable ocean front property.

Of course that will mean that the State of Florida will no longer exist. Florida, home to dimpled chads, gun-happy neighborhood watch volunteers, loudmouthed baseball managers and angry Cubans, not to mention the University of Florida Gators. All that will one day end up underwater. It will be a mercy killing.  (updated 7:00 p.m. on 04/15/12 for the week of 04/09/2012)           

Guns invite trouble, alcohol invites trouble. Do they cancel each other?

 The Tennessee General Assembly is winding down its session as members prepare to go home and begin campaigning for re-election. We will all be relieved when the final vote is cast and the legislature adjourns.

You will be relieved because you won’t have to read more of my ranting about how decrepit and dysfunctional they are. I will be relieved because, quite frankly, we’re all a bit safer when they are out of session and unable to cook up more mischief.

However, their last days have not been without small acts of drama and black humor, all for our entertainment. Representative Curry Todd made the news this week by skipping out on a vote on the floor of the House that will give judges the authority to order a blood alcohol test if a DUI suspect refuses to submit to one.

Constitutional scholars can debate this bill ad nauseum and it may or may not stand up in court. For Representative Todd, however, the damage is done. The West Tennessee Republican, you might recall, was the principle sponsor of Tennessee’s “guns in bars” law passed awhile back. Todd then was busted earlier this year by Nashville police for DUI, carrying a loaded handgun while intoxicated and refusing to submit to a blood alcohol test.

His trip to the water cooler to avoid a vote simply brings Todd’s problems back in the public eye right before campaign time. Good luck on re-election there, Toddie ole boy, perhaps a future career as a nightclub bouncer will be more successful.

Speaking of guns, the National Rifle Association has found that there is a limit to the blank check it has from conservative Republicans to pass laws that permit everyone capable of carrying a gun to carry one, anytime they want, wherever they want, whenever they want.

The NRA’s “parking lot” bill would allow employees to keep guns in their vehicles on company or school property even if the employer forbids weapons on its private property. The bill had a lot of support from the conservatives down in Nashville until, whoops, big business got into the act.

My, oh my, big corporations versus gun lovers! This has to be a conservative’s worst nightmare. In the end it looks like the corporations have won round one, as Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, Tennessee’s most powerful Tea Party conservative, has declared the bill dead for the session.

Personally I have mixed emotions on this one. I cannot for a moment think of good reasons why people should feel so threatened on their commute to and from work that they would need to pack a loaded gun in their vehicle. I mean, if someone threatens me while I’m behind the wheel, that is why cars have gas pedals and bumpers.

On the other hand, there have been numerous occasions when I’m driving, that having a bazooka or small handheld SAM missile would have been a true joy, like when the guy cuts in front of me, forces me to slam the brakes, speeds up to pass four cars on the inside lane, then turns off into a convenient mart.

I’ve got it! Maybe the NRA can persuade car manufacturers to add built-in machine guns so you wouldn’t need to carry a pistol around with you. That would give a whole new meaning to the term “road rage.”

I jest, of course. Fact is, I support hunters’ right to hunt, even though I haven’t hunted since I was a teenager. I also support people’s rights to bear arms to protect their homes, although the only firearm I’ve owned for the past twenty years is an ancient single shot .22 that my granny’s sister used to shoot pheasants when she was a South Dakota homesteader in the 1880s.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would want to carry a handgun into a bar, or a restaurant, a movie theater or a grocery store. As far as I’m concerned, if you go into a bar to consume alcohol, you do so at your own risk. That’s your business, but society shouldn’t bless your behavior by allowing you to carry a handgun while you’re getting inebriated.

My dad was one of the most enthusiastic gun collectors I ever knew. He had German Lugers and Walthams, Colt .45s, British .303 Enfields, M-1s, cap and ball pistols from the Civil war, a couple of muzzle loaders from the early 1800s, a double-barrel 12 gauge “Nitro Special” that kicked like a mule and a single-shot .45-70 reputed to have been with Custer at the Little Big Horn.

He had regular ammo, tracer ammo, armor-piercing ammo, banana clips, full belts for his water-cooled Browning machine gun and hand grenades, which may or may not have been defused.

He instructed me at a young age that all of his weapons were always loaded, and should be treated as such. I fired them all at one point or another, learning just how hard a double barrel 12-gauge could kick and learning that single-shot .45-70 carbines throw out so much hot powder that after one shot you are partially blinded. No wonder the Indians won at the Little Big Horn.

When my dad passed away, I sat down with my mom and told her, “We need to sell this gun collection quickly, and make sure everyone around here knows we’ve sold it. Otherwise somebody is going to knock you in the head to steal it.”

We sold it, lock, stock and bullet. Nobody ever broke into my mom’s house to steal anything, since the one thing they would have wanted to steal was no longer there. She later told me she never felt safe with all those guns around the house, and never felt safer than he did once they were sold and gone.

The moral? I don’t know, perhaps that guns invite trouble. Using them to hunt wild animals is one thing, collecting them like coins or baseball cards another. Packing them around in your pocket to make you feel like John Wayne? John was 6’4” – he didn’t feel a need to carry a gun around.

Here on the home front, Jellico’s Baptists are still protesting the city fathers’ decision to allow beers sales within 300 feet of a church and to increase the number of beer permits.

I feel like the members of Crouch’s Creek Baptist Church are protesting the wrong thing. Allowing nearby convenient marts to sell package beer is not likely to damage the moral fiber of the community nearly as much as some of the seedy bars that have operated around Jellico for as long as I can recall, and I’ve not noticed any church members picketing their parking lots.

The town council and mayor argue that since Corbin, Kentucky now allows beer sales, Jellico must increase the number of beer-selling establishments and make it more convenient to buy beer or lose revenue.

Seems like Jellico is looking to milk the cow after it has escaped from the barn. The only reason Jellico has collected significant revenue on beer sales over the past few decades is that Whitley County has been dry and all those thirsty Kentuckians made a bee line for the state line every Friday and Saturday night.

I doubt that anyone from Corbin is going to drive down to Jellico to buy beer, no matter how convenient it may be, when they can buy it at home. Still, better to sell Kentuckians package beer that they can haul back to Kentucky than to encourage more watering holes on the Tennessee side of the line. Let the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, rather than the Jellico Police Department, worry about drunken drivers.

Since Tennessee allows guns in bars, before it’s over the Jellico Police Department may have all they excitement they can handle anyway.   (updated 7:00 p.m. on 04/15/12 for the week of 04/02/2012)               

Legislators’ logic appears flawed, but then you’ve gotta consider the source

 What’s that old saying? “The more things change, the more things stay the same?”

Here we are in a new high tech, constantly changing world - revolutions by Facebook, instantaneous disaster coverage via cell phone cameras, global warming, universal health care (maybe), a black man in the White House.

Who’da thunk it, even a mere ten years ago?

Meanwhile, as I pointed out last week, the Tennessee Legislature is re-fighting the battle of man versus monkey, dragging up the ancient Scopes trial out of the musty archives of history, dusting it off and putting a new name to it, all for our entertainment.

While they’re at it, the Legislature is digging up the 1950s, when politicians kept black people and poor white trash from voting with poll taxes, literacy tests and the like. Heaven forbid that the uneducated, poor or people of color should be able to cast ballots. They might put a black man in the White House!

The current version of voter discrimination is called the voter ID law, and is supposedly designed to insure that all of us red-blooded Americans will not have our votes watered down by allowing someone to cast a fraudulent vote, perhaps someone voting for a dead person or, I shutter to think about it, an illegal immigrant, a foreigner, casting a vote!

Sorry to rain on your parade, legislators, but anyone in this country illegally is not likely to want to attract attention to themselves by trying to vote. As the guy in charge of enforcing the county’s wheel tax, I love it when the state computer comes up with someone who has bought a new vehicle, has a local address and has a Hispanic name

I sent one such person a letter recently, telling them they needed to purchase a wheel tax decal. The Clerk’s office was flooded with folks with names like Carlos, Fernando, Juan and Jorge, all clamoring to buy their wheel tax decals before they too, received a letter. I even think one or two people who live in Hamblen County came in and purchased Campbell County wheel tax decals, just to be on the safe side.

I exaggerate, of course, but my point is, those immigrant workers, whether you call them illegal, undocumented, or simply confused, have no wish to get on the government’s radar screen. They don’t vote; they just go to work, return home and try to keep their heads down.

As far as voting dead people, county election commissions do a pretty thorough job of purging the rolls of deceased voters. In Tennessee, where most precincts are in small towns and rural communities, the poll workers know practically everyone who comes in to cast a ballot. They also know who has died, who has gotten married, divorced, arrested and been in the hospital for gall bladder surgery.

It ain’t easy to vote as your dearly departed Uncle Frank when the person running the precinct is the mortician who laid Uncle Frank in the ground and Aunt Sadie is working the sign-in table.

Again, I exaggerate and I know that voting precincts in cities like Nashville and Memphis are not so personal, although many poll workers live in the communities where their precinct is located and know many voters. Still, there have been precious few incidents reported of people trying to vote illegally as a deceased voter. I cannot recall a single incident that has been reported in the media in the past couple of decades.

State Representative Dennis Powers, in a column defending the voter ID law, argues that because there is no photo ID requirement, there is no way to know exactly how many fraudulent votes have been cast, inferring that the number may be significant.

Well, in the eyes of Dennis Powers and the rest of his ultra-conservative crowd, we can calculate the exact number of fraudulent votes that have been cast. Just tally up all the votes for Democrats in the last few elections, add votes cast for less conservative independent candidates and you have the fraudulent voter list!

I really don’t have a problem with a photo ID requirement. I have a problem with the types of photo IDs the various state legislatures, all Republican-dominated, are willing to accept. This, plainly, shows the true nature of these laws. Photo driver’s license IDs are acceptable, as are passports, various federal identity cards and the like. Photo employee IDs issued by state and local governments are not acceptable – “too easy to falsify.”

Specially-issued voter IDs available at some trouble and expense at drivers’ license bureaus are acceptable. Student IDs from universities and colleges are unacceptable – “too easily falsified.”

Let us call a horse a horse, a donkey a donkey and a Republican a pachyderm. College students are dangerous voters. Many, but not all, tend to not vote for conservative candidates. Some even vote for, gasp, liberals!

Non-students who lack a photo driver’s license may include an abnormally large percentage of non-working, stay-at-home mothers or grandmothers. Women, as a whole, tend to vote less conservatively than men.

Dennis Powers goes on to argue that the number of legitimate voters who might be denied the right to vote is too small to take seriously. He refers to lawsuits in Georgia and Indiana challenging voter ID laws in those states and says they were dropped because plaintiffs couldn’t find one person who had been denied a vote because of the new laws.

Perhaps, Dennis, that is because the new laws haven’t been on the books long enough to impact an actual election. Give ‘em time. Meanwhile, I seem to recall that some voters in Tennessee have already been denied the right to vote, including a former Democratic Congressman, and our photo ID law is not even in full effect yet.

At least Dennis Powers made some intelligent arguments, if somewhat flawed in their logic. I noticed that Representative Frank Nicely of Strawberry Plains has trotted out a little bit of his own logic in arguing against a bill that would allow school board members to vote on issues by video phone instead of being present at a meeting.

I have no opinion on the bill at all, not even being aware that it existed until it was passed this week and reported in the News-Sentinel. The paper quoted Nicely as complaining that back in the 1860s, two “radical Republicans” kidnapped two members of the Oregon legislature and masquerading as the two missing lawmakers, cast the deciding votes in favor of ratifying the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The kidnapping thus effectively changed the course of history and stole power from the states,” Nicely was quoted as saying in expressing his doubts about the video voting bill.

Best I can recall, the 14th Amendment is the one that abolished slavery. Since most of the slave states were at the time in rebellion and part of the Confederacy, the states remaining in the Union had little trouble in finding enough votes to ratify the 14th Amendment, with or without Oregon’s help.

Is Nicely trying to say we shouldn’t have abolished slavery? Or perhaps he is suggesting that the states like Tennessee and Mississippi, that were actively engaged in a war against our nation, had their power taken away by these two fraudulent voters.

At any rate, it’s hard to figure out how a bunch of really dumb legislators could fail to recognize two imposters among their ranks, how that relates to a video voting bill, or exactly what Frank Nicely was trying to say anyway.

Representative Nicely has made most of his reputation by waging what seems to be a one-man war against the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and has a reputation as a bit of a legislative bully. I notice Frank is also considering a step upwards, to run for the Senate. Sounds more like he needs to consider a step outwards, as in it’s time to retire before you embarrass yourself further, Frank.   (updated 3:00 p.m. on 03/30/12 for the week of 03/26/2012)              

Legislators may prove Darwin was wrong, man has not yet evolved into higher form

Education has been much in the news lately, with the state legislature managing to stir the pot as usual, while lawsuit-panicked school boards are dragging the old school prayer issue back into the news just in time for upcoming elections.

The problem is, the public gets bombarded by issues that are very different and should be separated, but they end up being stirred in the same pot until you end up with the same old “them and us” polarization.

I overheard one lunch counter philosopher going on Thursday about “them Godless liberals trying again to shove evolution down our throats and tell our kids they can’t worship the Lord in school.”

Well, as far as worshiping in school, that’s pretty much old news, isn’t it? Formalized school prayer was ruled unconstitutional a long time ago, while kids are free to pray to God any time they feel a need. They just can’t be forced to pray by a teacher or administrator.

The annual TCAP tests are right around the corner, and I can pretty well predict that there will be more than a few prayers offered up, such as “Lord, please let the right answer be (a) and not (b).”

Meanwhile, the fallout from Lenoir City High School’s refusal to let teenaged atheist Crystal Myers publish her editorial in the school paper continues. The school board has now halted opening meetings with a prayer, something the Campbell County School Board debated last year,

Our board, after kicking around options such as holding a prayer session in private before opening the meeting, finally fell right back into the same pattern as before. There really is no reason not to continue praying before a meeting, unless someone attending the meeting objects. If someone objects, then the board can consider whether their principles are worth a court battle.

The other piece of this complicated secular versus spiritual puzzle rests down in Nashville, where the GOP-dominated legislature is kicking around bills that would allow posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings as “historic documents” and opening of classrooms to discussion of “alternate” theories of creation than those being taught.

Tennessee once made itself the laughing stock of the nation by jailing a teacher, John Scopes, for teaching evolution in public schools back in the 1920s. As scientific evidence mounted and evolution moved from being a controversial theory to an accepted principal of science, Tennessee’s “monkey law” remained on the books for decades. It just wasn’t enforced when teachers dared to quote Darwin and suggest that perhaps man evolved from a lower form of animal.

Leave it up to Campbell County to stir the pot. Back around 1965, when I first entered the University of Tennessee, evolution was once more thrust into the news thanks to a Jacksboro High School teacher and the Campbell County Board of Education.

The Tennessee General Assembly, in no hurry to again become the laughing stock of the country, promptly repealed the old law making it a crime to teach evolution. Creationists have been searching for a way to give Darwin the boot ever since, but there is just too much scientific evidence. The best they can come up with is this recent effort to mandate that evolution be presented as one of several theories about the creation of the world, and particularly the creation of life including human beings.

Actually, Darwin never touched upon the creation of the earth; he left that up to geologists to work out while he developed his theory that all living things evolve over time to better cope with changing environments and living conditions.

Truth is, I’ve always been a firm believer in evolution as a scientific fact, but I have no problem in justifying this belief with my faith in a divine power and the teachings of Christ. Even in teaching earth science to third graders, I am occasionally challenged by an especially sharp kid who has been paying attention in Sunday school.

The fact that the earth is 4.6 billion years old is usually what raises eyebrows, and some kid is almost certain to object, “God made the world in six days.” Of course you are just as likely, perhaps more so, to get the same objection from adults who believe in a literal translation of the Book of Genesis.

To those adults I will pose the same question I always ask the kid: “How long is one of God’s days?”

Our day is 24 hours long, and determined by the length of time it takes the earth to revolve once on its axis. Is the Supreme Being parked on Earth, perhaps vacationing on the beach at Daytona or writing His memoirs in a cabin in the Ozark Mountains? Of course not.

Science has determined that the earth, and the rest of our solar system, was created some 4.6 billion years ago. If you follow Genesis, that makes one of God’s days approximately 650 million of our years long.

I can live with that, but it’s a bit complicated to wrap one’s mind around. I prefer to think that the Bible tells us what happened, in the most basic sense, but does not tell us how it happened. That is the job of science, to explain the “how,’ and evolution, plate tectonics, the so-called Big Bang theory and all the rest contribute to that storehouse of knowledge and understanding.

The simple truth is, some things we are not meant to know, and must take on faith. The existence of God is a matter of faith, and I can live with that because like most people, I have faith. Science must be a matter of fact, because without it we wouldn’t be sending people into outer space, we wouldn’t be able to cure disease, predict the weather or make postings to a Facebook page.

For faith to work for us, it must be separate from fact, and for fact to work, it must be separate from faith. It’s as simple as that. Let’s hope that the only real monkeys running around Tennessee, down in the legislature, have enough sense to realize that. Unfortunately, our elected representatives provide the best evidence yet that Darwin was wrong and humanity has not evolved.

The other controversy that is stirring involves teacher evaluations, and a bill in the legislature to keep them closed to the public. Most TV stations, newspapers and the Tennessee Press Association will be screaming bloody murder about this, joined by a lot of parents who want to know if their child’s teacher is any good or not.

Teachers want the evaluations kept confidential because 1) they are meant as a tool to help teachers improve their performance rather than be put on a hot seat and 2) there are still quite a few bugs in the evaluation system that haven’t been worked out yet.

I tend to side with the teachers against my fellow journalists on this one. I’ve never liked a system that teaches to a test, rather than stimulating children’s natural curiosity for learning. I’m not sure that evaluations based on test scores are all of that useful or offer accurate reflections of a teacher’s abilities.

The last thing school systems need are for newspapers to publish a grade card of individual teachers’ evaluations and a mob of parents trying to steer their children into the classrooms of the high-scoring teachers and away from teachers with lower evaluations.

Instead, school systems need to continue seeking ways to help all teachers meet a certain level of excellence so that the difference in evaluations is barely discernable. Either that, or we need to set evaluation standards for parents as well. Education does begin, after all, in the home.        (updated 9:00 a.m. on 03/23/12 for the week of 03/19/2012)                  

 

Kids can be a handful, but it takes a congressman to really waste money

When observing adults, particularly of the politician stripe, becomes too burdensome and depressing for me, I often turn to an old, dependable remedy - kids.

Unpretentious and uncomplicated, kids can be a balm for the soul, especially if taken in small doses. I like to take the grandparent, rather than the parent approach – entertain them for awhile, spoil them rotten and send them back to mom and dad for all the tough jobs.

That is why I continue to volunteer at Valley View Elementary to teach science enrichment as an after-school program. The exposure to 9-10 year-olds keeps me young at heart, while the fact that I’m exposed for at most, three or four hours a week keeps me from aging prematurely.

This week my exposure was extended somewhat, as it was time for our annual field trip, this time up to the neighborhood of Johnson City to visit the Gray Fossil Site & Museum operated by East Tennessee State University.

This is the second time we’ve taken a group of kids to visit this museum, which focuses on life in East Tennessee around four million years ago, when the climate was so warm that alligators swam in our ponds, rhinos and elephants grazed on grass and saber-toothed cats roamed the edges of the forest, looking to pounce on an unsuspecting tapir or wild pig.

One thing some of the kids come away with from the visit is an understanding of exactly what a paleontologist does, which is pretty much the opposite of the fossil hunters featured in the popular Jurassic Park movies.

While Hollywood’s version of paleontologists run around digging up massive dinosaur skeletons and Hollywood archeologists like Indiana Jones uncover rich caches of golden treasure, the real-life scientists at Gray spend countless hours sifting through a bag of sand hunting for one little tooth.

These paleontologists might spend an entire summer cleaning and preserving one single fossil bone, but from that single bone might come an encyclopedia of information. For instance, the chemical content of teeth uncovered at Gray indicate that most of the herbivores dined on leafy plants, rather than grass, telling us that the immediate area was heavily forested.

At the same time, analysis of the teeth of the extinct elephants and rhinos show that they grazed almost exclusively on tall grasses, telling scientists that somewhere near what is now East Tennessee there existed vast grassland savannahs, similar to today’s  Eastern Africa.

The kids of course, learning that being a paleontologist involves long hours in a lab searching for small clues to the past and does not include running around chasing a T-Rex, lose some of their enthusiasm for going into that particular line of work.

Life is like that of course, full of minor disappointments and reality checks. Pat Summit’s Lady Vols could, in our dreams, bring her one last national championship in a storybook ending to an incredible career. Nothing is impossible in sports, of course, but an undefeated Baylor team with 6’10” superstar Brittany Griner stands squarely in their way.

The United States, in a perfect world, would be able to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, leaving behind a modern, democratic country where women are treated as equals, religious minorities are respected, elections are fair, Americans are looked upon as saviors and there is a McDonalds franchise on every corner.

In reality, they hate us over there, they put up with us because we have bigger bombs and they can’t wait until we leave so they can go back to their 17th Century existence.

Of course we’re still trying to figure out how to exit Afghanistan with our dignity intact while there are some in Congress who already want to make Iran our next target for “nation-building.” John McCain, for one, has strayed far from his days as a maverick who refused to follow the herd. Now he has become just another aging warmonger beating incessantly on his drums.

Teddy Roosevelt once told Americans that we should “speak softly but carry a big stick.” The continuous saber-rattling coming out of some quarters in Washington is not speaking softly. Everyone is worried that the nut cases who run Iran will develop nuclear weapons.

I don’t know why we should fear them. We’re the nation that has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. We are also the only nation that has ever actually dropped an atomic bomb on another country. Seems we could simply remind the Iranians of these two inescapable facts.

“Hey, Iran. We don’t mean to rain on your parade or anything, but before you go building a nuclear bomb, you might want to consider what would happen if your bomb got used on an American city or base or one of our friends. If you’ve got any further questions, ask the Japanese.” End of discussion.

Here in Campbell County we have had much more immediate problems to deal with, such as 35,000 Ohio drivers parading through downtown LaFollette while the interstate was closed. Actually, with the exception of the traffic snarls on the first afternoon after southbound traffic was detoured and the further complication when both northbound lanes were also closed by a wreck, things were handled well and traffic on most days moved smoothly through the county.

We can credit some good traffic control planning, a lot of hard work by police officers, firemen and volunteers and a big dose of good luck – Campbell County schools wee out this week on spring break.

I-75 has been shut down more than once by pavement collapses, the most notable coming some years back when the entire northbound section slid off into the valley. Things like that happen when engineers design highways through mountains, especially when those engineers ignore the advice of geologists who understand the nature of the ground that is being disturbed.

One thing for certain, if the pressure from freight and trucking companies to allow higher weight limits on highways ever succeeds, we will see many more collapsed lanes. Many of these highways were never designed in the first place to handle the volume of traffic they now carry, and certainly not designed to handle heavier weights.

Campbell County has enough concerns, simply figuring out a way to keep our local county roads passable, without worrying about interstates that are the concern of state and federal government. How do we pay for all this without raising taxes?

I know one place where federal taxpayers, at least, could save around $100 million a year. You might recall, a few weeks back, when I was complaining about the expensive so-called “questionnaires” I was receiving in the mail from Congressman Chuck Fleishman, who represents Anderson County. I knew they were thinly-disguised political mailings funded by taxpayers’ dollars, but I had no idea of the total cost.

Now, it seems, the Chattanooga Times Free Press has managed to put a price tag on the cost to taxpayers of these Congressional mailings. Not only that, but they found that Campbell County’s congressman, Scott DesJarlais, led the pack, spending $224,000 in one quarter between October and December of last year.

DesJarlais was among the nation’s big spenders on “constituent communications” for all of 2011, forking over around $282,000 during the year to let us know what a wonderful job he is doing as our elected representative. He was outspent by at least three others, including Republican Congressman Joe Heck of Nevada, who spent over $327,000 on mailings.

Nevada? There are barely 327,000 people in the whole state of Nevada, most of them living in Las Vegas. To spend that much, Congressman Heck must have mailed fliers to rattlesnakes and Gila monsters. Then again, that might be how he got elected in the first place.

If each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives averaged say, $250,000 on these wasteful brochures, most of which never make it past the post office wastebasket, than we are looking at close to $100 million. That only covers the House; you’ve also got 100 U. S. Senators with the same taxpayer-financed mailing privileges.

I am so happy that our nation’s elected representatives take the effort to spend $100 million to let us know how they plan to cut federal spending and slash the deficit. What a great country we live in! (updated 9:00 a.m. on 03/19/12 for the week of 03/12/2012)                  

Sales tax fails, roads crumble, Where to go from here? Buy a good horse

Campbell County voters, by a margin of almost 2-1, rejected the half-cent sales tax increase that was on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary. First of all, why did commissioners even delude themselves that this referendum would pass?

This was the Republican primary, for goodness sakes. “Republican” is an old Latin phrase which means “No tax, ever, on anything, for any reason.” Look it up.

Seriously, it’s quite a challenge to convince anyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, Pachyderm or Donkey, Christian, Muslim or Jew, to pass a tax on themselves. That’s why we elect congressmen, legislators and county commissioners, so they can pass the taxes and we’ll have somebody to blame, cuss and vote against in the next election.

County Mayor William Baird expressed disappointment that the public failed to approve the referendum, pointing out that allowing the county road system to deteriorate is not an option. Vice Mayor David Young suggested that one option, unlikely to be popular, might be to go back to gravel roads.

Commissioner Thomas Hatmaker repeated his contention that the county could sell enough rock from its quarries to other counties to pay for asphalt to pave roads. LaFollette Mayor Mike Stanfield suggested that the county wastes too much money and should cut spending instead of raising taxes.

Easy for the mayor to say. The City of LaFollette annexed every available foot of commercial property along the four-lane years ago, nabbing the local share of sales tax in the process. They would have annexed all the way to the interstate if a little thing called the Jacksboro city limits had not gotten in the way.

So where does Campbell County go from here? The commission could raise property taxes to fund road paving. Not likely – they had to raise them once already to build a new jail. The expanded jail was needed to lock up all the people who have to drink in order to work up the courage to get out on the county’s potholed roads.

They could raise the wheel tax, again. See option number one: been there, done that to pay for the justice center.

The squires could place the sales tax referendum back on the ballot in November. How could they be sure that the results would be any different? Well, Dennis Potter could send his crews out to rip up a few county roads, let the residents eat dust throughout the summer and hope they vote for the tax increase to get their pavement back.

That might work, if enough voters were impacted by the bad roads, but then you’ve got all those voters who live inside one of the county’s four municipalities. Someone who only drives between Forrest Avenue, the post office and the WalMart isn’t likely to care whether folks on Pinecrest Road have to eat dust or dodge potholes to get home.

There are a few other options that we haven’t considered, and this seems like an appropriate time to toss them out:

1) Make the Appalachian Highway between Jacksboro and I-75 a toll road. The county could collect a small amount of the revenue needed from all the people who leave the county daily to work somewhere else and an even larger portion of the revenue from all the locals driving to the liquor stores in Caryville.

2) Stock the numerous potholes forming in rural roads with fish and charge a fee to anglers.

3) Make the roads leading to Deerfield, Big Creek, Shaghai, Twin Cove and other Norris Lake destinations into toll roads. None of the Ohio residents who own lakeside summer homes vote in Campbell County anyway.

4) Hire some Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest to come in and conduct rain dances until the county is swamped by torrential rains, washing out all the rural roads, then apply to Uncle Sam for disaster relief funds.

4) And my personal favorite – authorize Dennis Potter to send highway department employees out to neighboring counties to boost cars, turn the county garage into a chop shop and fund the entire highway program as an officially-sanctioned criminal enterprise.

Ah well, as you can see, our options for funding highway maintenance are somewhat limited. The good old days when federal and state government shared revenue with local county governments are long past.

The federal government spent our share of highway money on the bombs that George W. Bush dropped on Iraq and the interest they must pay to China for borrowing the money to drop bombs on Afghanistan. The state government? The clowns that currently masquerade as the state legislature are too busy taking Tennessee back to the 19th Century to worry about things such as crumbling infrastructure.

No, I’m afraid, dear Campbell Countians, that we are on our own. We’ll get exactly what we’re willing to pay for and no more. Heavy duty four-wheel drive vehicles may be the only thing that can negotiate our roads before long, but they use a lot of gas and gas is getting expensive. Personally, I’m looking for a good horse.  (updated 11:00 a.m. on 03/09/12 for the week of 03/05/2012)              

Calling in an air strike to kill a mouse, looking for the story behind the story

The squires got together Thursday night and finally appointed a new commissioner to fill the Third District seat vacated last December by Doctor No.  There were no surprises – they appointed Scott Stanfield, who received only three fewer votes than Melvin Boshears in the 2010 election.

I offered him my condolences after the vote.  He can now join the 14 other commissioners in sharing blame for the wheel tax, the property tax, potholes in roads, overcrowded jails, overcrowded parking lots, understaffed offices, the meth crisis, underpaid teachers, overpaid county employees, underpaid county employees, the federal deficit and global warming.

The fact that the man asked for the job indicates a character flaw.  Sane individuals want no part of public office in these troubled times.

Actually, it is good that somebody wants to sit on the hot seat.  Despite my consistent ribbing of commissioners, school board members and the like, I have a great deal of respect for anyone willing to take on these thankless jobs.

Well, I respect most people willing to assume public office.  There are notable exceptions, particularly the members of the Tennessee legislature.  The lawmakers’ latest folly seems to be the bill pushed by the majority Republicans to push the Occupy Nashville crowd out of the Legislative Plaza.

As usual, the legislators are calling in an air strike to kill a mouse, with the potential high for “collateral damage” that will plague Tennesseans for years to come.  The bill that is moving through the State House and Senate would make it a Class A misdemeanor to camp on state-owned property where camping is not designated, obviously aimed at running off the Occupy protesters who have been overnighting near the Capitol since last year.

The problem is 1) the severity of the penalty – a Cass A misdemeanor is the most serious of misdemeanor crimes, punishable by up to a year in jail and $2,500 in fines or both and 2) the definition of “camping.”  Under the proposed bill, building a fire, carrying out cooking activities, digging or earth breaking or storing personal belongings are all defined as “camping.”

I personally can’t wait until a family is arrested for grilling burgers at a state-owned picnic area.  Remember, picnic areas are not “designated for camping.”  I can also see a group of fishermen hauled off to jail for building a campfire on a state-owned creek bank to warm their buns on a cold Autumn night.  Many people like to fish on creeks and rivers under state highway bridges.

Since I often search for rocks and fossils in road cuts for my Valley View Elementary School earth science classes, I’ll be particularly interested in seeing the first group of geology students and professors from UT who are hauled off to jail for “earth breaking” when they crack a few roadside rocks with their little hammers.

Ah, our good and wise state legislature.  A greater gathering of fools and asses couldn’t be found at the clown tent during Columbia’s “Mule Days” celebration.

Speaking of which, keep a sharp eye on one former state senator in particular, the one whom innocent Knox County voters elected as their chief executive a couple of years back.

Have you been keeping up with all the flack over in Knoxville surrounding the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation and KTSC’s former chief officer Gloria Ray?

Ray recently retired under a cloud of controversy when her inflated salary and bonus package of $400,000 was made public and placed under the news media microscope.

Outrageous, of course.  Only men wearing suits and working for banks, Wall Street brokerage firms or TVA are allowed to draw inflated salary and bonus packages worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While Ray’s income was drawing all that attention from Knoxville TV and newspapers, I kept asking myself, “Who blew the whistle on Ray and what is their motive?”  I recalled that prior to all of the exposure on Ray’s cozy and questionable contract, she had been somewhat at odds with Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett over the future of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Burchett is uncomfortable with the county’s ownership of the Hall of Fame.  He would like to sell off the property and, supposedly, reduce the county’s debt or pay off campaign promises to build a new Carter High School.

When Burchett suggested placing the building on the block to the highest bidder, Ray countered by strongly suggesting that KTSC could come up with the $4 million-plus estimated sales price and keep the Hall of Fame in public ownership, guaranteeing that it will remain in Knoxville.  Ray, as strong-willed and pushy a gal as you will find, with many allies among Knoxville’s rich and powerful, seemed capable of getting her way in the matter.

Suddenly, Gloria Ray’s palace came crumbling down around her ears.  Her salary became public, her bonuses under scrutiny and the legality of her contracts under question.  Discussions among lawyers, resignations from KTSC’s board and public criticism from Burchett and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rojero were soon followed by Ray’s negotiated retirement.

Now the most recent development, Knoxville TV news is reporting an official split between the Women’s Hall of Fame and KTSC and an “analysis” of the contributions and funding that Ray had claimed could pay for purchasing the Hall from Knox County.

Suddenly the future of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is officially “in question.”  The only thing anyone knows for certain is that Tim Burchett still seems set on selling the property.  Whether the non-profit that operates the Hall will be able to come up with the money to keep it out of the hands of a private, for-profit entity is in question. Whether the Women’s Hall of Fame will continue to exist in Knoxville is likewise in question.

Gloria Ray is no longer in the way and KTSC, which receives a hefty portion of Knox County hotel/motel tax revenue, has washed its hands of the Hall.

While the University of Tennessee and fans are preparing to bid farewell to legendary coach Pat Summitt, the legacy that she has built in Knoxville is under siege from within.  Long time Summitt friend and supporter Gloria Ray is out of power and, at least in the view of Knoxville’s good old boys, in disgrace.  The Hall of Fame that is part of Summitt’s legacy is endangered, and I’m still trying to figure out what Mayor Burchett’s angle might be in all this.

Maybe someone should subpoena Burchett’s phone and email records and see who he has been having discussions with over the Hall of Fame property.  What, six messages from a fellow named “Geno” in Storrs, Connecticut?

About that I am joking, but to me it is no joke that the Knoxville News-Sentinel has seemed eager to jump on the bandwagon and expose Gloria Ray’s chummy contracts and salary package to the public without bothering to ask, “Who blew the whistle and what is their motive?”  That’s the next question that needs to be asked.      (updated 4:00 p.m. on 03/03/12 for the week of 02/27/2012)              

Sadly, we get what we’re willing to pay for, and the leadership we deserve

County commissioners received another lesson on the limits of their authority Tuesday night. This batch of mostly first-term squires already received a lesson when they first took office in how little power county government has, basically being stooges of state government with no powers not granted to them by the state legislature.

Now they have learned again the limitations of their power when it comes to other elected county officials. Marie Ayers wants the County Clerk to begin issuing state building permits along with the local county permit.

The state requires homebuilders and contractors to purchase a permit based on the value of the construction, with a very minimal portion of the fee going to whoever sells the permit. The state also gave local county clerks the option of whether to sell the permits or not. County Clerk Debbie Wilson opted not.

Commissioner Ayers stated that she had received complaints from builders who had their projects delayed because they didn’t know they needed the state permit and weren’t told when they bought the local permit. Ayers made a motion to request Wilson to sell state permits from her office.

Wilson’s answer was simple: “I refuse to do it. I don’t want people getting mad at me when they find out they need a state permit.”

Marie pushed her motion anyway, aware that the commission had no authority to force the Clerk to do anything that the Clerk doesn’t want to do. The vote deadlocked 6-6 and Mayor William Baird, obviously not interested in starting a feud with the County Clerk, broke the tie to defeat Ayers’ motion.

Later in the same meeting, Thomas Hatmaker, who is beginning to vote “no” on so many motions that he seems intent on replacing the dearly departed Melvin Boshears, had a suggestion of his own. Thomas suggested the commission should reinstate the road committee, a committee that squires did away with completely a few years back.

“If you do, I will not serve on it, and you better be prepared for a lot of midnight calls,” Bobby White declared. Bobby should know, he is probably the only current member of the commission to ever serve on a road committee.

Bobby pointed out that the commission has no authority whatsoever to force the Road Superintendent to do anything the Road Superintendent does not want to do, but that the public thinks a road committee has the power to get their road paved, their potholes filled or their ditches cleaned.

As a result, White pointed out, members of a road committee get all the complaints that should be leveled at the Road Superintendent, all the blame when nothing is done and have no power to do anything.

Tsk, tsk. Poor, powerless county commission. Well, almost powerless. They do, however, hold the purse strings of the county. That is the squires’ one hole card should they choose to play it.

The so-called fee offices are fairly independent of any control from commissioners. They are allotted a portion of the fees taken in from various licenses, permits and tax collections and that provides their budget. They can hire whom they choose, decide on a pay scale and how many people they want to employ within the limits of their approved budget and the squires have no say in the matter.

Commissioners could play hardball, refuse to pass a budget or continuing resolution and shut down county government, I suppose. Yeah, and you could shoot yourself in the head to gain relief from the misery of a hangnail. Still, there are times when the fee offices must come to the commissioners for additional financial help for one thing or another, whether that be to fund a satellite office, upgrade communications and computer systems or whatever. Squires could negotiate with the carrot rather than the stick and possibly get changes they want.

Same with the Highway Department. Dennis Potter gets most of his funding from the state gasoline tax and commissioners can’t tell him how to use the money. But if they really wanted to help citizens who petition the county commission for help on a road project, all they have to do is allocate money for that project and only for that project. If the Road Superintendent does the work, he gets the money. If not, the squires can tell the citizens, “Hey we approved the money, go complain to Dennis Potter.”

So the commission is not completely without resources or power to get things done. Only one problem with this approach – it takes money. To offer fee offices something in return for providing services they don’t want to provide, or to offer extra money for paving a particular road that Dennis Potter doesn’t have in his budget requires money, and when you’re talking about the county commission, that means tax dollars.

The one true power that the county commission has is the power to raise taxes, specifically property taxes. This bunch was forced to do that once already to fund the Justice Center. It will be a cold day in you-know-where before they raise them again. Instead, the squires have placed a half-cent sales tax referendum before the public. Vote for it, and the county can pave another 10-15 miles of county roads each year. Vote “no” and as one wag observed, “We can start selling fishing licenses for all the potholes we’re going see in our roads before long.”

Will the public vote for a local sales tax increase to fund road projects? Residents of the county’s four municipalities have less to gain by voting a tax increase on themselves, since their streets are maintained or not maintained by city government. If a majority of rural residents think like the fellow from Stinking Creek, who told squires, “People are living in the potholes in that road,” but told a reporter he would not vote for a tax increase, the sales tax is doomed to fail.

Well, as anyone who has ever bought a used car can attest, we usually get exactly what we pay for. Likewise, since Campbell County voters decide who their public servants will be, we get exactly the leadership we deserve, nothing more, nothing less.

Speaking of leadership, I received a nice little brochure in the mail this week from Congressman Chuck Fleischmann. Living across the line by a mile or so in Anderson County, I have the privilege of being represented by this Chattanooga Republican instead of Campbell County’s Congressman from down near Alabama, Scott Desjarlais.

The brochure was labeled “Federal Legislative Review and Outlook” with an added line that read, “Official Survey Enclosed.” This brochure was printed in color on heavy paper and folded into six equal sections, including the mailing cover complete with a color photo of the Congressman.

Four of the sections were labeled  “How Chuck is Serving the District,” “How Chuck is Helping Create Jobs,” “Key Bills Sponsored,” and “Less Taxes, Less Regulation, Less Bureaucracy.” A fifth section was the title page with contact information and office hours and quotes from newspapers about Chuck’s perfect attendance record and his vote against raising the debt ceiling.

The whole thing was labeled “Public Document: Official Business,” meaning taxpayers paid for the printing and mailing. Oh yeah, I forgot the official survey. A small postcard was attached to one side asking two questions: “Do you think the country is going in the wrong track or the right direction?” (check appropriate box) and “What do you think the government should do to create more jobs?” (a three inch line on which to write an answer).

I’m accustomed to Congressmen abusing their privilege to waste taxpayers’ money on self-serving political propaganda. We’ve seen it ever since Congress was given the “franking privilege” that exempts their mail from the cost of postage, back somewhere between the times of Andy Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Fleischman, however, is a self-proclaimed arch-conservative who voted to let the country go into default on its debts rather than raise the debt ceiling. His brochure, in all my years of receiving junk mail from Congress, is also the most fancy, colorful, expensive piece of junk mail I’ve seen.

But at least, if you’re going to waste my money on self-serving junk mail, Chuck, please get your quotations correct. It’s “on the right track” not “in the right track’ you ninny. Alas, we do get the leadership we deserve.(updated 7:00 p.m. on 02/26/12 for the week of 02/20/2012)     

Biorhythms: what goes up must also come down; just ask Herman Cain

I’m a great believer in biorhythms. You know, those not-quite-definable ups and downs in one’s life that determine not just how you feel but often things that happen that are quite out of your control.

It seems as if most of us go through life in neutral, with periods when everything goes just right and other periods when everything goes wrong. The musician who penned the lyrics “The future’s so bright I have to wear shades” was obviously going through a period of positive biorhythms at the time. Murphy, when he wrote his Laws, was without doubt in a biorhythmic downturn when he declared law number one: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

I used to think such ideas were nonsense, that we make our own luck and if things are going badly, it is our own fault for making bad choices. Poppycock, bad things happen to good people all the time, while the undeserving all too often hit the Powerball or pick the right horse.

Instead, I think we make bad choices because we’re suffering from a downturn in our biorhythms. This past week was for me, a perfect example.

I started off by getting a little notice from my bank, announcing that I had an overdraft in my account. Naturally I didn’t get the notice until a week after the overdraft occurred and I had written several more checks, resulting in a black hole in my finances, expanding constantly to swallow surrounding stars.

My bank covers my checks but, as comedian Bill Cosby once so aptly put it, “When you write a bad check, what does your bank do? They charge you more of what they already know you don’t have enough of.”

I had made a $100 error in my checkbook. By the time I found out and covered the error, I had another $144 in overdrafts, which left me eating cheese and crackers for a week and paying late fees on utility and cable bills.

Shake it off. These things happen and after all, you’re at fault for not being able to add and subtract accurately.

Early this week, it was time for me to do my duty as Campbell County’s tax enforcement officer and cite some miscreants into court who have ignored my friendly warning letters. Being the first time I have issued citations, I turned to our friends at the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department for guidance in how to fill out the citation documents.

I was told to fill out the forms and give the white and blue copies to the Sheriff’s Department for service, keep the pink copy and turn the yellow copy into the Clerk of the Court.

The first thing I noticed is that the book contains five copies of each citation, an original and copies for everyone from the court clerk to the courthouse janitor. You are supposed to fill out the top sheet and it will carbon though to the underlying pages, all printed on different pastel colors.

I quickly learned that no amount of pressure can produce legible copies through five sheets of paper. The fifth copy, at the very bottom of the pad, is also the one that is marked “defendant,” meaning the person who is being summoned into court, why and when. That one, at least, needed to be completely legible.

So I spent half an afternoon and most of the next morning copying over and over, name, address, nature of violation, explanation of what occurred, etc. etc. Finally I finished and took the citations into the General Sessions Court Clerk’s office to have them processed and served.

“Oh, just give us the top sheet. We’ll make copies and send them around.”

I wept, uncontrollably.

No time for self pity, however. I had a class scheduled at 3:00 p.m. to teach after-school science enrichment to my third graders up at Valley View. This of course, was Valentine’s Day, so the kids had been gobbling down chocolates, candy canes, Tootsie Rolls, suckers and every conceivable form of sugar since early in the day.

At first I thought someone had released a flight of bats into the classroom until I realized those shadowy figures flitting around in a blur were actually my third graders, bouncing off the walls in a perpetual sugar rush.

At some point, about halfway through the hour and a half class, it suddenly dawned on me that I had to film the school board meeting that evening, but had left the camera sitting on the coffee table back at my home in Lake City.

“OK. Don’t panic. There is plenty of time to drive from Valley View to Lake City, pick up the camera and make it to the courthouse in time to set up,” I told myself.

You know, I used to be pretty efficient at changing flat tires. In my youth I always drove on tires until they were at least 50,000 miles past warranty, no sign of tread remaining and about as out of round as a watermelon. That was before they came up with the utility spare, that pathetic little spare that is now the standard in new vehicles and guaranteed to get you down the road, hopefully to the next interstate exit.

The standard jack and tire wrench have also declined in quality to the point where successfully changing a tire on the side of the road is, if not an impossibility, at least an improbability. I attempt to keep good tires on my van at all times, having learned the hard way that I really don’t want to deal with flat tires. Of course, good tires are no protection from a three-inch metal bolt.

So rushing back on the interstate last Tuesday to grab a camera and rush back to the courthouse, the predictable happened, of course. It was at this point that I discovered that the jack that I’ve never had to use, was in fact not all there. Also, my cell phone was at home, sitting on the coffee table next to the camera.

Walking. Fortunately I have friends. Unfortunately, their jack wouldn’t fit my vehicle. Fortunately they were willing to take me to Lake City. Unfortunately, every mechanic in Lake City calls it a day and goes home after 5:00 p.m.

I finally found someone with a jack that worked and dragged myself into the sanctuary of my living room around 8:00. No school board, no film at eleven. The folks here at WLAF were not amused.

Despite the temptation to just stay in bed and not leave my house until my fortunes improved, I ventured out the next day and found that my biorhythms had at least leveled off. My damaged tire was patched quickly, the bank gave me back half of the overdraft fees and my workday was uneventful and productive.

Of course we also have those weeks when everything seems right with the world. One Christmas season, I spent four bucks on two $2 lottery tickets and won $100. The next day I spent four more bucks at a different store and won $500. During the same week I wrote one of my most popular columns, “’Twas the Monday Before Christmas,” had a pleasant visit and dinner with an old girlfriend and was invited to spend January free-loading off my cousins in sunny Florida.

So, pilgrims, just be aware that regardless of how badly things seem to be going, your biorhythms will shift and things will get better. If the future is so bright you have to wear shades, don’t get too full of yourself – things will go wrong eventually, just ask Herman Cain.

I don’t know whether next week will bring an upturn in my fortunes or another downturn, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict one thing – the dozen people for whom I filled out those wheel tax citations will more than likely have a bad biorhythm week.    (updated 4:00 p.m. on 02/10/12 for the week of 02/06/2012)  

 Annexation is a dog that won’t hunt, towns better off upgrading from within

I unloaded on Congressman Jimmy Duncan last week for his sponsorship of a highway appropriation bill that would also increase truck weight limits and allow triple rigs on interstate highways.

So of course, the very next day I read that the controversial section had been removed by a committee, with Duncan saying, “I was always uneasy with that provision.”

I’m glad Duncan agreed to removing legislation that would have been a potential death knell for many motorists, not to mention costing millions in additional damage to highways and costing thousands of truck drivers their jobs. I can’t buy his victim act, however. “Uneasy”? It was his bill, why would he include something in it that made him uneasy?

Ah well, the art of successful politics involves two things: 1) taking credit where credit is not due and 2) plausible deniability – successfully shifting responsibility for unpopular behavior to others. Jimmy Duncan is, if nothing else, a skilled politician.

Less skilled as politicians are the city fathers up in Jellico. The Board of Mayor & Aldermen and the planning commission have been kicking around the idea of annexation for some months now. First they heard from irate citizens in Newcomb, who wanted no part of Jellico.

After assuring those irate citizens that Jellico wanted no part of Newcomb, Jellico’s leaders narrowed their sights to a section southeast of the town including High Cliff. Same results: irate citizens complained, planning commission backed off. Jellico appears to have dropped the idea of annexation, for the time being at least.

Jellico, like my hometown of Lake City and to an extent, LaFollette, are all suffering from the small town version of urban blight. Professionals, business owners and other upper middle class families are attracted to upscale subdivisions where they can mow extensive lawns, dig swimming pools or at least have a bit of elbow room to build a deck, patio or plant a tree or three.

Such subdivisions are rare inside city limits, where the residential neighborhoods are aging, sometimes not so gracefully. As old timers pass on, their children, having already established themselves in the suburbs, have no interest in moving back to the old home place. Instead they rent, or sell to someone who is interested in owning rental property.

The results are predictable: a gradual but steady gentrification of the town with a corresponding lowering of property values and shrinking of the tax base. LaFollette countered this trend for years by strip annexing along Highway 25W, taking in the expanding commercial strip along Jacksboro Pike to include first Woodson’s Mall, then the WalMart and stores at Cumberland Crossing.

Then Woodson’s declined and the WalMart moved on down the highway to be closer to the interstate, and outside LaFollette corporate limits. The city fathers had never bothered to annex many of the residential neighborhoods beyond the four-lane. Why commit to providing garbage, street lights, fire hydrants and police and fire protection to areas that couldn’t pay for themselves in tax revenue?

Oops. Now that the stores have all moved to Jacksboro, those growing residential neighborhoods probably look pretty good. Jellico and Lake City have the same problem, except they never really had the opportunity to annex upscale residential neighborhoods, scarce around both towns.

Lake City flirted with annexing deeper into Campbell County, but the residents of Ridgewood already have the only thing they really want from Lake City, sewer and water lines, and raised such a stink every time annexation was discussed that the city backed off.

Now Jellico has run into the same stonewall with plans to expand corporate limits and the tax base to outlying neighborhoods. Few people see enough advantages to being inside the city to offset the increased property taxes, and most will radically oppose annexation.

Cities are always looking around for industrial property they can acquire and offer for sale or lease to attract industry. Perhaps it is time these towns begin to look at land that can be developed into upscale residential neighborhoods and doing something to encourage developers to build inside city limits instead of outside in the county.

It may be a whole lot easier, with the right incentives, to persuade developers to create subdivisions in town than to persuade residents outside town to go along with being dragged inside the city limits.

Something certainly needs to be done to reverse the trend. Some of these cities are hard-pressed already to provide services for their residents at affordable costs. In another decade or two, some towns may see their tax base decline and costs rise to the point where they will cease to exist.

On second thought, considering the quality of leadership in some city halls, many residents might begin to feel that would be a good thing.  (updated 4:00 p.m. on 02/10/12 for the week of 02/06/2012)                

Knoxville’s state senator is a clown, but the city’s congressman can be dangerous

Everybody’s favorite legislative clown is at it again. Stacey Campfield has again made Tennessee the laughing stock of the nation with his idiotic remarks about the AIDS virus on Sirius Radio.

In case you’ve been taking final vows at a monastery or just emerged from your cave after hibernating during the first months of winter, West Knoxville’s state senator is the sponsor of a bill that forbids the discussion of all things gay in Tennessee classrooms before high school.

That in itself is silly enough. I don’t recall homosexuality 101 being on the curriculum of any middle schools I’m familiar with, but Stacey is famous for proposing laws to remedy problems that don’t exist, merely to grab a few more controversial headlines.

This time the class clown of the General assembly has really stepped over the line. First, he told a national radio audience that the AIDS virus was first spread among humanity by an airline pilot having sex with a monkey. That statement was just plain ridiculous, and pure Stacey Campfield.

His subsequent comments were equally ridiculous, but potentially more damaging when he claimed it is practically impossible for the AIDS virus to be spread by heterosexual sexual contact. Anybody who takes Campfield’s word on that and decides it’s fine to ignore protection may soon find themselves among the 20 percent of Tennessee AIDS victims who contracted the disease through heterosexual contact.

This time a lot of people are letting Campfield know that they’re fed up with his buffoonery. A “Recall TN State Senator Stacey Campfield” website has received thousands of hits with a good portion of them expressing a “like” which is computer speak for “Amen, brother.”

The latest episode of the Campfield Follies came on Monday, when the owner of Knoxville’s popular restaurant Bistro at the Bijou refused to serve Campfield and ordered him to leave her restaurant.

Martha Boggs, who says she is a married, heterosexual woman, explained that she just got fed up with Campfield, calling him a “bully.” A number of new customers flocked to the Bistro this week, merely to show their support for a restaurant that proudly announces on its menu board, “Today’s Special: Fried Chicken, Crispy Chicken Livers, No Stacey.”

This is, of course, not the first time Stacey has been tossed out of a joint. News-Sentinel columnist Sam Venable reminds us that a couple of years back, he was tossed out of Neyland Stadium at a Tennessee-Kentucky Halloween game when he refused to take off a Mexican wrestler’s mask despite stadium rules against wearing masks.

He was unceremoniously shown the door several years back when he tried to join the legislature’s Black Caucus, accusing African-American lawmakers of discrimination when they pointed out that he is not black.

He has been scolded for parking his car on the sidewalk in front of the State Capitol so he could rush into a session of the legislature, fashionably late, to cast his vote.

So why do the voters continue to return this clown to the state legislature year after year? Not only that, but they elevated him from the lowly House of Representatives to the State Senate in the last election. Campfield represents the wealthiest, most highly educated half of Knox County – Farragut, Campbell Station and West Knoxville.

Apparently these people have all the laws they want already in their favor and feel no need for good, intelligent representation. Instead, they want to be entertained and figure electing a clown to office will provide them with hours of cheap entertainment.

The recall movement will get nowhere. State legislators years ago limited recall petitions to local government officials and excluded state officials, namely the members of the legislature. Stacey may try again to gain entrance to the Bistro, just to grab more headlines, but other Knoxville eateries are unlikely to join the “No Stacey” movement.

But I’m going to do my little part to send Stacey a message. I’m springing for twelve bucks and a couple of dollars’ worth of stamps to send him a little stuffed monkey I found on sale. If a few thousand people would dig up stuffed monkeys and mail them to Senator Stacey Campfield at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville, he would be too busy opening his mail to dream up more mischief, at least for the rest of this session.

Stacey Campfield is merely an embarrassment, sort of like the alcoholic uncle who shows up at family Thanksgivings or the brother-in-law you have to continually bail out of jail.

I’ve decided that U.S. Congressman Jimmy Duncan is a bird of a totally different color. Duncan is just intelligent enough, and devious enough, to be dangerous.

Jimmy, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on highways and transit, is pushing legislation to spend $260 billion on highways over the next five years, pointing out that more funding for highway construction means more jobs.

Sounds like a tax and spend Democrat, doesn’t he? Well, the devil’s in the details, they always say. Jimmy’s bill would also increase weight limits on federal highways for tractor trailers from the current 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds. It would also allow some haulers to carry as much as 126,000 pounds on interstates for restricted distances of 25 miles or less. That piece, I would imagine, is a favor to the coal industry, which has long lobbied for higher load limits for short distances.

His bill would also allow triple rigs, one truck hauling three trailers instead of the current limit of two.  Duncan is quoted as saying, “Job creation is the number one priority for voters across the United States” in explaining his bill.

Excuse my ignorance, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how you can increase jobs when you replace three piggy-back tractor-trailer rigs with two triple rigs, or how you can create jobs when four trucks can legally haul the same load that five trucks must now carry.

 The one job market that has not suffered greatly from the recession has been for professional truck drivers. Companies are constantly advertising for more drivers. Duncan’s bill would cut out the need for approximately one in every five drivers.

But I guess increasing weight limits by 25 percent would have a positive impact on highway construction jobs, Interstates are currently designed to support trucks hauling the current weight limits. Heavier trucks would mean greater highway damage and more need for constant repair and resurfacing of highways, so the road builders would be happy as pigs in a mud puddle.

I wonder how much the Rogers Group and other road-building contractors, along with the big trucking companies, donated to the Jimmy Duncan re-election fund?

Oh, and I didn’t even mention highway safety. Imagine having to share a rainy interstate highway with triple rigs or regular tractor trailers loaded beyond their safe capacity. It’s enough to convince me to dig out a good county road map and go back to taking the scenic routes, regardless of how many whistle stop speed limits and slow-moving farm tractors I have to contend with. (updated 7:00 a.m. on 02/03/12 for the week of 01/30/2012)               

Musings on the Sunshine State – bull riding, fishing and the eternal mosquito

After ranting last week about corporate pirates, judges and vacant seats on county commission, I find myself this week with nothing left to rant about. This is in part due to an absence of public meetings, but primarily due to the fact that I’ve been out of town, vacationing down in warmer climes.

Well, “warmer” is somewhat subjective. Temperatures have been so mild here in Tennessee that the Florida Panhandle wasn’t really that much of a change. But while mild temperatures in Campbell County in January usually are accompanied by cloudy skies and drizzle, mild temperatures on the Gulf Coast come with blue skies, brilliant sunsets and salt air. That makes the ten-hour drive worthwhile.

Actually my sinuses went south for the winter back in October, leaving me behind to cope with another East Tennessee November. They usually stay south until late March or early April so this year I decided to go looking for them. Must have found them in Destin, Florida, because I spent five lovely days without wheezing, sneezing or snorting. Of course when I returned to Tennessee, they insisted on staying behind, still basking on the beach.

I’ve had a long love affair with the State of Florida and like all such relationships, it has its share of ups and downs. As a young man, I couldn’t seem to venture into the Sunshine State without some sort of misadventure, such as the 1967 Orange Bowl. Four of us slept on the beach at St. Petersburg, carried one companion off a deep-sea fishing boat after too few fish and too many beers, and left another companion behind in the Miami jail. He decided that a police officer’s cap would be a great souvenir. The officer and the judge failed to see the humor.

I finally gave up completely on deep-sea fishing in Florida a few years back when the state placed 30-inch size limits on all fish worth fishing for. Seems like everything we hooked came in at 29 ½ inches and had to be thrown back. Of course none of those fish survived. A school of porpoises circled our boat and scooped up everything we tossed overboard, so we paid out nearly a hundred bucks each for a “feed the dolphins” cruise.

The one keeper I pulled in, a 34 -inch grouper, bounced overboard when the captain failed to secure the cooler he placed it in. Only time I ever had the big one get away after it was already on ice, but at least the story was good for a prize-winning newspaper column.

Back when I was much younger and a bit thinner than I presently am, I spent four months paddling a canoe from Norris Dam to the tip of the Florida Everglades. “Everglades” must be an old Indian word, meaning “land of the eternal mosquito.” Each evening I would halt at my designated campsite, quickly pitch my tent, slather myself in mosquito repellant and prepare supper.

I would then quickly wash off the smelly bug repellant, gobble down a few bites and dive into my tent. After spending 20 minutes smashing the varmints that entered my tent with me, I would write in my journal by flashlight for a few minutes then lay down and listen to the sounds of the Everglades until dropping off to sleep.

There was only one sound, a low, constant “hmmmm” throughout the night as millions of mosquitoes buzzed around trying to figure out a way to get into my tent and feast.

All of the creatures would vanish with the morning sun, and I would emerge, mostly unscathed, to break camp and continue my journey. Only when next pitching my tent would I notice that some of the varmints had escaped my swatting to feed while I was asleep, only to be squashed when I rolled up the tent.. The bloodstains on my white tent’s interior survive to this day.

Of course not all of my adventures while on this canoe trip involved a solitary communion with nature. While paddling the Peace River, I stopped to celebrate New Year’s Eve at the little town of Arcadia, home to a watering hole known as “The Corral.” Yup, you guessed it, New Year’s Eve with a bunch of redneck cowboys.

The highlight of the evening came at midnight, when a fellow named Junior rode his Brahma bull through the bar, knocking over tables, drinks and drinkers before carving a swath through the dance floor. It turned out to not be as rowdy as it seems. Junior’s bull was named “Angel” and was the tame pet of a local doctor, a gentle ride for the doc’s small grandchildren.

Junior, it turned out, had just returned from a trip of his own, having ridden Angel from Arcadia to Tennessee for the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair. When he found out I had just paddled a canoe from Tennessee to Arcadia, he insisted that I join him at the seat of honor, astride Angel’s back.

I can attest, you haven’t line danced until you line dance on the back of a Brahma bull. Angel especially liked kicking up his heels to the sounds of Charlie Daniels’ fiddle.

Alas, nowadays my visits to the Sunshine State are much more relaxed, involving short walks on the beach and the consumption of prodigious quantities of seafood. Where once I used to obtain my seafood the hard way, diving for Florida lobsters in the Keys, digging for clams on Sunset Key or battling King Mackerels from the deck of a boat, I now dig for my credit card at places like Pampano Joes’s or Harbor Dock.

I’ve changed a bit as I’ve aged, but not by a long shot as much as Florida has changed. Destin, when I used to spend summer vacations there as a child with my family, consisted of a couple of seedy motels, a harbor full of equally seedy fishing boats, a shrimp house and a couple of diners and gas stations. For nightlife, one could venture over to Fort Walton Beach to take in a movie or get a beer at one of the bars near Eglin Air Force Base.

The offshore sandbar that guarded the harbor entrance can no longer be seen – it’s covered with ten-story condos. Destin now spreads for miles along Highway 98, with shopping malls, outlet malls, fast food joints, fancy food joints, motels, hotels, gift shops and a Tom Thumb convenience store at every intersection.

Destin spreads eastward to merge with Sandestin, then Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Grayton Beach, Seaside and other “model” communities until you are in the outskirts of Panama City. Every square foot along the seaside is covered by a rental townhouse, villa or a condo. In some places they’ve had to stabilize the sand dunes with metal seawalls to keep the condos and townhouses from washing into the sea with the next hurricane, as they are built much too close to the water.

The state has preserved a few swatches of Florida as it used to be, state parks at Topsail Beach and Henderson Beach, segments of Gulf Islands National Seashore on Okaloosa Island and a state forest preserve. These are sanctuaries for wading birds and other critters. On one hike in Topsail State Park, I encountered an armadillo, or as they call them in Texas, a “possum on the half shell.”

Ah well, time brings changes and with time, Mother Nature will change things back. Eventually, the big one, the mother of all hurricanes, will arrive to blow all the clutter into the Gulf of Mexico. Or global warming will turn out to be real, despite what Tea Partiers say, and melting Arctic ice will raise sea levels and turn Destin back into a swamp. Eventually this stretch of golden sand will be returned to its rightful owner – the eternal mosquito.    (updated 6:00 p.m. on 01/28/12 for the week of 01/23/2012)      

  Some rare occasions when I would love to be a county commissioner

There are times, however rare, when I really wish I could be a member of the county commission. Some situations just scream for certain motions or statements that I would just love to offer but cannot, exiled as I am to being behind the camera in the back of the room.

Such was the case Tuesday night. To begin with, the various judges scheduled so many people for court appearances the day after the Martin Luther King holiday that the commission had to move its public meeting to the cramped meeting room in the Jacksboro Municipal Building.

The squires, county officials and public gamely endured having to cross the street in a pouring rain, but most were none too happy about it, simply having no choice in the matter.

I, for one, would have registered my displeasure by offering a motion, perhaps to re-design the barely-begun justice center to eliminate judge’s office spaces. My motion would assign the judges new office space, perhaps in the basement of the Courthouse Annex or the old Central School office building, with no budget for heating and air conditioning.

The motion would have died for lack of a second, of course, but would make the point that public meetings of governing bodies deserve more respect than they get from the judiciary.

The second instance where I really wished to be a member of the commission came when the squires couldn’t come to an agreement on appointing someone to succeed Melvin Boshears. Johnny Bruce offered a motion to just leave the seat vacant until August and let the voters decide the issue.

I can understand the squires’ hesitation to vote on an appointment. Members of the general public can promise to vote for everyone running for an office, walk into a voting booth, pull a lever and the candidates will never know whether they kept their word or not. It’s called a secret ballot and its every voter’s right to keep their vote private. The commissioners can’t do this, and any vote on appointing someone to office is going to result in some hard feelings somewhere along the line.

Of course, commissioners also cannot decide not to make an appointment. The constitution demands that every citizen have equal representation and County Attorney Joe Coker pointed out that voting to leave the seat vacant for more than 120 days would violate the law of the land because third district voters would have only two, instead of three representatives

This is where I would have loved to be a member of the commission. I would have offered an amendment to leave the seat vacant but assign to it an automatic “no” vote on every motion. This way, third district citizens would have exactly the same representation they had before, when Melvin Boshears held the seat.

Another case where I would love to be a member of the commission involves the sad news last week that the PACA plant has closed, leaving over 90 people without jobs. PACA, which produced body armor for the military and police departments, did not appear to be suffering from loss of contracts or inability to turn a profit.

In fact, it appears that the company that recently bought PACA, Florida-based Point Blank Enterprises, purchased the local company in order to get its contracts and not much else.

Point Blank Enterprises doesn’t seem to have had any interest in PACA’s loyal employees, or in PACA’s factory location and infrastructure here in Campbell County. I suspect that the Florida company saw a good opportunity to buy out a competitor, eliminate it and take its business, and nothing more.

Hey, that’s business in the cutthroat world of corporate competition, right? Sure there are going to be a few casualties in the form of people losing their jobs, perhaps permanently in this sour economy. A few might have to file bankruptcy or lose homes, so what? It’s nothing personal, just business.

I am a strong proponent of the old axiom, “Don’t get mad, get even.” If I were a member of the Campbell County Commission, I would offer a motion to forbid the Campbell County Sheriff’s Department from purchasing body armor from Point Blank Enterprises, to send letters to the county’s four municipalities, urging them to pass similar motions, and also letters to every police department and sheriff’s department in East Tennessee, urging them to refuse to give business to a company that takes Tennessee jobs and moves them to Florida.

In the event that some legal requirement forces local governments to accept low bids, even from corporate pirates that steal jobs from Tennesseans, I would move that the county commission ask our state representative and senator to sponsor legislation, removing low bidder priority for any company that has moved jobs from Tennessee to another state.

Then I would ask our county mayor to have a friendly, private meeting with such people as retired General Carl Stiner, or anyone else with military connections, and see if they have enough influence with the Pentagon to get a few contracts canceled here and there.

Vindictive, you say?  Nah, it’s nothing personal. It’s just business.    (updated 8:00 p.m. on 01/25/12 for the week of 01/16/2012)    

Improve classroom climate? The answer  doesn’t take 300 grand - respect the kids

I decided that I’ve been a bad boy during the past year, so resolved for 2012 to straighten up my act, lose those holiday pounds and generally treat my body better in the upcoming year.

Then I made the mistake of watching the latest Republican presidential debates and the next morning, lurched straight to the Sugar Shack for a chocolate donut. I mean, if this is the best America can come up with, we’re all doomed so why worry?

Seriously, the debates have been great entertainment, almost on a level with Campbell County Commission meetings. Normally, the trail of broken dreams doesn’t begin until candidates lose a primary or two, but this group has managed to self-destruct long before the first vote was cast.

Donald the Trump not only couldn’t generate interest in his candidacy, he couldn’t even convince other candidates to attend a debate he offered to host. Sarah Palin wisely figured out that she is much better off making mllions from speaking tours and her daughter’s books, you betcha, and declined to put her head on the block.

Herman Cain quickly became barbeque while Michelle Bachman was toast even before her dismal showing in Iowa. After his debate goofs and finishing dead last in New Hampshire, Rick Perry is Texas toast but is too dumb to figure it out yet. Newt? His record speaks for itself and that can mean only one thing: southern fried.

Romney is the clear front runner, even though six out of ten Republicans either can’t stand him or don’t trust him. Rick Santorum? He is still hanging around on the fringes but soon to become a Philly cheese steak. That leaves only Libertarian Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman with a snowball’s chance of derailing the Romney express. Republicans are attracted to Paul’s fiscal conservative message but let’s face it folks, the Pachyderms will never nominate a man who wants to cut back defense spending, legalize pot and legitimize gay marriage.

That leaves only former Utah governor Jon Huntsman with any realistic chance of upsetting Romney. Romney has already attacked Huntsman for buddying up to the Obama administration when he accepted the post as Ambassador to China. Gingrich’s campaign has run online attacks criticizing Huntsman’s adoption of two little girls from China and India.

Hmmm. A Republican who has shown that he can actually work with Democrats while retaining Republican values. An American who actually walks the walk when it comes to helping disadvantaged children by adopting two orphans? Sounds like someone that moderate Republicans, independents and former Democrats who are uneasy over the color of the President’s skin could all support.

Won’t happen. The Republican Party has been successfully high-jacked by the far right and I don’t see supporters of the likes of Gingrich, Bachman or Perry supporting anyone who has shown he can work with Democrats. They would rather bring our country down around their ears than see a Donkey in the White House for four more years, which is why that is exactly what we can expect.

Enough about boring national politics. We have all the entertainment we can wish for right here at home. There are signs (literally) of unrest all around us. A sign on the four lane at the former scrap yard owned by Bob Andrews declares the mud hole left behind when city workers cleared the lot to be a wetland and nature preserve, naming several individuals.

A truck is parked down in Lake City every day or so, usually within a block of city hall, with a sign urging the recall of three city commissioners before they “bankrupt the city.” Too late, Lake City has been bankrupt for years, they just don’t know it yet.

But all is not lost in a cloud of rancor and distrust. I learned Tuesday night that our county’s teachers are making good use of $300,000-plus of federal stimulus money by learning how to improve the classroom climate, meaning teacher-student relationships.

An outfit called the Flippin Project, or something along those lines, is leading teachers through a series of trainings on how to better relate to students. Not all teachers are thrilled with the training, nor are all school board members thrilled with the cost.

Rector Miller, for one, aimed some pointed questions at school officials and emphasized that $300,000 is a lot of money for touchy-feely training. Teachers’ union president Sharon Marlow noted that she really doesn’t think shaking each of her high school students’ hands and telling them she loves them each day is getting her any closer to relating to her students.

If that’s what the Flippin training is all about, I have to wonder what somebody in the State Department of Education has been smoking. I get that kind of treatment every time I walk into my Lake City bank – “Welcome to SunTrust. How may we help you?”

I resist the urge to scream, “Quit charging me seven bucks a month for my %&#! checking account,” and instead usually just quip, “I’m beyond help.”

The point is, I know they’ve been to an employee seminar where they are instructed in proper greetings for customers. I know they don’t really mean it, or their greetings would at least vary a little bit day to day. So what good does it do, really? I would much rather be greeted with, “Hi Boomer. Cold enough out there for you?” or something, anything that tells me these are real people and not robotellers.

Want to improve relationships between teachers and high school or middle school students? Easy, listen to what the kids have to say and respect them, even the ones who aren’t honor students.

My former partner in the media consulting business is now director of an organization down in New Orleans called “Operation Rethink.”  It is led by high school and middle school kids who want to re-structure New Orleans schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which all but wiped out the school system.

Their agenda? Improved lunchroom meals, more and cleaner bathrooms, better lighting, more complete libraries, opportunities for teenaged mothers to return to classes with childcare available, as much emphasis by security officers and teachers on bullying as is placed on drug enforcement and a dozen other things, all important to kids but often overlooked by educators.

These kids hold press conferences for TV and newspaper reporters, attend school board meetings with parents and demand time on the agenda and behave in most ways like adults. That is because their parents and the staff at Rethink treat them much like adults, listening to their concerns, taking them seriously and helping them achieve their goals.

My favorite experience with Rethink was at a press conference two years ago, when the federally appointed supervisor for the New Orleans School District and several other administrators were invited to a Rethink press conference on food quality.

The kids had convinced administrators to let them conduct blind taste tests in several school cafeterias, where students were asked to sample the standard lunchroom meals along with a variety of other meals, prepared by a French Quarter chef, that cost approximately the same amount of money in ingredients and time.

The school officials were then invited to sample the winning dishes at the press conference, a mixture of aromatic and nutritious vegetable, cheese and seafood dishes all prepared with low cost ingredients easily available locally.

I watched as the main spokesman for the kids, a 15-year-old black kid, walked among the school officials, urging the federal supervisor, “Be sure and eat everything on your plate.” That’s exactly what my fourth-grade teacher used to tell us.

School officials pledged to work diligently to upgrade the quality of cafeteria meals in a city famous for its great food, everywhere except the public school system. They also agreed to do away with the “spork” that disgusting little plastic cross between a spoon and fork that isn’t very good at being either and is apparently despised by kids.

Small victories? Maybe so. Minor problems compared to curriculums and test scores? Not to the kids. But you can bet some of those kids will grow up, confident in their ability to get things done, to one day sit on school boards, in administrator’s chairs, maybe at the mayor’s desk.    (updated 12:30 p.m. on 01/12/12 for the week of 01/09/2012)      

2012 promises to be . . . well, at the very least an entertaining year

Oh wow! It’s here at last – 2012, the new year. My fictitious fractured forecasts are in the bag and now its time to get down to the serious business of what’s really happening in the world, the country and dear old Campbell County.

All I can say, dear readers, is be afraid. Be very afraid. While the economy seems to be on a slight upswing (good news), this is, after all, Election Year (bad news), another session of the Tennessee legislature (very bad news) and time to redistrict political boundaries in line with the 2010 Census (shear outhouse buffoonery).

While the national news media will be focusing all of their attention on the presidential race and the rotating clown show that is the Republican primary season, our beloved lawmakers down in Nashville are busily hashing out new political boundaries.

Well, the Pachyderm majority in the state senate is hashing it out, at any rate. Nobody else is going to have much to say about it, period, especially the voters.

Right now it appears that Campbell County may be in line for a new congressman, as first indications are that our county may be moved into the First Congressional District, dominated by politicians from the Tri-Cities area of upper East Tennessee.

That might be an improvement over our current status as one of the easternmost counties in the sprawling Fourth District. I’m not sure if Congressman Scott Desjarlais from faraway Marion County ever found Campbell County on a map. Rumors are that he confused LaFollette with LaFayette and campaigned across the state line in nearby Georgia instead. More disturbing still are rumors that the Georgians actually voted for him.

Ah well, at least Campbell County appears likely to keep its legislative district, represented currently by Dennis Powers, intact. Dennis might like to give some of the more traditional Democratic voting precincts away, but they are too widely scattered, from the White Oak area near the Claiborne County line, to Caryville and Ridegewood near Anderson County and Jellico and Newcomb bordering Scott County.

Besides, in the wake of the anti-Obama backlash in the past couple of elections, it’s hard to tell exactly which precincts are still traditionally Democratic. I predict the county will remain basically undivided, but one never knows the mind of the Tennessee legislature.

I wish the status of my own hometown, Lake City, was as predictable. In the past couple of decades, Lake City has shared a legislator with Jacksboro (Tom Wheeler), Clinton (Buzz Elkins), and most recently Scott County (I forget who our representative is, as nobody in Lake City has ever seen him).

This last bit of gerrymandering took quite a bit of creativity. Lake City was linked geographically to Briceville, which was linked geographically to the New River area, which borders Scott County on one little corner in the isolated community of Smoky Junction.

I was a crew leader in the 2010 Census – we’re still looking for the field worker I sent to Smoky Junction. His last message, before he lost his cell phone signal, said something that sounded like, “I’m almost there, but I’m not sure where there is, and have no idea how to get back.”

Seems nobody, and especially State Senator Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, wanted Lake City in their district. Scott County drew the short straw.

There are some rumors that all of Anderson County will be transferred to Congressman Jimmy Duncan’s Second District which includes Knox County and other Republican strongholds. This is good; I’ve always wanted to vote against Jimmy Duncan.

Actually, although Jimmy hates liberals, despises tree-huggers and has nothing but contempt for journalists, he and I see eye-to-eye on one subject. I too, strongly opposed George W. “Shrub” Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. I opposed it because of the obvious question: “What do we do with it once we’ve got it?” Jimmy opposed the war because it involved spending money, and Jimmy Duncan does not like to spend money.

At least he had the guts to stand up to his fellow Republicans and vote against the war. Most Pachyderms in Congress only began opposing the war in Iraq after Democratic President Obama inherited the war from the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration.

But enough about political districts. What else can we look forward to in 2012? The Tennessee General Assembly is back in action, and that can only mean bad news for most of us. I go along with Andy Jackson’s assessment of the GenAss, that the only good legislature is one that is in recess and not doing anything. (Actually, I think he was referring to Congress, but the principal is the same).

This bunch, in addition to re-gerrymandering the gerrymandered voting districts, is looking to drug test welfare recipients, at a cost that promises to exceed the savings in rejected claims. As long as Bill Ketron continues to represent Murfreesboro, we can also expect a handful of unconstitutional bills targeting Muslims, Buddhists and any other religions besides Southern Baptists.

As long as Stacy Campfield continues to represent West Knox County, we can expect a few unconstitutional bills aimed at Hispanics, African-Americans, liberals and other minorities, along with a few bills targeting the University of Tennessee and school teachers in general.

Then there’s that fellow out in Jackson, Representative What’s-His-Name, who if he stays out of jail, will undoubtedly introduce legislation to allow assault weapons in kindergarten, insane asylums and Sunday School classes. I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

We can also expect that the federal courts will have full dockets, ruling on the unconstitutionality of a majority of the legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly.

Here on the local scene, the political agenda is thin for 2012. The squires have two more years to entertain us before their terms expire, as does the High Sheriff, the County Clerk and most other high profile offices. We will elect or reject a few school board members and a couple of courthouse officials and that’s about it.

Of course there is that matter of finding a replacement for Doctor No. The commission has finally agreed on a process for appointing someone to fill the vacancy. Now all they have to do is agree on whom to appoint as the newest member of that august body. Personally I think they should simply leave the seat vacant and agree to assign an automatic “no” vote to it for the next two years. That way, nobody will notice that Melvin Boshears has retired.

So, 2012 – will it be a better year that 2011? That depends on one’s definition of “good.” I certainly think it has the potential to be entertaining, and that, at least, gives us a reason to look forward to the next twelve months. Happy new year, everybody, and good luck. We’re going to need it.  (updated 4:30 p.m. on 01/06/12 for the week of 01/02/2012)    

Can anything be as strange as 2011?  Try our fractured forecasts for 2012

News, schmooze, Anybody can report the news that has already happened, or just re-write the previous year’s stories and change a few names around. (Joe, Bob, John) (insert last name) arrested for manufacturing (pick one) meth, marijuana, counterfeit money. (County commission, City Council, School Board) at odds over (pick one) ambulance director, sanitation director, maintenance director, dog catcher.

And so on, ad nauseum. Is there anything new under the sun? Only here at WLAF.com. We’ll give you a look at next year’s headlines before they happen, or at least headlines that we sometimes wish we would see, for a bit of variety if nothing else.

January – Melvin Boshears finally comes clean about his real reason for retiring from the county commission in December. “I’m throwing my hat in the ring for President of the United States,” Boshears announces during a press conference at the Hatfield Knob elk-viewing platform.

When it is pointed out that he is not technically a Republican, Boshears replies, “Yeah but they’re looking for a conservative and I am the original Doctor No. That Mitch McConnell fellow is a Johnny-Come-Lately.”

When the votes are counted in the Iowa Republican caucus, Boshears finishes far behind front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, but slightly ahead of Michelle Bachman, Donald Trump and Herman Cain. “It’s on to New Hampshire!” the jubilant newcomer tells an enthusiastic crowd of bass pros and duck hunters.

February – A cold January results in abnormally high utility bills from the Jellico Utility District. A mob of 500 irate customers marches on City Hall, only to learn that the Jellico City Council has voted unanimously to reinstate the Jellico Utility Board.

“You need to take your complaints to the members of the Utility Board,” Mayor Les Stiers tells the mob, handing out a list of the board members’ home phone numbers.

March – Undeterred by the flop of the “Supertwang” music festival last spring, promoters announce plans to hold “Rock the Boat,” a combination Rock/Rap/Folk/Country music festival in June on a floating platform anchored near Flat Hollow Marina.

“We’ll have top acts and the audience will be seated on the shore. The lake bank is steep enough that we should be able to squeeze 20,000 people within sight of the stage, said festival organizer Harold Roy Atkinson, who denies any connection to SuperTwang promoter Hal Royce Abramson.

Having finished ahead of Donald Trump, Herman Cain and Rick Perry in New Hampshire, Melvin Boshears has his presidential aspirations dashed on Super Tuesday, when he fails to win a single delegate.

“Just too many states having primaries at the same time, I couldn’t get around to kiss enough babies,” the candidate explains as he drops out of the Republican primary. “But I got the hang of this thing now. I might stay in the race as an Independent,” Boshears adds with a wink.

April – The new Campbell County Justice Center nears completion, containing enough cell space to accommodate over 200 inmates along with secure courtrooms and judicial offices. Two weeks before the scheduled dedication ceremony, a federal judge points out that the daily average number of prisoners in the Campbell County Jail has now increased to 387. He gives the county six months to approve an expansion of the jail to accommodate the increased population.

County commissioners nearly come to blows at the monthly meeting during a debate over funding the expanded jail. Finally, Finance Director Jeff Marlow is asked how the county can fund the project without increasing taxes. “Justice Center? What Justice Center, do we have a Justice Center?” Marlow murmured, staring vacantly into space. He then suggests that the commission purchase $10,000 worth of five-dollar Jumbo Bucks from Rocky Top Market and pray.

May – The eagerly anticipated graduation ceremony for Campbell County High School is held at LMU’s Turner Arena in Harrogate. Unfortunately, only half of the senior class attends the ceremony. A heavy fog causes the drivers of a three-bus convoy to get lost and overshoot the turn-off. The missing seniors end up graduating at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky along with the graduating class from Floyd County High School. 

June -  The “Rock the Boat” music festival kicks off from a floating platform on Norris Lake, featuring a myriad of musical talent including country icons the Oak Ridge Boys, biker icon David Allen Coe, rapper T-Pac, Brittany Spears, Nickleback and an aging Gladys Knight & the Pips.

The concert appears to be going off without a hitch, but the Southern Sons security detail fails to stop a crazed mob of former teenyboppers who rush the stage while Spears is performing. Unfortunately the stage sits in 30 feet of water and capsizes. Most performers are rescued, but listed as missing are David Allen Coe’s Harley-Davidson, folk singer John Prine and two Pips.

July – Failing to agree on a tax increase to fund another jail expansion and faced with a federal judge’s deadline, county commissioners take the Finance Director’s advice and invest $10,000 in scratch-off lottery tickets. They hit three $150,000 winners and pay for the expansion.

Road Superintendent Dennis Potter and the school board are not amused, however, when instead of tax revenue to pave roads and repair school buildings, the commission offers $486 in unopened lottery tickets.

August – Attorney David Dunaway files the last of six lawsuits totaling $862 million against contractors and subcontractors, the La Follette Utility Board and various individuals over the accidental dumping of toxic chemicals into the city sewer system the previous October.

Dunaway contends that his entire law office staff suffered irreparable brain damage as a result of breathing the toxic fumes, negatively affecting his ability to file lawsuits against government agencies.

His case was found to have no merit, however, when it was revealed that the terrible stench experienced by citizens of LaFollette came not from the sewer system but out of City Hall.

September – Montclair Technology LLC opens its eagerly-anticipated oil refinery in the Jellico Industrial Park. The company hires over 80 local workers to help refine recycled oil that is brought in on tanker cars.

The first shipment, however, consisting of recovered BP crude oil from the Gulf of Mexico, is accidentally spilled into Elk Fork Creek and soon the entire town is awash in crude oil leaking into the town’s water supply.

Attorney David Dunaway descends on Jellico with twelve mentally handicapped law clerks, who manage to solicit over 400 plaintiffs for a class action lawsuit against the company and the City of Jellico. The city is dropped from the suit, however, when Mayor Les Stiers produces a document showing that the industrial park had been deeded over to the Jellico Utilities board.

October – Frustrated by the previous season, when Jellico High’s basketball team had a better record than the Cougars, Campbell County hires former University of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl as head coach at CCHS.

Excitement builds over the upcoming season when Pearl announces that two starters from Oak Ridge, one from Anderson County and a 6’8” post player from Memphis Melrose have all transferred to Campbell County. TSSAA mounts an investigation, however, when a photo emerges on Facebook of the four players posing with Campbell County coaches at a cookout on McCloud Mountain.

November – Melvin Boshears sees his presidential aspirations dashed when he finishes far behind President Barack Obama, Republican Mitt Romney and Socialist candidate Clarence Darrow, who has been dead for 73 years. He did, however, gain more write-in votes than Michelle Bachman, Donald Trump and John Edwards.

“It’s only two years ‘til we elect a guv’ner,” the eternally optimistic Doctor No proclaims.

December – After Campbell County voters defeat a half-cent sales tax increase by a margin of 7,822 to 6, county commissioners must again tackle the challenge of how to maintain the county’s crumbling network of roads.

Road Superintendent Dennis Potter rejects the commissioners’ offer of $5,000 worth of two-dollar Jumbo Bucks, but somehow still manages to pave over a hundred miles of roadways in the next six months.

By a strange coincidence, area banks. lottery outlets and liquor stores  are plagued early in the year by a series of robberies. Because of his distinctive headgear, the masked culprit soon earns a nickname as the “Hard Hat Bandit.”   (updated 3:30 p.m. on 12/30/11 for the week of 12/26/2011)    

 

Drug testing for welfare mothers?  Try psychiatric evaluations for lawmakers

 When it comes to politics, the week before Christmas is always pretty predictable – instead of public servants accomplishing momentous things, we get a good dose of holiday good cheer and if we’re lucky, some cheap entertainment.

And so it has been this year with politicians both large and small, from the national stage up in Washington down to our very own, lowly Campbell County Courthouse.

The squires were actually less entertaining this year than last, when the Baird-Hatmaker feud inspired my updated version of  “Twas the night before Christmas.”

This year the county commissioners were unusually civil to each other, perhaps inspired by Melvin Boshears, who has apparently undergone a transformation from “Doctor No” to Jolly Saint Nick. Melvin showed up at his first meeting as a private citizen and former commissioner bearing a large red bag filled with gifts.

He then proceeded to distribute presents to his former colleagues, county officials and anyone in the audience who caught his eye, along with words of praise for all the dedicated public servants in the room. After that act, most of the squires couldn’t wipe the grins off their faces long enough to have a mean thought and the meeting ended without any fireworks.

Oh, they accomplished a thing or two along the way. They finally managed to agree on a procedure for appointing Melvin’s successor, not that they’re any closer to actually placing a warm body in his seat. That little drama will have to wait until 2012, after all the holiday good cheer has worn off.

The squires also voted to place an increase in the local option sales tax on the ballot at the next general election. As written, the half-cent increase would all go to repair and maintain county roads, finally giving Road Superintendent Dennis Potter some extra money for paving projects.

Of course the last time Campbell County citizens actually voted to place a tax on themselves, Calvin Coolidge was President, so don’t hold your breath.

Of course the big show this week was up in Washington, where the national news media had the entire working population of the country holding its collective breath while the Pachyderms and Donkeys debated over extending the payroll tax cut.

In the end President Barack Obama won this round, as the Republicans in the House caved in to pressure from everybody from Republican presidential candidates to the Wall Street Journal. The hardheaded Tea Party conservatives in Congress nearly handed the Democrats the greatest Christmas present of all, 30-50 bucks taken out of the average American’s weekly paycheck that could be blamed squarely on the Republican House majority in an election year.

Of course they only extended the cuts for another two months, so the entire debate will be continued in February in time for a St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

With all the humor and drama coming out of local courthouses and the nation’s capitol, our friends down in Nashville couldn’t allow themselves to be left out. Well, most were quiet, but the court jester of the General Assembly, Senator Stacey Campfield, made up for that by announcing that he will push bills in the upcoming legislative session to require drug testing for all recipients of “entitlements,” from welfare to unemployment benefits to workers’ compensation.

Stacey is the clown who once stirred up controversy by demanding to be admitted as a member of the legislature’s black caucus, although he is very, very white. When rejected, he charged the African-Americans with discrimination. He also threatened legislative war against the University of Tennessee when he was tossed out of Neyland Stadium because he refused to remove his Halloween mask at the Kentucky game.

Less entertaining are some of Campfield’s proposed bills through the years, such as a “birther” bill to remove President Obama’s name from the state’s ballot. Most of Campfield’s bills are usually shot down by the State Attorney General as unconstitutional before they gain traction, and I would not be surprised to see his drug-testing bills run into similar walls.

To begin with, workers’ compensation isn’t an “entitlement,” since it is gained only through legal action to claim compensation for injuries suffered on the job. Likewise, one might argue that since employers have to pay into a fund for unemployment insurance, that is not exactly the state’s money to give or take away at will.

That leaves welfare, and granted, the State of Florida has already ploughed through some legal ground to establish a drug-testing requirement for welfare recipients.

I have a few basic problems with drug testing in general and applying it to welfare recipients in particular. First are the inherent flaws in drug testing procedure. Marijuana, a minor drug which many people think should be decriminalized, is known to remain detectible in a person’s system for a fairly long period of time.

Some harder drugs, such as cocaine, crack and certain prescription drugs, vanish from the body in a short period of time, often within 24 hours. Some perfectly legal medicines give false readings that can be misinterpreted in many drug tests, so drug testing remains an imperfect science at best.

From a moral point of view, if somebody fails a drug test, who is really penalized if they are denied food stamps? I’m as disgusted as anyone else by the thought of somebody receiving government help to feed their children, then spending money to buy marijuana. Starving their kids by denying them food stamps isn’t going to solve the problem, however.

So just how well has the drug testing requirement worked down in the Sunshine State?  I looked up some statistics on Florida’s drug testing policy and welfare program and found that the State of Florida began requiring potential welfare recipients to pass a drug test before receiving benefits on July 1, 2011.

Since that program went into effect, 2.6 percent of welfare applicants have failed the drug test, not exactly an overwhelming number. At this rate the estimated amount that the State of Florida will save over the next year in denied benefits is projected at $98,000.

$98,000? Campbell County collects more than that each month from wheel tax decals. The next question, and one for which I was not able to find an answer, is how much is Florida’s drug testing program costing taxpayers? We must assume, if someone is too poor to afford food and shelter, that they are too poor to pay for a drug test. This means the state is picking up the tab for the testing and lab analysis costs.

So how much has it cost to run drug tests on every person in Florida who applied for welfare benefits since July, 2011? My guess is much more than $98,000. Hopefully, before that law and order crowd down in Nashville jumps on the Campfield bandwagon and passes his bill, somebody will pause long enough to do the math.

What I would like to see passed instead is a bill requiring anyone who wants to be a candidate for legislative office to first pass a drug test, one that the candidate must pay for instead of taxpayers. In the case of Stacey Campfield it wouldn’t be a bad idea to also require a psychiatric evaluation (updated 6:30 p.m. on 12/23/11 for the week of 12/19/2011)     

Who do we trust - politicians we can vote out of office or those we can’t ?

 Things have been a bit dismal around the WLAF/Channel 12 studio this week. Last Friday, “Big Dan” Sansone passed away suddenly, at the young age of 39. In addition to his more visible duties, such as announcing birthdays each Friday wearing his outrageous sombrero, Dan was one of the technical gurus at the station. Without his expertise, I imagine my film of school board and commission meetings would often be impossible to watch and hear.

A mother should never have to bury her children and Dan’s poor mom has now buried two. Her broken heart must have been uplifted a bit, however, to hear all the testimonials in Thursday night from Dan’s many lifelong friends. Her son packed a lot of living into his all-too-short lifetime.

As for the all-too-long circus we call the Campbell County Commission, their workshop Monday night was uneventful – until they got around to the question of replacing retired squire Melvin Boshears. In a rerun of last month’s “Who’s on First?” show, the squires are still not quite settled on exactly how to fill the vacancy.

Bob Walden offered a simplified version of his proposal that last month, left the entire commission in a state of confusion. This time Bob suggested two voting rounds instead of three, with the provision that if any candidate receives a simple majority in the first round, that person will be elected automatically and voting will cease.

If nobody gets a majority in round one, where anybody and everybody who lives in Campbell County can be nominated (or nominate themselves), the top two candidates receiving votes will move on to a runoff vote. Seems pretty simple, but Thomas Hatmaker tossed a monkey wrench in that suggestion by insisting that the commission should simply appoint the person who finished next in line back in August, 2010 when the general election was held.

Beverly Hall agreed, admitting that the next candidate in line is also her brother, and the discussion took off in several different directions as some commissioners questioned the legality of such a move. County Attorney Joe Coker was not present to clarify whether the nomination process that is recommended by the County Technical Advisory Service is simply a suggestion or codified in law, and so the debate will obviously spill over into next week’s meeting.

Personally, I can’t imagine why Beverly would want to serve on the same commission with her brother, especially since she admits that they often disagree. Next year’s family Christmas gathering could be interesting:

 “Tell the turkey to pass the turkey.”

“You still mad because I voted for that tax increase?”

“Nope. I’m mad because you voted to freeze salaries in my office and eliminate Christmas bonuses.”

“Nag!”

“Grinch!”

Sibling rivalries, just what this commission needs to spice things up a bit.

Meanwhile, our esteemed state legislators appear ready to spice things up quite a bit come January, and the results aren’t likely to be pretty, at least not for most Tennesseans.

As I have pointed out many times in the past, Tennessee is a “State’s Rights” state but that definition does not, as most folks presume, relate to our state government’s relation to the federal government in Washington.

It in fact defines the level of control that state government, particularly the state legislature, has over local county and city government. State’s rights actually means that local government has absolutely no power at all, other than those powers that have been granted them by legislative act.

Through the years, Tennessee’s legislature has decided that it is entirely too burdensome for them to supervise everything going on back in county courthouses and has passed laws that give local government more control over a number of things, such as setting property tax rates, regulating certain activities, spending or borrowing money and so on.

Now we have this newly-minted Republican-controlled legislature that seems to think local governments have been handed too much control over things in their own counties and cities. They think a group of politicians from Dyersburg on the Mississippi River, the mountains of uppermost East Tennessee and Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga are better able to decide what is best for the people of Campbell County.

It may be no mystery that the most blatant attempts by the legislature to exercise control over local governments involve the large cities such as Memphis, Nashville or now, Knoxville. These cities have Democrats in control, while the legislature is currently of a strong Pachyderm persuasion.

Last session, the General Assembly passed one law to prohibit city governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that are stricter than state law. That bill was aimed at Nashville’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and would probably find widespread support out here in rural, Southern Baptist Tennessee, but it was merely the tip of the iceberg that is coming.

Among proposed legislation that is being prepared for the upcoming session of the legislature, according to News-Sentinel legislative reporter Tom Humphrey, is one that will prohibit cities and counties from requiring firms that do business with local government to provide benefits to employees beyond what is required by state and federal law.

Few local governments have attempted to pass a so-called “living wage” ordinance in Tennessee, and none successfully, so this bill might not have any direct effect either. Not so with another piece of legislation being proposed, which would prohibit county governments from increasing local property taxes more than one percent without approval through a public referendum.

This might sound perfectly reasonable to most taxpayers until you stop and think about it. The public very rarely ever votes a tax upon themselves, that’s just human nature. If tax increases of over one percent had been impossible to implement, I can think of at least two instances in the nearly 30 years that I’ve been covering Campbell County politics when schools would not have opened in the fall.

We would have no options for dealing with such things as a federal court order to build a larger jail, the need to replace a crumbling school building or aging fleet of police patrol cars without borrowing money, and the county’s  ability to pay back those loans would be restricted by the county’s inability to enact a tax increase.

Oh, but that’s no problem, the legislature also has a bill pending that would require the county to get state approval for some bond issues, so we probably couldn’t borrow the money anyway.

The theme coming out of the legislature seems to be “the courthouse can’t be trusted” and big brother needs to step in and look out for the state’s citizens.

Few people have been more critical of the county commission or city hall through the years than your truly, but I still trust a government that is close to home more than I trust a government made up mostly of people I cannot vote out of office. Ever since 1861, when the Tennessee legislature made that fateful decision to throw its lot in with Mississippi and Alabama in the Southern Confederacy, they have consistently proven that they can’t be trusted. Nothing much has changed since.  (updated 4:30 p.m. on 12/16/11 for the week of 12/12/2011)     

CCHS graduation?  Dissenting seniors at least deserve school board’s respect

Eugene Lawson, the resident curmudgeon on the Campbell County Board of Education, isn’t nearly as mean as he likes to let on. Despite his “take no prisoners” approach to teachers, unions, negotiations, Finance Director Moneybags Marlow and the news media in general, I’ve talked to some former students who swear Eugene has a soft spot or two.

You wouldn’t be able to tell it from the board meeting Thursday night, however. The ol’ curmudgeon surely traumatized a handful of CCHS seniors who worked up the nerve to address the board and go against the grain of popular opinion.

The topic in question was a request from the president of the CCHS Student Council, representing a majority of the graduating class, that graduation be moved from crowded, hot and suffocating Cougar Stadium to LMU’s Turner Arena up in Harrogate.

Brandon Johnson told the school board that 151 out of 209 members of the senior class who had voted were in favor of the change, with the remaining 83 non-voting seniors presumed to care not a whit either way.

Brandon also had an answer for LMU’s $1,000 rental fee and the long distance for students’ families who lack reliable transportation. The school, no longer offering drivers’ ed, recently sold the two cars for $2,400. That money can go into a graduation fund to pay the arena rental and the cost of two buses to haul students and families to LMU.

Brandon also pointed out that Turner Arena has ample parking, better handicapped accessibility and indoor climate control, not to mention the stature of holding graduation on a college campus. He made a convincing pitch to the board, supported by the principal and faculty.

When Rector Miller suggested that perhaps the board should seek input from parents before jumping to a hasty decision, Eugene Lawson jumped in with both feet, complimenting the students and echoing their concerns. He pushed the board to go forward with a decision rather than risk that LMU might book another school for the space on May 26.

Chairman Mike Orick asked for a show of hands of the students attending the meeting who favored the change and most in the room, a dozen or more, raised their hands in support. Almost as an afterthought, he also asked if any were opposed to the change. Surprisingly, four kids raised their hands.

After first hesitating to speak, three unidentified girls asked for a chance to address the board on behalf of the 58 students who voted “no.”. They talked about how having graduation at their own school meant more than holding a ceremony at a distant college campus. They voiced concerns that students from families of limited means would not have all of their families and friends present for graduation because of the distance.

Enter Eugene the Mean. He tore into these poor girls, who obviously had to summon some courage to speak to the board, especially when it was so obvious that they were practically the only ones in the room opposed to moving graduation.

Eugene asked one of the students how she got to school and when she admitted she drove, he took that as a “gotcha” moment. He then went on a tear about the chaotic graduation ceremonies at Cougar Stadium, with balloons, air horns and all sorts of unruly behavior. One would think these poor students were being held personally responsible for all the crimes of past graduating classes.

The other board members declined to join the attack. They simply dismissed the students with a brief “thank you” without addressing any of their concerns.

So why am I disturbed by what I saw at the school board meeting? I actually support the idea of moving graduation to a spacious indoor arena. I’ve been to a few CCHS graduations and they are crowded, hectic and uncomfortable. The past couple of years I’ve passed on it – seems like late May grows hotter and more humid every year, too hot for my aging bones.

But I appreciate young people who have the courage to stand up for what they believe, especially when they’re swimming against the flow. High school students are all too often ignored by teachers and school administrators, unless they are promoting ideas that are shared (or pushed) by the adults.

Those students who attended the board meeting to voice disagreement with the student council-led move to LMU had not rehearsed or prepared their argument to the extent of Brandon Johnson. They had to think about it for a minute or so before screwing up the courage to speak at all. They were so new to speaking in public to a body of adults that they didn’t even think to introduce themselves, and the board was so dismissive of their concerns that nobody asked them their names.

These unidentified students deserved credit for having the courage to voice their convictions. They did not deserve to be set upon as if they bore all the responsibility for the unruly behavior of previous graduating classes.

At the end of the meeting, Eugene apologized to Chairman Mike Orick, admitting, “I said some pretty hateful things.” Eugene, you apologized to the wrong people, the kids had already left the room.

And by the way, what about Rector Miller’s concern that the board should hear from more parents? Most likely, the same majority of parents will support the move as the majority of students, but shouldn’t they be heard?  It is their tax dollars that pay the salaries, after all.

And there are some genuine questions to be answered. This year Campbell County High School has revenue from selling its drivers’ ed cars to offset the cost of holding graduation at Lincoln Memorial University and providing transportation to those who can’t afford the 75 mile round trip. Where will that money come from in 2013, 2014 and beyond?

Will parents be asked to pay a graduation fee on top of cap and gown rental? Will the school find something else they can peddle next year, or will graduation return to Cougar Stadium with the Class of 2012 being a singular, privileged group?

I’m guessing not, which means the board will need to address a recurring expense in coming years. I hope they have a good answer, otherwise the next group of people they may have to face are the ones who pay the taxes and cast the votes.    (updated 8:00 a.m. on 12/09/11 for the week of 12/05/2011)       

Newt Gingrich? – “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”

 I’m just now recovering from National Turkey Day, or as one old Confederate veteran used to term it, “Mister Lincoln’s Holiday.” This particular unrepentant Rebel used to run the Stars & Bars up outside his house and play “Dixie” over loudspeakers to celebrate the occasion while his neighbors gathered for turkey and dressing.

Thanksgiving has a long history of observance and celebration, particularly in the New England states where the arrival of the Pilgrims meant something. But as a nation, we didn’t start celebrating the holiday until the closing months of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national day of giving thanks, with naturally, the paid federal holiday thrown in to make it official.

Old Abe was thankful for two things. First, he had just received word that General Sherman had concluded his march through Georgia and had taken the important Confederate port city of Savannah. The long war appeared to be winding down with a Union victory and so grateful soldiers had voted in overwhelming numbers to re-elect Lincoln to another term in office.

Abe’s re-election had looked doubtful just a few months earlier, as the nation was growing tired of war, but successes on the battlefield in late 1864 tipped the scales and the rest is history, literally.

President Barack Obama may have been reading his history books. First he announces the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, to be accomplished by early 2012, then his SEAL team takes out Osama bin Laden. But Obama’s timing is off – the election isn’t until next November.

Unlike the thankful Union soldiers who helped put Lincoln back in the White House, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan returning to civilian life will be greeted by unemployment lines and bank foreclosures. They’re not likely to be amused when Election Day rolls around.

But President Obama may still have something to be thankful for next November, several things actually. He can be thankful for Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul and Sarah Palin.

While Obama has seemed powerless to make any significant dent in the unemployment picture, Wall Street is still acting like an out-of-control roller coaster and Congress has fallen flat in attempts to cut the federal deficit, the Republican contenders have been busy self-destructing, one by one.

As I pointed out in a previous column, Perry is now Texas toast, Bachman is Wacky Mac and Cain is barbeque. Newt has now risen to the top of the heap as the Conservative standard bearer of the moment. Until, of course, the media begins to remind those on the religious right that Newt divorced his first wife while she was dying of cancer and cheated on his second wife with his now-third wife, while at the same time leading the charge to impeach Bill Clinton for cheating on Hillary.

Newt Gingrich is one of the more intelligent candidates in the race, and his supporters will be quick to point out that his personal life does not trump the fact that he would be a strong conservative leader. Some activists on the religious right are even trying to justify support for this icon of family values. (Of course Newt is an icon of family values – he has three families to prove it).

I just have one problem with Newt Gingrich. I think he is morally unfit to be President of the United States.

The three wives, the cheating, the (supposed) deathbed divorce? Newt can attest that he has gotten religion and ask forgiveness for his past sins and as Christians, we are bound to forgive him.

But Gingrich is a hypocrite, and that we should never forgive. He damned Bill Clinton while committing the same sin. He damned the Democrats for bailing out the banks while collecting huge fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He was such a back-stabbing, opportunistic political animal that his own party orchestrated his downfall as Speaker of the House.

I know that most of us assume that anyone who is a politician should not be trusted, for good reason. We do, however, strive to place someone in the highest office in the land who we think can, at least, be trusted more than the other politicians. Newt? Think Richard Nixon on steroids, someone with Tricky Dicky’s moral compass but with enough intelligence to get away with it.

Alas, I read a magazine article that says the religious right is trying to find room for forgiveness and get behind Newt Gingrich as their best bet to win the White House and advance their agenda.

They have obviously forgotten that as the architect of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, Newt and his fellow Pachyderms campaigned as social conservatives and placed hot button moral issues such as same sex marriage and abortion out front to get elected - until they gained control of both houses of Congress. Then it was the same old Republican agenda – tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of businesses and industry, downsize federal government except for the military, cut entitlements for the elderly and welfare for the poor.

What happened to the social issues that Christian conservatives cared about? What social issues? The overwhelmingly Republican Congress was too busy helping the rich get richer and the poor get poorer to be bothered with such nonsense.

Christian conservatives need to take heed of the old axiom, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Webster’s defines a newt as “any one of a family of small salamanders that can live both on land and in water.” Works for me – a slimy amphibian who can adapt his stance to fit his surroundings.

Meanwhile, I have a number of major problems with the current occupant in the White House, but lack of family values isn’t among them. It is so interesting to see people who have embraced “family values” as their primary motivation for voting, but who turn their back on Barack Obama, with his picture perfect marriage, two cute kids and absolutely no hint of scandal of any sort, to embrace an adulterous hypocrite like Newt Gingrich.

But then, Newt is white and Obama is black. I guess they have to answer to different standards.   (updated 3:30 p.m. on 12/02/11 for the week of 11/28/2011)  

Occupy Barstool Movement may have answer for country’s sagging economy 

Campbell County’s new vice mayor David Young shows signs of brilliance on occasion, but he really needs to follow up on his inspirations.

“I thought about talking to the commissioners before the meeting,” David told me last Monday night, “and getting them to all vote ‘no’ when it came time to accept Melvin Boshears’ resignation. I just didn’t have time to do it.”

What a shame. That would have been a perfect culmination to Doctor No’s career as a county commissioner. Of course, some of the squires might have hesitated, in fear that Melvin would change his mind and stick around if they all declined to accept his resignation.

I prefer to think that they all would have gone along with creating this perfect theatrical moment for a public starved for good entertainment. If they voted against accepting Melvin’s resignation, someone could have always introduced a second motion, to accept his resignation “with regrets,” and quickly given him the bum’s rush out the door.

The squires may end up wishing Melvin is still sitting up there among them instead of out in the audience/ He promised that he’s “stepping down but doesn’t plan to quit,” and proceeded to list all the things he intends to push the commission to do. 

Well, our heroes were somewhat entertaining anyway, when it came time to decide on a procedure for replacing Melvin. The only guidelines in law are that anyone can nominate anyone and that the procedure for appointment must be decided upon in advance.

Bob Walden came up with the perfect plan to allow all the squires to vote for all the nominees and therefore make nobody angry. Bob made a motion to allow squires to vote for as many nominees as they wish, with the three top vote-getters moving on to a second round of voting where squires could again vote for one, two or all three candidates. The top two candidates then would advance to a final round of voting with Mayor William Baird having the deciding vote if they deadlocked at 7-7.

This was simply too confusing for most of the commissioners, who asked countless questions and brought up numerous problems until Walden withdrew his motion. Among the questions: what happens if every nominee gets 14 votes in the first round or if one candidate gets a clear majority before the final vote?

Oh well, I’m sure they will finally resolve the puzzle at their December workshop, probably with an equally confusing process, so stay tuned.

I’ve felt a little left out, what with all the national media coverage of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. But I’m not at all inclined to go out on the streets in Knoxville or the Legislative Plaza in Nashville to interview the protesters. As I advance from middle age to elderly curmudgeon, camping out in the rain and cold is no longer my cup of tea.

Fortunately I learned of a local variation of the protest movement that is more to my liking, and so this past weekend I dropped by the First and Only Chance Saloon down in Coal Creek to speak with leaders of the Occupy Barstool Movement.

First I interviewed the organizers of the local movement, Harley Hamm and his lovely wife Virginia.

“How does the Occupy Barstool Movement differ from what those Occupy Wall Street people are doing out on the streets?” I asked.

“Well first of all, we’re the real 99 percent,” Harley pointed out. “Those Wall Street protesters are just a bunch of kids, old hippies and college students, along with homeless vagabonds who have joined the protest for a chance at a free meal.”

“Yeah, we represent the real majority, red-blooded Americans who work hard all day then come here to occupy barstools until closing time,” added Mrs. Hamm, who prefers to be called Ginnie rather than Virginia for obvious reasons.

“So your protest doesn’t start until people get off from work?” I asked.

“Well actually, most everyone has been here since the bar opened,” the occupant of the adjoining barstool cut in. “Most of us have been laid off and drawing unemployment since 2008.”

“So what are your demands, more jobs?”

“Nah. We’re tired of big guv’mint and all these deficits. We’re sick of seeing our tax dollars going for all those entitlement programs and want to see somebody in the White House who will cut out all the dead wood,” the other protester, who introduced himself as Boise Otis Snodgrass, explained.

“Folks just call me B. O. for short,” he added.

“So you’re against entitlements, kind of like the TEA Party. Isn’t unemployment an entitlement?”

“No. We worked hard to earn that unemployment check. It’s them danged liberals that messed everything up with their regulations and caused my factory to lay off everybody,” another protester, Ike Pinetar, added.

“Beshides, that Obama ish sending all our money back to Kenya, where he came from,’ another fellow, deep in his cups, slurred.

“That’s Colonel Hugh Ray Jass. He’s retired military and has been occupying his barstool 24 hours a day since we started our movement,” Harley Hamm whispered. “You’ll have to forgive him if he’s a bit incoherent.”

“His name is actually Ray Hugh Jass, but the name was a bit awkward, so he shifted around his first and middle names,” B. O. chuckled.

“So Ray Hugh, or Hugh Ray, you must be drawing a pension or social security. Aren’t those entitlements?”

“Nah. We worked for those checks. Them danged liberals better leave my shocial shecurity alone. I’m talking about all that money we shend to Kenya and Indonesia and France,” Colonel Hugh exclaimed as he slid out of his stool to the floor.

“Actually I think it’s the conservatives who are taking aim at entitlements, and the money we send to other countries isn’t an entitlement. It’s called foreign aid,” I commented.

“Hey, just whose side are you on anyway, buddy?”

“Just one more question. The Occupy Wall Street people are getting some criticism because they’re complaining about things but not offering any solutions. Do you all have any solutions to suggest that will make things better?”

“Vote ‘em all out of office, especially that ferigner in the White House,” Harley proclaimed, to general agreement from around the room.

“So you’re going to organize voter registration drives or support a candidate?”

“Well maybe, but we’d have to leave the bar to do that. Most of the guys in here ain’t registered to vote,” Harley replied

“Heck, most of ‘em can’t vote, they’re still on probation,” Ginnie giggled.

Frustrating as my interview was, I tried one more time to take the pulse of the Occupy Barstool Movement, venturing up to Varmint County to visit the Dead Rat Tavern.

“I’ve got the perfect answer to all our problems,” expounded Caleb Hockmeyer, one of the local organizers. “Grow marijuana!”

“Uh, you mean the country should legalize marijuana?” I asked, incredulously.

“Hail no, don’t legalize it?” Caleb replied. “I mean let the tobacco companies grow it and sell it to the Chinese. Pretty soon China will owe us money and there won’t be no more trade deficit or whatever.”

“Yeah, and when all those stoners over in China quit working for peanuts in their factories, those low paying jobs can come back to America,”  Elijah “Big Poison” Haig added.

“You think American workers would take those low-paying jobs if they were offered to us?” I asked.

“If’n they don’t, I’m sure the Mexicans will. All we gotta do is let the Mexicans bring their families up here with ‘em,” Elijah explained. “Then they won’t be sending all that money back south of the border and will spend it here. Americans can get jobs serving burgers and fries to all them big Mexican families, teaching their kids and deliverin’ their babies.”

“I’m not sure the Republicans would go along with that approach,” I observed.

“Oh they’re always looking out for business. They’ll go along with the plan. They jest ain’t had time to think it through yet,” Caleb concluded.  (updated 5:30 a.m. on 11//24/11 for the week of 11/21/2011)       

Squires find new ways to entertain the public; next, bring on the lions

 Our county commissioners have finally devolved to a new low – sado-masochism. I know this is making a pretty harsh pronouncement, but how else can we explain the squires’ behavior on Monday night at their monthly workshop.

Several members of Campbell County’s finest accompanied Sheriff Robbie Goins to the workshop to put on a little dog and pony show. The Sheriff was asking commissioners to approve a budget amendment that would fund the purchase of tasers, those cute little guns that fire barbs attached by wires to an electrical current.

That current is sufficient to incapacitate a suspect, while causing no permanent injury, the squires were told. Providing tasers for deputies and jailers will cut down on injuries, both to officers and suspects, and most other law enforcement agencies in the area, including Jellico and Jacksboro police departments, are already using the non-lethal weapons.

To emphasize the point, a young deputy had volunteered to be shot by a taser right there in the courtroom to show commissioners how they work. The squires all nodded in agreement and sat back to enjoy the show.

Deputy White was asked to recite his ABCs, which he did by singing them, kindergarten –style, while an instructor fired the taser wires into his back. The poor deputy screamed out in shock and pain for about five seconds before the current was cut off. His fellow officers quickly removed the barbs, showing commissioners two tiny red spots where the victim was hit. He was apparently no worse for the wear, but strangely quiet for some minutes.

Only then did Vice Chairman Johnny Bruce inform the deputies that the commission had already approved the budget amendment about 45 minutes earlier in a Budget & Finance meeting.

Feeding Christians to the lions has fortunately gone out of vogue, but several of the squires are rumored to have paid a visit to Tiger Haven over in Roane County recently. Could the next group of irate citizens to show up at a commission meeting instead find themselves part of the entertainment?

While people continue to die in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and more and more Americans are losing their jobs and/or homes and going out to occupy Wall Street or some other place, the national news media for the past week has been obsessed with the scandal at Penn State.

Everybody who has a column, a blog or a soapbox has been putting their two cents’ worth in about this new low in college athletics. One columnist with Newsweek and the online Daily Beast even went so far as to proclaim that the Penn State situation is symptomatic of the rotten state of affairs in college sports, and suggested that college football programs should just be cut loose as separate entities, presumably free to make as much profit as possible and I assume, treat the players as professionals instead of student-athletes.

Talk about connecting the dots to make two plus two equal five! There are indeed a lot of things wrong with college athletics these days, but most of them revolve around that root of all evils, money, and cutting the programs loose from the limited oversight that they do have will just make it worse.

The Daily Beast columnist wrote that the Penn State child abuse situation is the latest in a string of collegiate scandals including Ohio State and USC giving benefits to players and Tennessee’s “unethical recruiting practices.” That’s sort of like bunching a shoplifter, someone running a red light and a serial murderer together and calling them “bad people.”

What disturbs me is the fact that, if you stop and think about it, Penn State has violated no NCAA rules or policies. Joe Paterno’s record of no recruiting violations or improper benefits offered to players is spotless. He and his staff, including the alleged child predator Jerry Sandusky, were perfect NCAA citizens, with not an unethical act among the lot.

Poor old Bruce Pearl, however, was handed the NCAA equivalent of the death penalty for inviting a couple of prospects over to his house for a meal and then having the poor taste to panic and deny the deed when questioned by NCAA investigators.

Come to think of it, as far as I’m aware, if a student athlete is arrested during a drunken brawl, or suspected of say, armed robbery, or accused of sexual assault, that behavior is between the athlete and the university. If the university finds a way to cover it up or make the charges go away, the NCAA sees nothing, hears nothing, says nothing.

Perhaps the NCAA should cut coaches a little slack on how many telephone calls they are allowed to make to recruits, and instead establish a code of ethics for athletes and coaches that goes beyond whether a kid gets a free meal.

At least the Penn State situation has been so depraved that even the late night talk show pundits have for the most part left it alone. Leno, Letterman, Fallon and their writers have been unable or unwilling to make any jokes about sexual abuse of children, thank goodness. Instead, they continue to zero in on the Republican presidential candidates.

Bachman is toast, Perry is Texas barbeque, Cain is now soul food and the latest Pachyderm to emerge as a conservative challenger to Mitt Romney is our old friend Newt Gingrich. Newt is now in the media spotlight, where the fact that he made big bucks consulting for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is getting some attention.

Somewhere along the line, voters will be reminded that Newt once filed for divorce while his wife was on her deathbed, and the reason he was pushed out of the Speakers’ seat by his own party will be analyzed in detail. In a week or two, Gingrich will join the others. Can anyone spell “Southern fried?”    (updated 5:30 a.m. on 11/17/2011 for the week of 11/14/2011)    

The last squire – Doctor No’s exit will mark the end of an era 

Well the resignation is official and great sadness descends upon the world as a whole. Joe Paterno? Nah. Who cares what happens to the Penn State football program. I’m talking about our beloved “Doctor No,” county commissioner Melvin Boshears.

Melvin has sent a letter to County Mayor Wiliam Baird and his fellow squires, informing them that due to his accelerated loss of hearing, he feels he can no longer serve effectively on the county commission and planning commission and is resigning, effective December 1.

I am devastated by the news. Not since the retirement of Carl Baird has the county’s body politick lost a more colorful character, and one who has given me much good material for my columns through the years.

I saw Melvin one day a couple of months back, right after he had returned from getting a new hearing aid that he hoped would improve his ability to keep track of what is being said at meetings.

“That’s great, Melvin, but you don’t really need it. Just keep doing the same thing you’ve done for the past 25 years and vote ‘no.’ Not a soul will notice the difference.”

I was jesting, of course. Melvin does vote “yes” frequently, on most motions that don’t involve spending money. But the county commission is losing its last great fiscal conservative, of that there can be no doubt. Melvin Boshears considered himself a staunch overseer of the taxpayers’ dollars and figured that the best way to spend them wisely was by not spending them.

What I will miss most about Melvin’s absence from public office will be his sense of humor. Not too many of us are all that talented when it comes to laughing at ourselves, but it is an uncommon virtue, and undoubtedly contributed to Melvin’s success in winning over voters.

I plead guilty to hanging the “Doctor No” tag on Melvin, back when he first served on the commission in the 1980s and early 1990s. Late in the budget year, courthouse head janitor Don Dilbeck approached the county commission with a request. He was out of brooms. Well, actually he had run out of the wide wet mops that he and his assistants used to sweep the courthouse floors.

I seemed to recall that he had broken his last broom, but Don tells me the problem resulted when then-Finance Director Randy Kidd failed to pay a bill and the company supplying the sweepers refused to provide any more on credit.

At any rate, Don asked the county commission to appropriate a couple of hundred dollars toward the purchase of enough wet mops to keep the courthouse clean until the next budget was set.

All of the squires voted for the  motion to give Don the needed money except Melvin Boshears. “I don’t see why Don can’t go down to Woodson’s and buy a few brooms for four dollars apiece,” Melvin observed. “ He doesn’t need two hundred dollars and I vote ‘No.’.”

The specter of Don and the other janitors sweeping the entire courthouse each day with a four-dollar broom was just too rich. I tagged Melvin with the nickname “Doctor No” after the villain in the popular James Bond spy movie of the same name.

If I thought my new nickname would insult Melvin Boshears, I was sorely mistaken. His response was to go down to the County Clerk’s office and get a new personalized license plate for his truck that read “DR NO.” He also purchased one for his wife’s car that read “MRS NO.” Like I said, you gotta love someone who can laugh at themselves.

More recently, I notice the media has stuck the “Doctor No” moniker on U. S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for constantly opposing everything the Obama administration proposes. I toyed with the idea of suing for copyright infringement but abandoned the idea, since I stole the name from James Bond author Ian Fleming in the first place.

One time, Doctor No admits to voting yes on a tax increase, when the projected county school budget was badly out of balance and commissioners refused to raise taxes to make up the difference. The stalemate lasted through the summer and when Labor Day rolled around, schools were still not in session. As the schools’ starting point was delayed, week after week, Chancellor Billy Joe White finally stepped in and settled the impasse.

Billy Joe’s approach was simple: he summoned commissioners and school board members together before his bench, pointed to an adjacent conference room and told them, “Go in there and when you come out, come out with a balanced budget that will allow schools to open. If you fail, we’ll all go downstairs to a jail cell and you can continue negotiating behind bars.”

“I voted ‘yes’ on raising taxes and approving a wheel tax,” Melvin confesses. “I looked into Judge White’s eyes and saw that he meant what he said. He was ready to put us all behind bars for contempt of court until we passed a budget.”

Melvin’s departure will mark another milestone in Campbell County politics, the end of an era, you might say. He is the last holdover from the old commission that included Johnny Joe Dower, Whit Goins, Carl Baird and others who first began public service as members of the “County Court” back when they were still known by many old-timers as “squires.”

Melvin’s political career doesn’t go back quite that far in years, but in spirit it certainly does. Say goodbye, dear readers, to the last of the squires.

In a melancholy mood after hearing about Doctor No and wishing to punish myself, I watched the Republican presidential debate on TV last night. I have a simple prediction that will infuriate all of my Republican friends, along with anyone out there who isn’t a Republican but has simply been uncomfortable with having a black man in the White House (you know who you are).

Like it or not, President Obama will be re-elected in 2012 unless the Apocalypse intervenes. Why? Because he will win by default. To win an election, you must have a candidate.

Mitt Romney? Conservatives will stay home in droves if Romney is the party’s nominee. Michelle Bachman? She lost as soon as she became a running joke on late night talk shows. Rick Perry? Might have a chance if it’s possible to run a presidential campaign without opening your mouth. Herman Cain? Even if he survives the sexual harassment scandal, Republicans rely too strongly on Southern white voters to win a national election and Herman is unfortunately a black man.

If you overlook all of the gaffes and political mumbo-jumbo, the Republican challengers still fall short. The debate this week focused on the economy and what they would do to fix it. The answer, universally, was, “nothing.” No government, no regulations, no bail-outs, no taxes. Let the free market take control and everything will be just fine.”

Uh huh, and that sound you hear overhead right now is a flock of pigs flying south for the winter. In case we haven’t noticed, the free market is in free fall. Doing nothing will give us the same result – nothing. I’m not at all convinced that Republicans are wrong when they say Obama’s plan isn’t working. I would like to see one of them come up with a plan of their own, but the only plan I’ve noticed is a plan to get elected, and none of them are doing too well at that.  (updated 2:30 p.m. on 11/10/2011 for the week of 11/07/2011)         

Good Halloween tales (sigh) seem to be a thing of the past 

Halloween can be hard on my waistline. I dutifully stocked up on Reese cups, Hershey’s and Milky Ways last weekend to get ready for the parade of little goblins knocking on my door. Only thing, precious few came knocking this year. Seems one of the churches in Lake City held a “trick or trunk” party, blocking off a street where church members gathered for a big tailgate party and gave out candy to any little spooks that came their way.

It was so successful that most kids filled their bags to overflowing at the church and didn’t bother to go door-to-door, leaving yours truly with a dangerously large stock of candy lying around the house.

 Things have sure changed since I was a kid. Now churches embrace Halloween as a harmless opportunity to reach out to kids and young parents. Not too many decades ago, most churches denounced Halloween as a “satanic holiday” and had nothing but scorn for October 31.

Of course, those were the days when a lot of people, primarily teenagers, liked to emphasize the “trick” over the “treat.” Time was, you couldn’t drive through LaFollette on Halloween night without getting a few eggs smashed on your car. I always carried a pocketful of quarters and expected to hit the car wash at least two or three times before heading home, since egg yolk could take the paint right off a car if not removed quickly.

Other communities had even more innovative ways to celebrate. For years, on Halloween, young men up in the old Briceville coal mining community would gather on the bridge that carried Highway 116 across Coal Creek in the middle of town. They would then proceed to build a big bonfire in the middle of the bridge and gather around to drink moonshine or bootleg whiskey.

The Anderson County Sheriff’s Department deputies hated to go up there every Halloween and would probably have just left this crowd of rowdies alone, except for one small problem. The bridge in question was asphalt layered over a wooden superstructure, and Highway 116 was the only way to get from Briceville and New River into Lake City to shop, see a doctor or attend high school.

So once the bonfire got really big and roaring, the volunteer fire department was always forced to go up and put out the blaze before it burned the bridge down. Since most of the local Halloween celebrants were well into their cups, deputies were needed to protect the firefighters.

The county finally solved the problem by tearing down the old wooden bridge and replacing it with a modern steel and concrete span. After that, the Sheriff’s Department figured they could just let the Briceville locals gather, drink and set fires all they wanted while deputies kept the peace elsewhere.

It didn’t work. The afternoon of the first Halloween after the new bridge was built, someone spotted a canvass bag in the high weeds along the creek. It contained enough dynamite, stolen from a local mining company, to blow the new bridge into the next county. Deputies continued to patrol Briceville every Halloween to keep damage at a minimum and eventually, the bonfire tradition died out as it was apparently no longer fun setting fire to a concrete bridge.

Even going further back in Halloween tradition, the big thing used to be tipping over outdoor privies. For those of you too young to recall, or unwilling to admit that you can, there was a time when many folks relied on outdoor toilets for their bathroom needs.

The outdoor privy was sort of like a wooden port-o-potty, but without the ability to be pumped out. Instead, the throne seat centered over a hole in the ground filled with fetid water and human waste, sanitized occasionally with a good dose of powdered lye to keep the smell down.

The standard privy was either a one, or in rare cases even a two-seater. A empty thread spool was usually nailed to one wall and served as a toilet paper dispenser, and the standard privy always held one or more Sears & Roebuck mail order catalogs for reading material. These thick catalogs could also serve in an emergency if the toilet paper ran out.

When my father was growing up in the 1930s. everyone around here had a privy, as few people could afford indoor plumbing and septic tanks and pubic sewer systems were non-existent. Halloween was the time when little devils would go around pushing over the more flimsy privies as a favorite trick.

Papa Winfrey abandoned the practice early in life, when he was around nine or ten. He went out privy tipping with some older boys when they found one particularly flimsy structure and commenced to push it over on its side. It pushed a little easier than they expected and Papa Winfrey, his buddy Bill McKamey and one other kid all tumbled into the pit head-first.

My granny liked to tell this story on Papa Winfrey, how she made him strip off his clothes and take a bar of lye soap down to the creek and scrub every square inch until it hurt before allowing him to enter the house for a “good whuppin’.”  She burned the clothes.

When I was in high school back in the 1960s, I got to witness the last Halloween privy trick in Lake City history. By that time, public water & sewer systems and health regulations had brought an end to the privy, and the only ones left were mostly for decoration at places like Hillbilly World.

At that time the only bank in town was the First National Bank of Lake City and the bank president was a tight-fisted old codger named Otis K. Leach, known commonly by his initials “O.K.”

On the morning after Halloween, kids on their way to school were treated to the sight of Lake City’s last outdoor privy, having been stolen from a house near Coal Creek, sitting on the front lawn of the newly-built First National Bank (now SunTrust). Painted on the side of the privy in large red letters was “It’s OK to owe O.K.”

You would think that O.K. Leach would be outraged at such an atrocity. Not so. The old bird was the guest speaker at Lake City High School’s weekly commencement program that week and was all smiles when he announced, “I guess you all know it’s OK to owe O.K.” The banker knew an advertising gold mine when he saw one, but still wasted no time in having Lake City’s last privy hauled off to an ignominious fate at the town dump.

Halloween nowadays may be a harmless time for kids (and adults) to play dress-up and a boon to candy manufacturers. It may no longer be a time when police and fire departments need to pay overtime and call out the reserves. But, alas, forgive me if I seem a bit nostalgic for the bad old days. I’ve always loved the excuse to tell a good tale and good Halloween tales are apparently a thing of the past.   (updated 1:00 p.m. on 11/04/2011 for the week of 10/31/2011)          

Late squire Skeeze Housley had his woes with road superintendent too 

Another page was turned in the political history of Campbell County last week, with the passing of Alex “Skeeze” Housley up in Jellico. Sqeeze served for many years on the county commission, dating back to the days when it was still called the “county court” and the chief executive was neither a county mayor, administrator nor executive, but the “county judge.”

Jack Roy Alexander served as county judge during much of the time that Sqeeze served on the court, along with Carl Baird, Carl Teague, Whit Goins, Robert Sharp and other stars of the past.

Representing Jellico and much of the mountainous Fifth District of the county, Skeeze often found himself at odds with Jess Goins, the road superintendent during those bygone days. Mountain folks felt like they were given short shift when it came to road maintenance and often marched to Jacksboro to attend meetings of the commission’s road committee.

Skeeze was a member and if my memory serves me correctly, at various times chaired that committee. Since he also represented many of the citizens with road complaints, he ended up as their advocate whether he liked it or not. Considering who the road superintendent was, Skeeze probably didn’t like it very much.

I recall one instance when residents living up along Whistle Creek, up the mountain from Newcomb, attended the committee meeting en masse. They had complaints similar to those voiced the other night about Ivydell Road. The road had deteriorated to such a point that the school bus driver no longer drove all the way to the end, but required some parents to bring their kids down the mountain to meet the bus.

Jess had the same sad tale – not enough money, too many roads, that we hear today, but he had a certain flair about him that subsequent road superintendents mercifully lack. One resident stood up at the meeting and challenged Skeeze, other members of the committee and Superintendent Goins to “come up on Whistle Creek and see for yourselves how bad our road is.”

Jess left citizens, squires and Chairman Housley open-mouthed with his reply. “I just bought a brand-new Cadillac, and I’m not about to take it up on that road,” the road superintendent announced.

Well, at least he was honest about it, one might say. Jess didn’t like to waste effort and road dollars wherever votes were scarce and that included just about everywhere in the Fifth District. He didn’t waste resources on roads out around the lake either, which were used largely by people who voted in other counties or other states.

Papa Winfrey had a little fishing cabin out at Shady Cove in those days. Since he lived in Lake City and was more or less local compared to his neighbors from Knoxville and Oak Ridge, they convinced him to talk to Jess about getting the ditches cleaned out after they became filled in so badly that water began running in the road during rains.

Papa Winfrey called Jess Goins and asked him if he would send a crew out to Shady Cove. “Mr. Winfrey, you got a shovel?” Jess asked.

“Well yes, of course.”

“Anything wrong with your back?” Jess asked.

“No, reckon not.”

“Then why don’t you get out there and dig those ditches out yourself? Maybe some of your neighbors from up North can help you,” Jess told Papa Winfrey.

Being a man who was used to getting his way with Lake City and Anderson County politicians, my dad was more amused than angry, and told this story more than once.

Folks who think Dennis Potter, or before him, J. T. “Pothole” Leach and son Mike “Washboard” Leach, too often ignored citizens’ complaints about roads are obviously too young to recall the heyday of Jess Goins.

Poor Skeeze caught it from both ends, having to deal with Jess as well as his constituents, and wasted little time handing the gavel of the powerless road committee off to another squire.

Bill Archer recalled a funny tale about Alex Housley the other day. Bill has long dabbled in buying and selling old coins, silver coins, gold and the like. Skeeze, at the time an executive with Union Bank, decided to get in on the action.

“Bill, you’re always running into good deals on hoards of old silver coins,” Skeeze noted.

“Yeah, but usually by the time I can get enough money together to buy them, somebody else has beat me to it,” Bill replied.

“I’ll take care of that problem,” Skeeze said, handing Bill Archer a blank counter-check on his account. “If you run into another good deal, just write them a check.”

Shortly after that, Bill accompanied Judge Billy Joe White on a fishing trip up north. “We got up in Minnesota and the Judge’s truck blew an engine. Turned out we were stranded right down the road from a GMC dealership,” Bill recalled.

“The Judge said he didn’t have enough money with him, or he would just buy a new truck. I pulled out Skeeze Housley’s counter-check and said, ‘I think I have an answer.’” Bill continued. “Skeeze was good-natured about it when we called him and told him we had just written his check to a dealership for $25,000.”

“We went on and finished our fishing trip and as soon as we got back the Judge wrote Skeeze a check to cover the truck. He never did give me another blank check, though,” Bill chuckled.

One thing I liked about Skeeze Housley was that he had a sense of humor. He could laugh at my columns that made fun of the hapless county commission, even if the joke was sometimes on him. I imagine he’s up there somewhere right now, reading this column and getting a chuckle or two out of it.   (updated 6:00 a.m. on 10/27/2011 for the week of 10/24/2011)          

Americans running out of people to hate except, it seems, for each other

 What was it President George H. W. Bush once said, about America becoming a “kinder, gentler nation?” That was right before Bush the Elder launched the first Desert War against Saddam Hussein, so his message might have fallen a bit flat, but at least his intentions were honorable.

It’s appears we might have a second chance for an obvious reason – we’re running out of people to hate. We captured ol’ Saddam and turned him over to his oppressed people for execution, while doing the job ourselves on his vile sons. As everybody this side of the planet Neptune knows, Osama bin Laden now sleeps with the fishes. Now the revolution has caught up with and eliminated Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

Sigh. Nobody left out there to hate and despise and keep our patriotic fervor at high pitch. Whatever will we Americans do now? Well not to worry. We’re doing a pretty good job of hating each other these days.

The TEA Party hates big government and taxes and presumably, anyone who supports big government and taxes. The Occupy Wall Street movement hates Wall Street bankers, corporations, the politicians who are owned by them and presumably, the TEA Party. Birthers hate Obama. Boy, do they ever hate Obama!

To watch the television news and read some of the letters to the editor in the News-Sentinel, one would assume that all Pachyderms hate Donkeys and all Donkeys hate Pachyderms. Meanwhile, the Pachyderms running for President seem to be doing a pretty good job of hating each other.

Fortunately we live in the real world, not the one sensationalized by Fox News, CNN and NBC. Some of my best friends are Pachyderms, while there are no small number of liberals for whom I have little use, yet I’m an unabashed Roosevelt/Kennedy Democrat of the old school. (My jury’s still out on Obama. He’s exactly what I expected, a middle-of-the-road moderate who has succeeded in disappointing the far left while alienating the far right).

But to cut the President a little slack, he inherited a mess – the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, two wars and a country still scarred emotionally by 911 and seeing a terrorist on every street corner. Could those two icons of the left and right, FDR and Ronnie Reagan, have done much better under similar circumstances?

Roosevelt inherited a nation on the brink of financial collapse, but at least had a few years of breathing room before the Japanese pulled us into World War II. Reagan inherited an energy crisis and the remnants of the Cold War, but had to look hard to find a place to send American soldiers where they could be shot at. Grenada, for Pete’s sake!

Reagan also inherited a paltry national debt compared to the trillions owed when Obama took office, while Roosevelt was able to create massive federal jobs programs precisely because the nation had so little debt and had credit to spare.

So I’m prepared to give Obama a little slack here and there. I’m not sure anyone, living or dead, could sit in the White House in these troubled times and get a favorable rating out of national opinion polls. While we Americans still think pretty highly of our neighbors, co-workers and fellow churchgoers on a personal level, public animosity is at all-time highs.

Washington would be savaged by the left as a war-monger if he sat in the White House today, Jefferson would be accosted by the religious right for keeping a mistress and damned as a socialist by most conservatives, while Andy Jackson would be despised by the left for his treatment of Native Americans and despised by the right for his fiscal policies.

Teddy Roosevelt would be criticized as a tree-hugging environmentalist and Abraham Lincoln would undoubtedly be accused of being soft on illegal immigrants, hated by state’s rights advocates and crucified by anti-war protestors.

Barrack Obama’s best prospects for surviving the current mood of the country may well rest not with him but his opposition. Who, exactly, would the American people prefer to see sitting in the White House? A certain percentage of Americans would answer that question with “anyone!” Southern white racists, birthers, ultra conservatives and their ilk cannot stand the thought of someone running the country who is not exactly like them, from their political philosophy to the color of their skin.

For the remaining 75 percent of us, the answer is less clear. A lot of Democrats are still bemoaning the fact that Hillary didn’t make the cut in 2008, but they will stick to their man in the White House or simply stay at home on Election Day.

Republicans and independents who are unhappy with the way things are going have little choice but to look to the Republican Primary for a glimmer of hope, and what most are seeing offers more desperation than hope. Mitt Romney excites most conservatives about as much as an invitation to a Jackson Day Dinner.

Michelle Bachman was the darling for a day, until she opened her mouth. Sarah Palin showed what I consider surprisingly good judgment by choosing not to run. Rick Perry looked like the great conservative hope for a week or two, until he got all tongue-tied in the debates and was painted as soft on illegal immigrants.

Now we have the “anti-Obama,” Herman Cain. His 9-9-9 plan hits a chord with Americans looking for simple answers to complex questions, but under scrutiny, I fear we will discover that this is just one more way to shift more of the tax burden from the wealthy few to the shrinking middle class.

Herman wants a nine percent national sales tax. When it is pointed out that many states already have hefty sales tax burdens, he says we are comparing “apples to oranges.”

Maybe so, but if I have to pay Tennessee and Campbell County’s 8.75 percent sales tax plus a federal nine percent sales tax every time I buy a Big Mac or a tube of toothpaste, that’s all apples, to the tune of nearly one dollar for every four I spend, coming out of my pocket.

No matter. Remember that one-quarter of Americans who would prefer “anyone” in the White House to Barack Obama? I suspect that “anyone” does not include another man with the same skin color as Obama. Herman Cain might have a compelling conservative message and he might have a winning persona, but I predict he could never be nominated in the Republican primary.

So President Barack Obama may very well be re-elected next November by default, simply because the other side can find nobody who offers a viable alternative. I certainly hope this is not the case. I hope that if Obama is given a second term, it is because Americans are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and it is no longer an oncoming train.

Whether you like Obama, dislike Obama or simply have no opinion one way or the other, I hope you will all join me in wishing him well in the upcoming year, because our country needs him to do well. We need to turn the economy around and get people back to work. After a long decade of war, we need to get our troops back home and out of harm’s way in faraway lands. We need Republicans and Democrats in Congress to discover that since we all inhabit this shrinking world together, we need to work together to make it a better place to inhabit.

Unlike Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, my highest priority is not to see Barrack Obama out of the White House, not if it means taking our country down with him. Instead of wishing for the worst, in order to score political gain, we should all wish for the best. Our children and grandchildren deserve that much from us, at least.   (updated 6:00 p.m. on 10/21/2011 for the week of 10/17/2011)          

More than one bad smell coming out of Campbell County of late 

Smell anything strange riding on the wind in Campbell County this week? This appears to be the “week of the big stink” from one end of the county to the other.

First you’ve got the obvious stink, the one everybody in a two square mile area has lived with for the past week since a subcontractor mixed crude oil and human waste into a toxic cocktail and dumped it into LaFollette’s sewage system last Thursday.

That makes for one sizable mob of outraged citizens, from the entire congregation of LaFollette’s First Baptist Church to the folks in the county school system, who had to dump hamburger meat stored at the old West LaFollette Elementary School.

But the major mistake made by the contractors and subcontractors working on the bridge at Campbell County High may have been dumping this noxious mixture in Dave Dunaway’s neighborhood. Confucius said, “To break wind is merely human. To break wind in a lawyer’s face is pure folly.” Well, he should have said it at any rate.

And so I viewed the twenty minute rant that Lawyer Dave treated the viewers of 1450wlaf.com with on Thursday, describing in every detail how Griffith Services LLC was hired by the company working on the CCHS bridge project to transfer sewage waste from a pipe near the bridge to be dumped at a pumping station near Lyk Nu Body Shop.

Dave outlined how Griffith assured everyone that their three tanker trucks had only carried water until they dumped truck number three, to discover that it was also carrying crude oil. Oops. Dave also mentioned how LUB failed to inspect the trucks or supervise the sewer bypass project, how City of LaFollette officials lied about it, how the Tennessee Department of Transportation was ultimately responsible for hiring incompetent contractors and how Acme Petroleum was really responsible because they were buying the oil that didn’t get emptied from the truck.

Well, just kidding about poor old Acme, which if they actually existed, would have had nothing to do with it, but you get the picture. Lawyer Dave has outlined the future of litigation in our fair county for the immediate future, or at least given us a list of potential defendants, from TDOT and Potter Southeast to Griffith Services to LUB to the City of LaFollette and perhaps one or two more. Hi Ho.

I may be out of step here, but I’m also somewhat concerned about those other two trucks, the ones that weren’t carrying crude oil but had been hauling “merely water.” Since the company saw no harm in also using their tanker trucks to haul human waste, I would really like to know where they have been hauling water from and to where. I want to make sure I don’t swim in any of their water, drink it or catch fish out of it, ever.

While many on this end of the county have been complaining about the terrible stink, folks up Jellico way haven’t noticed it. That may be because the smell wafting out of Jellico City Hall is so strong that it covers up all other odors.

Granted, I have only the reports in the LaFollette Press to go by, but it appears that the Jellico city fathers first took away the small salary paid to members of the Jellico Utility Board, then fired them. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen then appointed themselves to be the new utility board, reinstated the salary and gave themselves a raise.

Then they tried to balk on passing on a TVA-mandated electric rate increase to ratepayers and when the Utilities manager told them they had no choice but to go along with TVA, they fired him. When the Utility Board attorney advised them that firing the manager without cause might cost them $400,000 in unpaid salary, they just fired the lawyer.

So, let’s see if I’ve got this right. The Jellico Board of Mayor and Aldermen is running the city’s utility system, more or less, on the “Ostrich Plan.” Do what you want, if anybody says something you don’t like, fire them, stick your head in the sand and hope the problems go away.

Meanwhile, down at the courthouse, nobody noticed either the stink coming out of Lafollette or the smell emanating from across the mountain. That’s because the folks who live along Ivydale Road were raising quite a stink of their own during the commission workshop, tired of the deteriorating condition of their road.

It’s the same old story with a bit of a different twist. Logging trucks are using the road and helping to tear up the pavement, but Road Superintendent Dennis Potter has no money to re-pave the road. He also claims he has no authority to force the loggers to post a bond against road damage and won’t set a weight limit that would keep the loggers from using the road because jobs are at stake.

Tracy Campbell, who served as spokesperson for the residents, asked the squires to step in and help but got little satisfaction, since as we all know, the county commission has no authority over the Road Superintendent. Since the days of Superintendent J. T. “Pothole” Leach, the commission hasn’t even had a road committee, which was powerless to force J.T. to do anything J.T. didn’t want to do and finally disbanded in frustration.

There is something the commissioners could do, however, but appear unlikely to do it because it would involve spending money they don’t have or raising taxes they don’t want to raise.

Superintendent Potter asked the squires during the last budget negotiations for more money for paving roads. He pointed out that at his current budget for asphalt of around $700,000 a year, and the current cost of paving roads at $70,000 a mile, he can only pave ten miles of road each year. There are 700 miles of roads in the county road system, so everyone can expect to see the lane running past their front porch paved once every 70 years.

The squires couldn’t wrap their minds around such daunting statistics, so adopted the Ostrich Plan (see Jellico City Hall, above), stuck their heads in the sand and gave Dennis nothing for asphalt beyond the ten miles he already has.

Some of the squires would love to help people with road complaints but are both hesitant to spend money they don’t have and hesitant, even if they had it, to hand it over to the Road Superintendent when they have no control over where he spends it. Some observers have predicted that the folks at Ivydale have pestered Dennis to the point that he wouldn’t pave their road if he had the money.

Dennis Potter, for his part, has repeatedly said that with his limited paving budget, he doesn’t want to spend the money on roads that are receiving heavy truck traffic from logging or coal mining, just to see them torn up again in a short time. That’s not much consolation for the hundred or so people living along Ivydale Road or any of the other county roads carrying heavy truck traffic.

It is a shame that logging companies or the land companies that own the trees can’t be required to cover the cost of their use, and destruction, of county roads. At least the severance tax on coal provided some money to counties where coal is mined, while the value of coal and other minerals is supposed to be included in property tax assessments.

The value of timber is excluded, by state law, from property taxes and there is no severance tax on timber, so the logging industry has a free ride compliments of the taxpayers. A state law would be required to change this situation, unlikely with the current crop of big business legislators we have in Nashville. 

The county commission does have an answer at their disposal, but it would take a commitment from them that involves spending money on roads, rather than parks, justice centers or school buildings. The commission could earmark some amount, say a million bucks or so each year, for paving projects and place that money in a restricted fund instead of transferring it to the highway budget.

The squires could then re-form their road committee and meet with the Road Superintendent to set up a list of priority paving projects for which the additional money would be used. Citizens could address this committee and try to get on the priority list. If their community lost out to other roads, at least they would have an answer as to when they might expect their road to be paved – this year, next year or two years from now.

The carrot for Dennis Potter would be money from the county to expand the number of roads he can pave. The stick would be that he would not get the money without strings attached, to use where he wants, but would have to agree to follow a priority list established, with his input, by the road committee.

Of course this pipe dream scenario would presume that politics would play no part in the decisions of either the Road Superintendent or the members of the commission, that roads would be prioritized according to condition and need rather than which district they are in or how many voters live along the way. Oh well, it seemed a good idea while it lasted.    (updated 6:00 a.m. on 10/14/2011 for the week of 10/10/2011)    

Reform Wall Street and clean up Congress?  A good job for the Facebook generation 

Presidential politics in this country is such a hoot to watch. Who needs reality TV or sitcoms when we’ve got a collection of clowns giving us constant entertainment for free?

The Pachyderms seem to be scrambling front-runners on a weekly basis, which should give you some idea of how together that party is at present. The Clueless Party, I mean the Tea Party, is still setting the pace. Their first darling, Michelle Bachman, has practically disappeared from the radar. First she was the cover girl for Newsweek, then the runner-up to Rick Perry. Now she is Michelle Who?

Rick Perry got the Tea Party crowd all excited for awhile, until they found out that A) he stumbles around in debates like a headless chicken, B) as governor of Texas, he has been soft on illegal immigrants, wanting to provide their children with educational opportunities and C) there are the rumblings of some potential financial scandals that might sink his political ship before it sails.

So now the Tea Party faithful are turning their gaze to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has repeatedly denied he has any interest in the White House, meaning of course, he would love to be President.

Christie would be the unanimous pick of the late night comedians like Jay Leno, whose mean-spirited style of humor could find endless potential in Christie’s portly profile. Get ready for a constant stream of “fat jokes,” America.

His confrontational style fits right in with the Tea Party “take no prisoners” philosophy. Unfortunately, his political track record is moderate Republican so in the end, he won’t be their cup of tea after all.

This leaves the inside track to the Republican mainstream candidate, Mitt Romney, who is doing his best to convince the ultra conservatives who have shanghaied his party of late that he is their man. Only problem is, Mitt excites the conservatives in the Republican Party about as much as President Obama excites the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Come to think of it, maybe a Romney-Obama campaign wouldn’t be such a bad thing. All the right wingnuts could boycott the election and go off  for a retreat with Sarah Palin, who will only charge $23 million in speaking fees.

All the left wingnuts can boycott Obama, since he turned out to not be the change they were looking for, and go off on a retreat with Ralph Nader, who will speak for food. That would leave the election to be decided by those voters in the middle, who usually decide such things anyway.

That takes care of the race for the White House where we can take our pick of Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee, but what about Congress? Americans currently give Congress an all-time low approval rating of twelve percent, meaning nearly nine out of ten of us think they’re doing a horrible job.

My greatest concern here is that twelve percent of us approve of Congress. This is mildly disturbing. There are less than 500 Congressmen and only a hundred U. S. Senators, so their combined families and friends can’t possibly add up to twelve percent of the population. We need to identify that twelve percent and have them brought in for psychiatric evaluation and at the very least, revoke their voter’s registration cards.

The sad truth is, Americans as usual have a low opinion of Congress. They are that “pack of blustering idiots, except, of course, for my Congressman, who is a pretty decent fellow/gal.”

When those Americans who think so poorly of Congress as a whole go to the polls, they will inevitably vote for their incumbent Congressmen and Senators, swearing that it’s all those other fools in Congress who are messing the country up.

Once again, we will get the leadership we deserve.

While the politicians scramble for votes and poll points, a growing number of Americans have joined the “I’m mad as Hell and not gonna take it no more” protest on Wall Street. Well, not precisely Wall Street, which is protected by hundreds of New York’s finest. The protesters are camped out in a nearby park and making occasional forays to get arrested walking in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge or jaywalking on Broadway.

I think folks have the right idea here, that the true root of all our evils and all our problems lies with the money-changers in the temple whose greed has brought the country close to ruin. They appear determined to escape with the pie, leaving one small slice for the rest of us to fight over.

But protesting will probably get us nowhere, except possibly in jail, or on the inside pages of the New York Times and an occasional mention on CNN. Bank of America will continue to charge monthly fees for ATM cards, AT & T will continue to contract their customer services out to call centers in India and the insurance industry will continue to raise rates, not based on someone’s risk factors but on how much or how little profit they can gain by investing our premiums.

I’ve got another suggestion for how to send a message to Wall Street. Everybody go and buy a share or two of stock. Not enough to hurt your pocketbook if it tanks or help you much if it gains. Buy a share or two of airline stock or bank stock or insurance company stock, whichever industry gets your dander most frequently.

If everybody does it, all 300 million-plus of us, before long common Americans would own a sizable chunk of Wall Street. Then we set up an online information center to monitor corporate greed and make sure the various news media is plugged into that information network.

An airline announces a new policy to charge travelers for carry-on luggage, everybody owning a share or two of that airline sells their stock on the same day. An insurance company refuses to transfer their call center from Mumbai to Cleveland, everybody dumps their stock. A bank eliminates free checking, sell, sell, sell and buy stock in a bank that still has free checking.

Would it work? Well, money talks, as they say, so in theory it could be an effective way to create more conscientious corporate citizens. In reality, you would need to set up a non-profit stock brokerage to handle all the transactions and most likely, the people in charge would figure out a way to manipulate the buying and selling to make themselves rich and some Saudi sheik would end up with our stock shares.

So keep at it, protesters. You may not force Wall Street to change its ways but at least you can make us all feel a little bit better in our misery. I would fly up and join you, but I quit flying shortly after  9/11, when the friendly skies became unfriendly. I’m afraid all us old curmudgeons are going to have to wait around for the Facebook generation to organize the “American Spring.”     (updated 6:00 a.m. on 10/06/2011 for the week of 10/03/2011)  

Tennessee always gets worse end of swaps with Texas, time to unfriend ‘em

      Yeehaa! Texas governor and presidential wannabee Rick Perry made his first swing through East Tennessee on Thursday, with a $1000 per plate fundraising dinner that was “restricted access,” meaning no news media allowed.

Of course anything ‘Ol Tex had to say was bound to get out, that’s just the nature of the beast, and what he said left some of his supporters such as Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey scrambling for damage control.

Perry told his audience of 150 well-heeled Tea Party Republicans that he opposed the half billion dollars in federal “Race to the Top” education funds that Tennessee has been granted to improve the quality of our state’s schools.

“We rejected that federal money in Texas because it would impose federal education guidelines on us and we want to set our own guidelines,” Perry told reporters who asked about the statement following the dinner.

Even Ramsey, the most conservative of Tennessee’s Pachyderm leaders, was caught trying to sidestep around Perry’s comments. I mean, how can a Tennessee politician publicly say he is opposed to $500 million in federal dollars to improve his state’s school system?

Perry also ran into a hot reception at his press briefing, as a couple of Ron Paul supporters among the media protested, telling him “Don’t come back to Tennessee.”

I love it. As you’ll recall, words I once wrote about Perry’s alma mater, Texas A & M University, got me into hot water with the Aggie alumni, resulting in one email message that read, “Don’t come back to Texas or you’ll be hunted down and killed like the dog you are.”

Good, I’ll stay out of Texas and Perry can stay out of Tennessee, and we’ll keep that half billion dollars, thank you,

Personally, I think Tennessee has been on the rump end of trade deals with the Lone Star State for far too long. First we gave them Davy Crockett, to be martyred at the Alamo. Then we gave them Sam Houston, who whipped the Mexicans, founded the Republic of Texas and eventually guided it into the United States. Texas even swiped our state flag, replacing the three stars in the center with one star.

What did Texas give us in return? Well, let’s see, there was Lyndon Baines Johnson and George W. Bush. I rest my case but wait, now they want to throw Rick Perry into the deal. No thanks.

I mean, isn’t this the same Rick Perry who suggested that perhaps Texas should secede from the Union rather than accept Obama’s health care reforms? First he wants nothing to do with the United States, then he wants to be President.

Actually, Texas seceding from the Union might not be such a bad idea, Then we could put up a border fence, declare George W. Bush and Rick Perry to be illegal aliens and refuse to let them back in.

 I don’t even think we want Texas A & M to join the SEC. That would give the Vols another Eastern Division foe, probably Auburn, on a regular basis but might jeopardize our traditional rivalry with Alabama. I cannot imagine a football season without the Tennessee-Alabama game.

Oh, and I didn’t notice Governor Perry turning down any of that federal FEMA disaster money earmarked for his state in the wake of the worst wildfire season and drought in Texas history. His Pachyderm pals in Congress almost succeeded in blocking the disaster aid, demanding that any increase in disaster aid be accompanied by spending cuts to other programs that the Donkeys want left alone.

Somehow both sides managed to bury the hatchet just enough to give all those victims of floods, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires some help. The fact that blue states and red states were equally afflicted by disasters may have had something to do with the rare compromising spirit in Congress.

Facebook is in the news again, I notice. This time some folks are accusing the social networking site of following its users, even after they log off, to monitor other websites they visit.

I must admit that I toyed with the idea of setting up a Facebook account, after years of avoiding it like the plague. A friend convinced me that I should get on so I could keep up with a group site for alumni of the long-defunct Lake City High School, while another friend urged me to get on a Campbell County network of people who think, more or less, like I do (a scary thought, that).

When my friend dropped by one evening and tried to convince me to open a Facebook account, I attempted the old “I’ve never tried to get on. Maybe I will if I can figure it out,” ploy.

She didn’t bite. “It will just take a few minutes. Here let me sit down at your computer and I’ll help you set up an account.”

But alas, for some reason my IMac wouldn’t let her log into Facebook. Saved by the bell. “That’s weird, but I’ll go home and set your account up on my computer.”

A couple of hours later, a message popped up on my email officially welcoming me to Facebook, along with a friend request from my patron. I logged on to accept my first friend, but whoa. “Inappropriate password. Try again.”

Several tries and still no luck. I tried all lower case letters, first letter caps, all caps, backwards, frontward, sideways and upside-down with the agreed-upon password.

So, I decided to click on the “forgot your password” icon and create a new one. “Sorry, that email is already assigned to another account.”

I looked around for my twelve gauge but then remembered that I pawned it awhile back to help pay my Internet bill.

So for the past couple of months, my email fills up almost daily with new friend requests and friend suggestions that I can’t accept or respond to. That is probably a good thing. Now I have had an opportunity to see who I would be sharing my life with and quite frankly, for the most part, I’m not all that interested.

So dear readers, I’ve decided to unfriend Facebook. As far as everybody else, you can still be my friend if you want. As always, my phone number is in the book.   (updated 6:00 a.m. on 09/30/2011 for the week of 09/26/2011)     

Squires try to give citizens good value for their tax dollar – in entertainment

 I hate being right all the time. Well, would you believe being right occasionally, especially when it comes to local politics.

In this case, I predicted that it would take about a year at most for the newly elected county commission to choose sides and line up in two factions of almost equal numbers.

This brilliant piece of prognostication was based on past precedent. No matter how united our squires appear to be for the first month or two after taking office, the commission always ends up in neatly divided camps on any number of issues before their first anniversary rolls around.

For some strange reason, the Finance Office and Director Moneybags Marlow have been one of the focal points of division for some years now, dating back to the days when Jerry Cross was County Executive. The departure of Marlow critic Johnny Joe Dower may have taken some of the “personal” out of the criticism, but the Finance Office continues to be at the center of the political maelstrom.

This should come as little surprise, as the Financial Management System was born in the eye of the hurricane, so to speak. The Highway Superintendent wasn’t crazy about the idea, nor was the Sheriff, while the school department was absolutely opposed to it and would have seceded from the county if that was at all possible, and if the school department had, at that time, anyone who knew one end of a budget from the other.

The county’s apparent inability to manage its finances in those days of yore, somewhere around the time that Judge Billy Joe White had to threaten to jail the entire commission and school board to get a budget passed and schools opened, led to the FMS in the first place.

The business community of the county, led by the bankers, the bakers and the candlestick makers, more or less bullied the county commission into adopting the Financial Management Act of 1981, which created a separate finance office to handle all the county’s money and a finance director to oversee it.

It didn’t take too long for the squires to figure out that the most influential committee in county government might now be the one that oversees the finance office, the letting of bids and spending of money. The appointment of members to this committee has been an exercise in bloodletting ever since.

So it was this past Monday night. Mayor William Baird offered a slate of nominations for the four appointed positions on the FMS Committee, while three positions – the Director of Schools, County Mayor and Highway Superintendent – are mandated by state law.

William’s suggestions followed a vote in principal that the commission had already taken, to add the chairman of the school board as one of the four positions. The Mayor’s other three suggestions were commissioners David Adkins, Terry Singley and Bobby White. Booted off the committee to make room for School Board Chairman Mike Orick was James Slusher, that squeaky wheel that the commission appointed from the general public last year.

As they say, that bird didn’t fly and the Mayor’s slate was voted down by 8-7. Melvin Boshears then nominated Slusher to serve another term on the committee but J. L. Davis, who opposed the Mayor’s suggestions, shifted sides to also vote against Slusher. Again, the nomination failed 8-7.

Beverly Hall then nominated another squeaky wheel, Commissioner Thomas Hatmaker. Same results: yays 7, nays 8.

Alvin Evans then nominated Davis, who abstained from voting but didn’t really need the vote. All but Hatmaker, Hall and Sue Nance approved of the retired Jellico banker and one member of the committee had finally been approved.

After that, the squires appeared to tire of the game and bow to the inevitable. Mike Orick was appointed by 13-3 and Bobby White by 14-1, with only Hatmaker consistently holding out. Even Thomas went along with the rest on David Adkins, who was approved unanimously.

But the battle was not yet over. After Marie Ayers received unanimous approval for another turn as chair of the Budget & Finance Committee, both Davis and Hatmaker were nominated to serve as vice chairman. The Mayor called for a vote on the second nominee first, who was Davis, and he won a narrow 8-6 vote of approval with Melvin Boshears taking a trip to the water cooler, so to speak.

Will the squires now return to playing nice together or will this trend continue into other issues? Time will tell. If they follow the path of past commissions, by the end of their second year, 8-7 votes will not be unusual and by the end of year four, the commission will be lucky if they can agree on when to take a bathroom break.

I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why the commission always splits into factions, Common sense might indicate partisan politics, but I don’t see any trend toward dividing among donkeys and pachyderms and I’m not sure that half the commissioners know whether they’re donkeys, pachyderms or piss ants.

Likewise, squires from the same district are as likely to vote against each other as they are to vote with each other, Remember, come election year, they’ll be fighting each other for votes.

Perhaps the squires find a county commission that goes along with everything without disagreement to be as boring as the audience does. I would like to think that our squires are not dysfunctional. They just want to give the citizens of Campbell County a good show for their tax dollar.

If controversy is a sign of good acting among politicians, the bunch in Nashville and Washington would all be up for Oscars. The latest fluff is over the state’s new voter ID law. Republicans passed the law by claiming it would prevent voter fraud, although nobody could really put their fingers on any glaring examples of voter fraud since the turn of the century. The 20th Century, that is, at about the time that William McKinley whipped William Jennings Bryant for the White House.

Democrat politicos instantly began crying about how the Pachyderms just passed the law to hold down the vote among the poor and minorities, those most likely to not have a picture ID. Are they correct? Well, the Republican legislature made allowances for people who live in nursing homes, likely Republicans, while ruling student IDs unacceptable. Those college kids helped put Obama in office, after all.

Does the voter ID law smell to high heaven? “You betcha,” as Sarah Palin might say if she wasn’t a screaming Tea Party Republican.

So Democratic politicians spend their time loudly criticizing the Republicans and trying to score political points. What they should do is roll up their sleeves, go over the registered voter rolls and make sure that anyone who is an independent or registered Democrat gets a call and if necessary, a ride down to the nearest driver’s license office to get that free, approved photo ID.

Nah, that would take too much effort. Politicians, both Donkey and Pachyderm, would rather spend their time doing what they do best, running their mouths and saying nothing worthwhile.  (updated 8:00 a.m. on 09/23/2011 for the week of 09/19/2011)       

Roaming canines might feel right at home attending commission’s “zoo”

 I attended two meetings down at the courthouse this week. The school board met on Tuesday evening. It took them all of two minutes to unanimously re-elect Mike Orick as chairman and Homer Rutherford as vice chair with nary a dissenting vote nor other nomination.

 They then swiftly moved through a consent agenda, financial reports, a few recognitions and a commitment to an energy efficient schools program that will cost $4 million and hopefully save much more than that over the next 15 years. In a little over an hour it was done and everyone was heading for the exits,

The night before, I attended the county commission workshop, where a number of citizens had signed up to address the squires. Two people had dog problems, and particularly problems with the animal control officers’ perceived lack of a timely response.

Another, Rick Gilliam, started out his presentation by suggesting that commissioners Melvin Boshears, Marie Ayers and Thomas Hatmaker, along with Pinecrest VFD chief Jerry Moate and Christian-Journal editor Mike Sliwinski, should all leave the room as he was going to talk about them.

Rick may have talked about them, but most of what he said was a rambling tirade aimed at nobody in particular, in which he mentioned voter fraud, child abuse and just about everything else except the sinking of the Titanic and alien abduction.

His statements made little sense, possibly because Moate interrupted him every five seconds with a grunt, murmured “liar” or “harrumph” while Mike got about three inches from his face to snap a series of photos with the camera advance whirring and clicking at high speed.

Johnny Bruce, who was chairing the workshop instead of the absent Mayor Baird, finally brought down the gavel on this carnival sideshow and called everyone out of order. Whether Gilliam had anything real to present may never be known. He exited, rambling about photo evidence, Facebook and grand juries.

My point is this: for sheer entertainment value, the school board gets a one out of ten score: perfect time to take a nap. The county commission, on the other hand, scores a perfect 10.0. They don’t need to raise taxes to balance the county budget, merely charge a couple of bucks admission fee to attend commission meetings, especially workshops where members of the public get to say their piece.

As far as this particular carnival sideshow, Mr. Gilliam has some hatchets to bury and a reputation as a hothead that means few people take him seriously. Moate’s actions were predictable. He appears much more anxious to dish out criticism that to take it and none too fond of protocol.

 Mike tossed aside his objectivity as a journalist and I find that unfortunate. Many a time in my 30-plus years as a journalist, I’ve been the subject of comments and criticism at public meetings, and I always just grin and bear it. After all, being a journalist means you always get the last word.

But, bless their little hearts, at least I wasn’t tempted to doze off during the commission meeting.

The other big topic of the night seemed to be whether the county has gone to the dogs. One family reported that a neighbor’s dogs killed one of their calves, attacked others and that it took animal control several days to respond to their complaints. Another citizen expressed concern over dogs running loose in a neighborhood where small children play.

Three years ago, some of our former commissioners got into a hot debate over the question of whether all dogs in the county should be required to be registered or not. The “keep your big guv’mint hands off my hound dawg” crowd won out, and registration is voluntary in Campbell County.

Now we have dogs running in packs, attacking livestock and animal control officers who say they can’t pinpoint who owns the offending animals. The same officers point out that they can’t be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to stray animal complaints.

Dogs, cats and the occasional black bear don’t wear watches or carry calendars, but you can bet that when most animals misbehave, it will be at an “inconvenient” time or day. Looks like our animal control system needs some tweaking before it becomes an “animal out-of-control” system.

Maybe we should go to mandatory registration. That way, if you’re going to have pets, you take responsibility for them. The small fee could go into a pool of money to either hire additional animal control officers or pay the ones we have overtime to go out at night and on weekends if they are called.

Anyone who is so cash-strapped that they can’t afford a couple of bucks for registration could still register their animals at no charge, but they should be required to register them. That way, there will be no question about who is responsible for a dog, and any that are not registered can be legally rounded up, regardless of whose property they are on.

Full disclosure is required here, and I must admit that I’m a dog lover and once had a dog that turned out to be a problem for my neighbors. “Semi” was a 140-pound half Newfoundland, half golden retriever, and probably the most gentle animal that I ever owned.

He did have a few bad habits, however. When I lived for a time up in Elk Valley, Semi liked to roam over to my neighbor’s yard and took a particular interest in the laundry hanging on their clothesline, making a game out of seeing how much of it he could pull down. A round of buckshot didn’t deter him; Newfoundlands have this thick undercoat of downy fur to protect them from cold water and not a single pellet could penetrate his thick hair.

Finally, to spare the neighbors and save my dog, we moved him down to live with an Anderson County friend, where he could feel right at home with her two 180 pound Saint Bernards. Unfortunately, these three oversized mutts soon took to another fun game, chasing the neighbor’s cattle. One of the cows became so agitated that it dropped a calf prematurely.

We paid for the calf and paid for a big fence to keep this pack of canine ponies where they belonged. Semi later moved with me to a canoe livery on the banks of the Clinch River, where he became the beloved mascot for Clinch River Outdoors, contented to prowl the riverbank, chase an occasional Blue Heron and bask in all the attention he received from customers, particularly small children who would climb on and ride his back.

The point is, there are no bad dogs, just dogs that are sometimes placed in the wrong environment or given too little attention or treated poorly. If you’re going to own a dog, take care of it and take responsibility for it. If you can’t do that, buy a goldfish. (Week of September 16, 2011)  

 

High standards and low standards – there’s plenty of both to go around

 Until around noon on Thursday of this week, I didn’t think I would have anything to write about except more drivel over the goings-on in Washington. Silly me, this is Campbell County after all.

Suddenly right there before my eyes was a three ring media circus, with Channel 10 camera crews tripping over local reporters for the best seats as Sheriff Robbie Goins faced his first public relations crisis since being elected.

Former Sheriff Ron McClellan is probably thinking about now, “Welcome to the club Robbie.”

The Sheriff had the unhappy duty to announce that he has fired his Chief Deputy, John Finley, as well as detective Jason Henegar, following an incident Monday night when Henegar crashed his private vehicle into a house.

The incident is still under investigation by the THP, but apparently Chief Deputy Finley removed Henegar from the scene of the accident, meaning that both men are technically guilty of violating the law.

Was alcohol involved? We may never know for sure, but it is a crime to leave the scene of an accident, period. Only emergency medical personnel transporting an injured person can legally remove a driver from the scene before investigators arrive.

We are reminded ever so often by such incidents that police officers, firemen, EMTs and other overseers of public safety are also human beings and make human mistakes. Problem is, they are under a zero tolerance policy, and should be.

Remember that old saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It was penned, I’m sure, with powerful people in mind, such as presidents, kings, dictators-for-life and such. But when it comes down to street level and most people’s everyday lives, nobody wields more absolute power than a policeman on duty.

They have the power to stop you, question you, detain you, search you and your car, seize your property, arrest you, restrain you, handcuff you and if you resist, use physical force or even shoot you. Now that’s absolute power.

Granted, officers had better have reasonable cause to do any of those things, and use force sparingly if at all, or they will pay a heavy price. But at the moment that they are arresting someone, they are in complete control and must be obeyed, period.

With such power comes a heavy responsibility, to be above reproach, above any question of impropriety, to meet the obligations placed upon them by wearing that badge. Police officers may be human and sometimes make human mistakes, but the badge they wear and the oath they take allows no mistakes. They are aware of that fact when they take the job but sadly, sometimes forget and must pay a heavy price.

There was a time when cops had the power but without the scrutiny. As recently as when I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, it was not unusual for police officers to look the other way if they pulled over someone they knew, or rough someone up a bit if they got too much sass while making an arrest.

I remember one old-time Campbell County Sheriff who took office after being away from law enforcement for a number of years. He asked one of his deputies where they “kept the numb-chuks,” a particularly nasty instrument of semi-torture used by cops long ago to restrain a suspect.

The deputy, holding back his laughter with great effort, informed his new boss that that particular police tool had been banned for years.

It was also not that rare a thing in the “good old days” of law enforcement, particularly in big city police departments, for sergeants and lieutenants to carry a drop weapon or two around, an unregistered gun or knife to be dropped at the scene if a rookie cop panicked and killed an unarmed suspect.

Times have changed, and not only because of lawsuits, higher standards, more oversight and better training. Police cars all have cameras, and woe unto any officer who turns off his camera for any reason. Practically every member of John Q. Public has a camera as well, conveniently carried around in their pockets built into Iphones, blackberries and Ipods.

I once was visiting New York City back in the ‘70s and witnessed several cops chasing a suspect on foot. They caught him, took him down and several of them commenced to kicking him and beating him with their nightsticks – right in Times Square with hundreds of witnesses!

I first thought it might be a scene being shot for a movie but one nearby New Yorker said, “Nah, they’re just sending a message. They’re not really hitting him that hard”

Today that message would go viral on a hundred thousand Facebook pages within an hour and those police officers, whether the suspect was seriously injured or not, would be the ones behind bars. Half of New York would be texting, tweeting or sending out the video to the other half before those officers even made it back to their station.

There are still a lot of us around that recall the “good old days,” and probably aren’t all that surprised when a cop is busted for breaking the law or fired for breaking rules. We should be surprised. Cops today are better trained, better educated and better prepared than ever. But they’re still human, and sometimes make human mistakes.

Some folks, particularly those who have had run-ins with the law, may applaud whenever a cop makes a mistake and pays the price. The rest of us should simply remember that they are no better nor worse than most of us, simply held to a higher standard.

So much for high standards. Let us talk for a moment about low standards. Did anyone bother to watch the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night, or President Obama’s speech on job creation on the following night?

Let’s see, Rick Perry compared Mitt Romney unfavorably to Romney’s Democratic predecessor Michael Dukakis, at least as far as creating jobs. Romney compared Perry unfavorably to his predecessor in the Texas governor’s mansion, George W. Bush, when it comes to creating jobs. Former Utah Governor Stan Huntsman claimed his state beat ‘em both in creating jobs.

Wow, and here I thought we were in the middle of a recession with near-record unemployment. That can’t be true if all those fellows have been out there creating all those jobs!

Meanwhile President Barack has a plan for creating jobs that aren’t really needed since the Republican governors have already created so many jobs. The President intends to extend unemployment benefits to all those people who don’t really need them, and keep the reduced payroll tax deduction in effect for another year, for all those people who are now working thanks to Governors Perry, Romney and Huntsman.

Sooo, I guess we don’t really have an economic crisis after all. All you lazy people out there who aren’t working need to straighten up, go apply for one of those many jobs that politicians have created for you and stop whining. I suspected those economists were all lying merely to grab attention. Nobody pays any attention to economists when the economy is good, after all.

Personally, I think the answer to unemployment is right in front of our noses. Global warming? Climate change? Stop worrying about global warming and embrace it! Keep burning coal and oil and filling the air with hydrocarbons and stop worrying about whether we’re causing catastrophic climate change. We can create a whole new large-scale industry – natural disaster management.

We can take hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans and train them to be natural disaster specialists. We can create entire battalions of emergency responders who are trained to sift through the rubble left from tornadoes or hurricanes, to build sandbag barricades in flooded towns, fight forest fires and rescue victims.

They can live together in camps, like the old Civilian Conservation Corps boys did during the Great Depression. Instead of being assigned to build shelters at state parks or cut hiking trails and build overlooks in the Great Smokies, however, this modern corps will respond to disasters around the country.

Why, we might even be able to send them to respond to disasters in foreign lands if those countries pay us enough. Trade deficit with Japan? No problem, we’ll send you three companies of Americans trained to put out fires in nuclear power plants for a flat fee of say, a hundred grand an hour. Don’t have the cash? Uncle Sam will pay them and take five percent of the Nissan Corporation instead.   (Week of September 5, 2011)   

 

Tea Party to Uncle Sam: “How’s your soul?” . . . until the drums begin to roll 

Justin Wilson, State Comptroller of the Treasury, made his highly ballyhooed visit to Campbell County on Tuesday. He toured the courthouse offices, met with various officials, spoke to the Rotary Club and then hightailed it back to Nashville, mumbling something that sounded like, “The horror, the horror!”

Nah, Justin didn’t land in the middle of a re-make of “Apocalypse Now,” but I suspect he had heard enough. Perhaps he got a whiff of Thomas Hatmaker’s Monday night rant on Channel 12, or similar controversies, to indicate what was in store if he followed through on plans to attend the joint meeting of county commission and school board later in the evening.

The Comptroller appears to be none too eager to get drawn into local political battles, so bugged out of the meeting, leaving the squires and school board with a rather harmless session on the proposal for an energy-efficient upgrade to the county school system.

The controversy, of course, revolves around the insistence by some squires that the county needs an audit committee, and the insistence by others, including Mayor William Baird, Finance Jeff Marlow and for the moment a majority of commissioners, that such a committee would serve no useful purpose except to provide a bully pulpit for certain people to attack others.

The Comptroller’s official position has been stated before, that he recommends every county should have an audit committee. Of course, he didn’t think that recommendation through to its logical end before making it. The Comptroller was speaking from the perspective of an auditor and accountant, that there is no such thing as too much financial oversight.

He was not speaking from the perspective of a politician, which would be to figure out how an audit committee might give one some leverage in the political arena. How much you want to bet that Comptroller Wilson goes back to Nashville and tweaks his recommendation, perhaps spelling out exactly who should serve on an audit committee and limiting the parameters under which it would operate?

With the Comptroller absent and no opportunity for another political carnival, the squires had to content themselves with a dog and pony show from the Trane Corporation on a $4 million program to improve energy efficiency in all of the county’s school buildings.

Actually, the proposal makes a lot of sense, especially since Trane will guarantee that over a 15-year period, energy costs will be lowered by enough to save the county that $4 million, plus several hundred thousands to boot.

Trane will get the contract to do all the work, that’s their incentive. They will monitor the savings in energy costs for the length of the program and if results fall short of their guaranteed assessment, they will reimburse the county the difference, and that’s the county’s incentive.

The devil’s in the details, as they say, and squires and board members asked a lot of questions such as, “What happens if we have to replace one of the school buildings that you’ve upgraded before the 15 years expires?”

Apparently, the answers were sufficient to convince a majority that this is a good deal. The school board will vote at their next meeting on going forward with the contract, which will require the county to eventually borrow the $4 million up front. In the meantime, the board must commit $225,000 to Trane to pay for the initial assessment and engineering plans.

Moneybags Marlow, acutely aware of the love-hate relationship that sometimes exists between school board and commission, asked the squires to hold a straw vote on whether they will agree to cover the $225,000 in the event that the assessment by Trane shows that going forward with the $4 million project is not feasible.

The unofficial show of hands seemed to give the school board a go-ahead for the $225,000, although some squires’ hands did not go up and it is still possible that the commission could hang the school board out to dry for the $225,000 should the project get axed. Hopefully the kids will continue to play well together and the real kids will benefit in the end from more comfortable school environments.

Speaking of the environment, I’ve noticed that the Tea Party types have toned down their “just say no to government” rhetoric a bit, at least in the states where Mother Nature has been wreaking havoc. Seems the Tea Party still believes that government should keep its nose out of people’s business, except for, of course, when its time for FEMA to step in and help states recover from tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, wildfires, volcanoes, heat waves, floods, tsunamis, landslides, avalanches or an epidemic outbreak of Democrats.

Reminds me a bit of an old poem I once read by that 19th Century English author Rudyard Kipling, the fellow who wrote “The Jungle Books,” “Kim,” “Gunga Din” and all those other novels set in British India. Kipling’s poem was titled, “Tommy,” which was the English nickname for someone serving in the British army.

 I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,

The pubican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no redcoats here.”

The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again, an’ to myself sez I:

 

“For its Tommy this an’ Tommy that an’ “Tommy, wait outside:”

But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,

 

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep

Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;

An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit

Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.

 

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”

But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,

The drums begin to roll my boys, the drums begin to roll,

O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll. 

 Substitute “Uncle Sam” for “Tommy” and you get the picture. Michelle Bachman, the Tea Party’s cheerleader, was down in Florida mouthing off about the hurricane and earthquake being God’s vengeance upon America for  . . . what?  Overspending? Gay marriage? Overtaxing? National Health Care?

Rick Perry, the current darling of the Tea Party, is the governor of Texas, that bastion of the reddest of red states. Texas is currently in the middle of its worst drought in history, and wildfires are consuming the state, one square mile at a time. I wonder what God is punishing Texas for?

I’m about fed up to my neck with the Tea Party, and I’ve got a very large neck. They complain about the federal government and how its ruining all our lives, and how those liberals are wanting to take our guns, euthanize our grannies and kill our babies before they’re born.

They want less government interference in our lives, except of course, for interfering in the things that they care about, such as a woman’s right to choose, or a business owner’s right to say “no guns allowed.” 

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ow’s yer soul?”

But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.   (Week of August 29, 2011)   

Earthquakes? hurricanes? Don’t worry guys, opening kickoff is almost here  

What a week! Earthquakes in Virginia, a killer hurricane aimed at Times Square, Pat Summit reveals she has early onset Alzheimer’s’ and the NCAA lets UT off the hook as a reward for tossing Bruce Pearl to the wolves.

Around here, the most exciting thing was the gathering of squires Monday evening to hash out the new voting districts in line with the 2010 Census.

Wasn’t much to hash out, really. The First District is too large and had to give up some people, so the folks who live out on the south side of Old Long Hollow Road, over to Pleasant Ridge Road from the city limits to the old Coolidge School will now be voting in the Second District.

The population of the Fifth District continues to shrink in relation to the rest of the county, so that district gained Ivydell, McCloud Mountain and the areas along Highway 25W north of LaFollette. An earlier suggestion to add Stony Fork to the Fifth District was abandoned when it became apparent that none of the Fifth District squires knew where Stony Fork is or how to get there.

The process was painful to watch at first, as Melvin Boshears and Rusty Orick had some rather different ideas about which neighborhoods in their district should be given up. In the end, Melvin left to go fishing, Rusty left because he no longer had to worry about how many of his voters Melvin might give away, and the rest of the commissioners simply voted to move Melvin and Rusty to Bell County, Kentucky.

I’m kidding, of course. Someone made the motion but it didn’t get a second.

In the end, the commissioners approved a plan, subject to change yet again at their September meeting, that would move around the fewest number of people in order to get the populations of all the districts within ten percent of each other as required by law. The final deviation between most and least populous districts is 9.8 %, so they managed to squeeze in under the wire, barely.

The census results are slowly beginning to be released now, and some of the findings are very revealing of how society is changing. Did you notice the article in Thursday’s News-Sentinel, squeezed in between the headlines about UT basketball, UT football, and the still-sour economy?

The article revealed that the number of males who are primary homeowners or renters and have a male roommate has declined sharply since 2000. It also revealed that the number of male-female households where the woman is the primary homeowner or renter is almost even with the number where the male is the homeowner or renter.

Aha. This tells me that men are finally wising up. At last we have realized that 1) men make lousy roommates and 2) women’s lib is working in our favor and we can now freeload off the lady of the house without fear of becoming social outcasts.

Guys, let’s face it. If our small contribution toward continuation of the species were not necessary, Mother Nature and the laws of evolution would have singled us out for extinction a long time ago. As soon as humankind discovered agriculture and men no longer had to go out, knock a mammoth in the head and drag it back to the cave, we were on a downward spiral.

Then machines came along that made it possible for females to do the same work as men, leaving the males with no role other than to maintain the office football pool and be the boss. Eventually, as machines became more and more complex, females were bound to ask themselves, “Why is it that he’s the boss when I have to help him access his email account and show him how to operate the postage machine?”

Soon we will be relegated to the task of operating the office football pool, then it’s only a matter of time before our female boss realizes she doesn’t really like football all that much.

So guys, before you plop down in front of that couch tonight, open a beer and turn on ESPN, think about the next evolutionary step. In the world of insects, evolution has placed the male of the species in its proper role. Male bees, the drones, mate and then they die. The male preying mantis and male Black Widow spiders mate, and then the female kills them and feeds them to the babies.

Maybe its time we begin to beef up our resumes, either that or devise an exit strategy.

Speaking of Mother Nature, she appears to have a especially large bone to pick this year with the good ole U.S.A. Killer droughts in Texas and the Southwest, killer heat in the Southeast, record snowfalls and record flooding in the Midwest and Mississippi River Valley, killer tornadoes all over the place, an earthquake in Virginia cracks the Washington Monument and now a killer hurricane drawing a bead on Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

I heard an old geezer down at a Lake City eatery the other day complaining about the heat. “I blame that #*&! Al Gore. He’s been threatening us with that global warming for years,” he proclaimed.

Maybe so. Natural disasters, wars all around, banks failing, politicians bringing the country to the verge of collapse - the news just keeps getting worse but there is still a silver lining in that cloud. Guys, time to open a beer, plop down on the couch and turn on ESPN. Football season is here and all is again right with the world.   (Week of August 22, 2011)   

 

 

"Commission gives new meaning to “dog days” with their you-know-what contest" 

August is well upon us, and that means we’re in the middle of “Dog Days.” I’m not sure where the term originated. Some old timers will say that dogs were more likely to contact rabies in late summer, while others pooh-pooh that notion and say it just refers to the lackadaisical summer heat that  leaves one lying around like an old hound dog.

Whatever, dog days were certainly with us Monday night at the Campbell County Commission meeting. Right off the bat, the top dog walked into the room and hiked his leg, marking his territory, and the you-know-what contest was on.

Top dog in this case is Mayor William Baird, chairman of the commission. He quickly marked his territory on the other fifteen hounds in the room by introducing a resolution requiring donations from the squires’ personal discretionary funds to be approved by his office before checks are written.

Thomas Hatmaker, a particularly noisy hound whose baying at the top dog keeps other hounds awake at the meetings, protested louder than most. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Thomas insisted, pointing out that checks and balances were already in place to make sure the funds were distributed properly.

He pointed out that commission secretary Peggy Henegar already checks the legal eligibility of recipients and Finance Director Jeff Marlow admitted that his office also verifies eligibility before checks are written. To be eligible for donations, an organization must be a government or quasi-government agency, or be a certified non-profit organization.

Thomas also pointed out that the only problem the current group of squires had with the discretionary fund was that the outgoing commissioners spent it all last year before the new group took office, and that William would have no power to prevent that from happening again.

But most of the hounds in the kennel had little to say on the matter, obviously feeling that one more step in the process would make little difference in the distribution of funds. The squires voted 12-3 to let the top dog have the final word with only Thomas, Beverly Hall and Bob Walden voting “no.”

Now we get to the “contest” part. Ever notice how, when a mutt wanders through the neighborhood marking its territory on all the bushes and tires, other dogs lose little time in going over and trying to cover up the scent?

Later in the meeting, Thomas had his chance to cover up top dog’s tracks. He brought up once again the question of an audit committee, insisting that Campbell County needs one whether the State Comptroller has required it or not.

In fact the Comptroller has never suggested that Campbell County must set up an audit committee, something that is done only if a county government shows repeated, serious deficiencies in handling public funds during the annual state audits conducted by outside accountants.

As Finance Director Moneybags Marlow has pointed out, the only recurring deficiency found by state audits has been the failure to segregate duties in the courthouse clerical offices so that the people who keep records do not handle money.

“To do that would require hiring numerous additional employees, and that’s not something you or the office holders want to pay for,” Moneybags told commissioners again Monday night.

Steve Rutherford asked, “Audits are conducted by the state every year and we receive the reports. What is the purpose of setting up an audit committee if we already have audits?”

To that, Thomas explained, ‘The auditors just run a sampling of the books. This committee would have the authority to look at anything, investigate any complaint brought to them.”

Ahhh. Now the picture gets much, much clearer. An audit committee, consisting of three or more unpaid, qualified individuals, would have the power to investigate any allegations made by any individuals against any office holders.

Talk about a bully pulpit! You decide you don’t like a certain official, simply accuse them of financial wrongdoing, Bring a complaint before the audit committee for an investigation. Even if the committee fails to find anything wrong, the seed of doubt is sown with the public, and the voters.

And what sort of people would we find to serve on this committee? It is an unpaid position, meaning nobody is likely to want the job unless they have an axe to grind or have aspirations to public office.

The audit committee would be appointed by the county legislative body, meaning the squires. They could appoint outside individuals, assuming they could find individuals who are qualified to look at complex financial matters and are willing to work for nothing. Or they could simply appoint members of the county commission. The hounds gathering to cover up top dog’s scent?

Maybe an audit committee would be a good idea. I have a suggestion or two that might keep it from becoming a political witchhunt. 1) Any commissioner who votes to establish the audit committee is automatically disqualified from serving on it. 2) The committee will be set up like a grand jury. Any allegations of wrongdoing will be  brought before the committee in a closed meeting first, and the committee will weigh the evidence and decide if there is enough justification to conduct an official, public investigation.

Oh, wait a minute, I just eliminated the bully pulpit. I doubt if our hound dogs would go along with those restrictions. It would be like telling the dog, you can sniff, but no covering up the scent with your own. No self-respecting hound dog is going to follow that command without biting back.

No matter, at least for now. Thomas’ motion to establish the audit committee was voted down by a narrow 8-7 margin, close enough that I’m sure we’ve not seen the last of it.

Just when I begin to think that our county commission beats all the others for sheer buffoonery, I hear something that puts things in proper perspective. I was in to see Doc Burrell earlier this week for my biannual scold, you know, “Cut out this, stop doing that, get more exercise” and so on.

Good thing about having Johnny Burrell for my doctor is we can talk a little politics, as Doc is also the longtime chairman of the Anderson County School Board.

“It’s a shame you’re not still covering the Anderson County Commission,” he told me. “They met for four hours the other night and every motion on the budget failed by one vote. Then they tried to adjourn and that failed by one vote. They finally ended up having to recess the meeting because they couldn’t get enough votes to adjourn.”

Well, I will say this much for the Campbell County Commission. They may not be perfect, but at least they have enough sense to know when to quit and go home. (Week of August 15, 2011)   

“Times, they are a’changing” but sadly, not all change is for the better 

“Times, they are a’changin’.” Songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote that back in the 1930s when the labor movement was getting up a head of steam in America during the depths of the Great Depression.

All I can say is, Woody had no idea. If that hobo guitar picker could magically come back today, the first thing he would notice is there aren’t any hobos anymore, at least not Woody’s version. Woody jumped freight trains to travel from place to place, but nobody does that anymore because there are no boxcars, only sealed container cars, and he would never get past the security gate at an airport.

Woody would also be amazed with all the new technology, instant communication by way of the Internet, with everyone plugged in, tweeting, twittering, texting, befriending, unfriending, watching movies and listening to music on little pocket Ipods, Ipads, Blackberries and Raspberries.

Then he would read about the politicians up in Washington with their stupidity and partisan bickering, and he would read about the anti-immigrant bias, the racism that has emerged in response to our first black president, the “birthers,” the Tea Partiers and he would decide, “Maybe things haven’t changed as much as it seems.”

The man who wrote and sang “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island” would not be proud of the America he would see today but you can bet the farm that he would commence to writing songs and doing his best to make true the rest of that verse, “This land is made for you and me.”

I think about how much things are changing every so often, usually after I’ve tried to do something new on my computer and been told what an idiot I am, by a machine, no less. (I take solace in the fact that if that #@&% computer is so smart, why did it wait around for humans to invent it).

I’m also reminded about the changing world every time I attend a meeting, it seems. Just this week, the county commission got into a discussion about all the paper with which they are bombarded. David Adkins suggested that most of the agenda packets, budget materials and other mountains of paper could simply be sent by email, and several squires agreed with him.

They didn’t resolve anything at the meeting, but the seed has been sown and before long, you can bet that those thick agenda packets will no longer be sent out through the mail.

If everything eventually ends up being transmitted electronically, young people won’t notice one way or the other. Most probably have never written an actual letter anyway.

But they text and tweet, you betcha. They text so often that the school board was asked this week to change their obsolete policy banning talking on cell phones during school hours.

Nobody “talks” on cell phones anymore. The students simply text each other constantly, many even mastering the art of texting through their pockets with the banned instrument kept safely out of sight.

CCHS principal Jaimie Wheeler told the board that 90 percent of students carry cell phones or other personal communication devices. She recommended that the board suspend the ban on cell phone use during class changes and lunch, presumably in the hope that they can get the communicating out of their system and be less tempted during actual class time.

The board went along with her suggestion. They’ve come a long way from the board that was sued some years back when a Jacksboro Middle School student was expelled for simply having a cell phone in his possession.

The board’s official policy at that time was that “Students were using cell phones primarily to set up drug deals” and phones should be banned from school or turned in at the office.

Wheeler also had another suggestion for the board, a few changes in the dress code that would include allowing high school students to have pierced noses but no other piercings, such as eye brows or lips. A few board members voiced discomfort with allowing pierced horns, but in the end they voted for the changes.

I can recall a time when girls in many schools were forbidden from piercing their ears, and a boy with a pierced ear would be promptly taken behind the gym and pummeled by the football team. If someone had shown up with a nose ring, the principal and teachers at first wouldn’t know how to react, having never seen such a thing before.

 The student would probably have been sent to a doctor to have the object surgically removed, before being expelled or sent to Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital for observation.

But as usual, I’m off the track. The point is, trees are about to become much more plentiful as paper becomes obsolete. One thing that seems to be growing obsolete along with the paper is the United States Postal Service. The USPS, you might have read, is projecting another multi-billion dollar deficit this quarter and is asking Congress to give it a pass on the requirement to deposit money in advance into the postal employee retirement fund.

The postal service is hurting badly as the volume of mail continues to decline, thanks primarily to the Internet. But they can’t lay all the blame on email, texting, Facebook and twitter.

I meandered into the Jacksboro post office the other day to inquire about a couple of letters that had been returned for “insufficient address” after I cross-checked with LaFollette Utilities and learned they were successfully mailing electric bills to the same addresses.

“Well, the address on this one is misspelled. Mt. Paran only has one r,” I was told.

“What mail carrier doesn’t know where Mount Paran is, whether its spelled Paran, Parran or Paron?” I asked.

“The carriers don’t decide that. The mail is all sorted by machine in Knoxville,” was the response.

“You mean if I mail a letter at the Jacksboro post office addressed to a Jacksboro address, it is first sent by truck to Knoxville where it is sorted by a machine, then sent back by truck to Jacksboro?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yup.”

A little further inquiry and I had my answer from a retired postal worker. Some years back, the USPS decided it was cheaper to ship all mail to central sorting centers where a machine could do the work, rather than pay thousands of employees to sort it by hand at small post offices.

Of course 1) that was when gas was not $3.59 a gallon and 2) many small post offices only have one or two clerks anyway and nobody was laid off when they stopped sorting the mail.

I suppose many of those small post offices where the USPS couldn’t decrease the staff, because you can’t have half a clerk or half a postmaster, are among the 100,000 small post offices the USPS wants to close.

That number includes Eagan, on the Campbell-Claiborne County line, and Briceville in Anderson County. Briceville was one of the hundreds of communities across the nation that got a brand new post office back in the fat financial days of the 1970s and 1980s.

East Tennessee Congressman Jimmy Quillen chaired the House committee that supervised the postal service, and his district received more than its fair share of new post offices at a cost of no telling how many hundreds of millions of dollars.

Glad to know that all those soon-to-be-closed post offices are in new buildings. Should be easier to sell that way, at least.

In my view, the real decline of the U.S. Postal Service didn’t begin with the rise of the Internet, nor the new construction craze of a couple of decades back. Their problems can be traced to one Marvin Runyon, Ronald Reagan’s hatchet man.

When he became President, ol’ Ronnie really wanted to privatize government in a big way. He, it was, who saw that private enterprise took over management of lodges, the most profitable entities in many national parks. He also set in motion policies that eventually led to outfits like Haliburton becoming contractors for the military, at a hefty profit I might add.

Ronnie also wanted to privatize TVA, but he carefully noted what happened to Barry Goldwater when Goldwater suggested selling TVA to private power companies back in 1964, Goldwater was one of only two Republican presidential candidates to lose Tennessee since World War II. Reagan didn’t intend to lose Tennessee, so he simply put Marvin Runyon in charge of TVA, figuring Marvin would dismantle so much of the agency that nobody would much care if it was sold to a power company.

Marvin did a pretty good job, eliminating TVA’s role in natural resources management, agricultural research, soil conservation and outdoor recreation. I suppose we can thank Marvin for all the million-dollar home developments out on Norris Lake.

Locals who feel they have lost their lake to outsiders and millionaires may view this differently from locals who have made a living selling lakeside property or building million-dollar lakeside homes, or government officials who count all the property tax dollars generated from the lake. Either way, thanks to Marvin TVA is now – a power company and not much else.

Marvin did such a good job of dismantling TVA and preparing it for eventual private takeover that ol’ Ronnie gave him a second job, as Postmaster General. Did he succeed in setting in motion changes that will eventually lead to privatization of the mail” I guess the folks at Facebook or FedEx can better answer that question.   (Week of August 8, 2011)    

Tea Party wins, claims defeat. Demos lose, claim a win. The rest of us just lose.

       I spent some time Monday night punishing myself by watching CNN’s coverage of the Washington debt crisis. Apparently, the Pachyderms and Donkeys have managed to come to enough of an agreed impasse that they will vote to raise the debt ceiling and head off global financial catastrophe.

The TV talking heads spent a lot of time debating who won, who lost, who gained politically and who should just go home now and save the voters the trouble of sending them home next year.

I probably speak for a lot of us when I say that nobody won, at least nobody outside of Washington. The compromise outraged the far left, which points to the fact that it includes painful cuts, does not take Social Security and Medicare off the table and includes no tax increase on the wealthy.

The compromise disappointed the far right and the Tea Party hotheads, who felt that a mere two trillion in future cuts is nowhere near deep enough. Some will recall the old adage that if both extremes in a debate are unhappy with the agreement, it must be a good one.

“Good for whom?” is the magic question. Shunting most of the hard discussions off to a super committee to iron out over the next year will presumably be good for the politicians. They can continue to posture and argue over cuts versus taxes until the 2012 elections are over, without Americans having to actually experience the fallout from either path until their votes are cast.

President Obama may lose some support from the liberal wing of his party, but presumably will gain traction from the independent voters and moderate Democrats for agreeing to a compromise that avoided financial disaster.

The Republicans who agreed to fewer actual cuts than they wanted, and voted for a compromise that doesn’t completely erase the possibility of tax reform, may lose some support from the extreme conservatives in their party while likewise making gains from the middle.

Both sides condemn the compromise in public as a necessary evil that they had to support for the good of the country. In private, most are probably whistling a sigh of relief that they weren’t forced to actually back up their rhetoric and can now concentrate on the real business of Washington, getting re-elected.

The sad fact is, we have a divided government during tough financial times, complicated by endless foreign wars. Obama and the Democrats can get nowhere with their objectives while the fire-eating Tea Party crowd sets priorities for the Republican-controlled House. The Republicans can get nowhere with their true objectives as long as the Democrats hold the White House and the Senate.

We can expect nothing different for the next fifteen months, and quite frankly, only another election can possibly resolve this mess, either by sweeping one party or the other completely under the rug.

But will the American people be able to resolve the impasse when they cast their votes. Having seen how dysfunctional our government has become, will voters have the wisdom and intelligence to right the listing ship of state? I wouldn’t bet the farm on that. Remember, it’s the voters who put all those idiots into office in the first place.

As far as all those spending cuts for which the Pachyderms, particularly the Tea Party, will be proudly taking credit, how will they play out where it counts, on the streets, in the factories and farms, in the real world outside their Washington D. C. bubble?

I predict that just like other successful efforts to curb federal spending, rare as they have been, many of those cuts will just pass the burden on down to the states, which will in turn pass as much of the burden as possible down to local governments.

A year or two from now, when whatever federal spending cuts we have are firmly in place, I predict that many of those cuts will again trickle down to the courthouse and city hall. When local politicians are forced to increase the property tax yet again, put off paving your road yet again, charge you more for trash pickup, put fewer cops on the streets or force you to stand in longer lines at county offices served by fewer people, don’t blame the county commission or city council. You made that decision when you voted for your congressman and senator.

Was there any ray of light in the murky waters that sloshed around Capitol Hill? There was one, only one, when Representative Gabrielle Giffords arrived on the floor of the House for the first time since her near-death at the hands of an assassin. Giffords arrived to cast her vote, in the event that it might be needed to pass the compromise bill and head off fiscal disaster.

She received a well-deserved ovation, even from conservatives who a year ago would have happily tossed her under the wheels of a political bus. Her courage inspired everyone, and gave all Americans a glimmer of hope that class and courage have not completely vanished from the halls of Congress. Common sense, now that’s another matter.  (Week of August 1, 2011) 

A little Civil War history can offer strong lessons for today’s leaders

 I received an email invite this week to an anniversary celebration to be held on August 1 at the courthouse. The event will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the day that a group of men from Campbell County gathered, probably near that very spot, to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States of America.

This would be considered a patriotic act today but in 1861, of course, this act branded these men as traitors to their country, which by that time had become the Confederate States of America. These men and boys, ancestors to many of us, signed their names that day to join the Union Army and take up arms against their native state of Tennessee.

I’m having some fun with this particular celebration, as the men who took the oath that hot August day in 1861 became “Company B” of the First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry and according to historian Joe Stephens, were the first men from Tennessee to volunteer for the Union.

“But what about Company A?” I asked. I had a good reason for asking such a question since I always assumed the men in Company A were the first Tennesseans to join, my great-great grandpappy among ‘em.

Turns out that history can hold more than one truth, kinda’ like politics. Joe Cooper, a veteran of the Mexican War, lived in the southern end of Campbell County, down around where Cherry Bottom and Ridgewood are today. Joe ran a mill with his brothers on Cove Creek, and he was ardently opposed to breaking up the United States and an outspoken enemy of the Confederacy.

When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Cooper began talking to his neighbors who were of like mind, and soon he and a few other veterans were drilling and training local men to ready them for war against the Confederate government. They drilled at a hillside field known as “King’s Field” somewhere near Cooper’s farm.

Cooper proposed launching an attack on the small Confederate army garrison that had been assigned to guard the passes and roads leading out of Campbell County into Kentucky. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the county fathers persuaded Cooper that an attack would do little harm to the Confederates in the long term, but would bring serious retribution down on Campbell County.

Cooper then decided to leave home and join the Union Army, asking the men he had been recruiting and training to follow his lead. On August 1, 1861, the first group of volunteers gathered at Jacksboro, swore an oath of allegiance to the Union and signed their names to enroll in the Army of the United States. Presumably, Joseph Cooper collected the oaths and the names. The next day, August 2, a second group of men also took the oath and enrolled in the army.

This is where the hair-splitting of “who was first” comes in. For some reason known only to the ghosts of the past, the men who were sworn in on August 2 took off for Kentucky, right behind their leader Joseph Cooper. They arrived at Williamsburg on August 8 and were formally mustered in by a Union recruiting officer as Company A, First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry.

A week later, the men who had took the oath first finally arrived at Barbourville, Kentucky and were mustered into federal service on August 16 as Company B of the First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. By this time the men in Company A had already elected officers, been organized into smaller units and assigned their first duties, escorting supply wagons to the federal recruitment center at Camp Dick Robinson.

Following the tradition in volunteer army units of the day, the men elected their own officers and non-coms. Joseph Cooper was elected captain of Company A, Charles Duncan, one of the founders of Longfield Baptist Church, was elected as lieutenant, and Pleasant Sharp, or Pless as his friends called him, was elected sergeant.

Pless Sharp was my great-great grandpappy, a wiry little fellow barely 18 years old when he became a sergeant in the Union Army. How could one so young get elected as sergeant by a group of men, most presumably older and wiser? My dear old granny, who always had a good head for remembering details of family history, said that Pless trapped and hunted all over the mountains of Campbell County, and it was he who Joe Cooper asked to guide the men of Company A across the mountains on back trails, avoiding Confederate patrols until they were safely across the Kentucky border. The men apparently were impressed enough to elect him their superior.

Maybe old Pless was a better guide than whoever led the men of Company B, who knows? More likely, the first group to take the oath were delayed in leaving for Kentucky. Perhaps they had to wait on another guide and didn’t have a Pless Sharp, familiar with the mountain trails, among them. Perhaps increased Confederate patrols made the passage more perilous.

In the big scheme of things, who got where first matters little, Both companies of Campbell County men served side by side in the First Tennessee for three years, joined by hundreds of others from Roane, Claiborne, Anderson and elsewhere. They fought in battles in Kentucky and led the Union Army’s advance back into Tennessee to conquer Cumberland Gap.

When three Confederate armies invaded Kentucky and cut off the Union garrison at Cumberland Gap, they escaped the trap by marching through the trackless wilderness of eastern Kentucky all the way to the Ohio River. They returned, by then mounted on horseback, the next year with General William Sanders to raid deep into East Tennessee and conducted an artillery duel with Confederate troops right in the heart of downtown Knoxville.

The First Tennessee fought at the bloody Battle of Stones River and in numerous battles and skirmishes during Sherman’s campaign to capture Atlanta. Many did not return home, and the graves of Campbell County men are scattered across the South, from the tiny cemetery at Mill Springs, Kentucky to massive military cemeteries in Murfeesboro, Tennessee; Kennesaw, Georgia and even at the site of the infamous Andersonvile prison.

Many of those who did return home found that Confederate authorities had harassed their families and in some cases, seized their homes and everything they possessed. To march off to war, knowing that such retribution was coming, took a special kind of courage.

It took something else as well. In this day, when a Texas governor can threaten to secede from the Union because he doesn’t like the health care plan, politicians can posture and condemn “those devils up in Washington” and some people can drive around with Rebel flags flapping from their pickup trucks, it might be good for us all to look back at our ancestors.

Look back, and understand what patriotism, true patriotism, is all about. It’s one thing to memorize the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” or run a flag up the pole on the 4th of July. It’s quite another to walk the walk, risk all and stand accused of treachery, all because one places country above self. The quibbling politicians in Washington should find the courage to do as much.   (Week of July 25, 2011) 

Want to solve county’s fiscal woes? Try less government, no tax, free enterprise  

We need more county commission meetings like the one that was held Monday night. Looking at the agenda, one would expect the meeting to be over in an hour or less. After all, the big ticket item, transferring $300,000 from the fund balance to repair the dying courthouse air conditioning system, had already been taken care of in short fashion by the FMS Committee.

Bless Thomas Hatmaker, however, and always look for him to bring up something that stirs up controversy. Thomas is pushing to reform the way the ambulance service is administered, with less control by Mayor William Baird and more control by commissioners.

But most squires don’t want to administer the ambulance service, and aren’t really interested in getting in the middle of the squabbling that has been going on between EMS Director Danny Sheckles and some of his employees.

Four options were placed on the table for how the service could be structured. Option one would give much more control to the commission, presumably through the ambulance committee. Thomas moved to adopt option one but received nary a vote, nor a second to his motion.

Option number four was then proposed, which would leave the structure almost exactly as it currently exists with Mayor Baird exercising ultimate oversight over Director Sheckles. But in order to vote on the resolution, it first had to be read in its entirety. County Attorney Joe Coker drew the short straw and was required to read the lengthy document, droning on for around half an hour.

Some in the audience left early. Some took bathroom breaks or bolted for the soda machines. I was up early Monday morning after a restless night, so I took a 20-minute catnap while the camera captured all the action. If you are suffering from insomnia during these hot summer evenings, I suggest recording this meeting from Channel 12 and replaying it at bedtime.

Option four was finally passed unanimously, and now we have . . . exactly what we had before, only now with the county commission’s official and complete blessing.

Personally I felt that the squires missed a great opportunity for true entertainment when they failed to discuss more fully the courthouse heating & air system. While begrudgingly voting to free up enough money to cover the costs, the squires left it to the FMS Committee to look at bids and select the least expensive path.

Sue Nance and Beverly Hall were among those commissioners who really begrudged spending all that money. They voted for the budget amendment that declared the cost an “emergency purchase,” but immediately voiced second thoughts and cheered James Slusher’s proposal that the county seek at least three estimates before settling on a company to fix the system.

Beverly and Sue also both work at the County Clerk’s LaFollette satellite office, sharing the same building with the Veterans’ Service Office. Friday afternoon, the temperature in that building reached the mid-80s and a repairman was called.

“The unit is completely frozen over, must be two inches of ice on everything,” he reported. “Usually this means it is cooling at too low a temperature.”

The problem still hadn’t been fixed by Monday and Clerk Debbie Wilson had no choice except to close her satellite office down until repairs are complete.

I will say right now that as far as I can determine, there is no truth to the vicious rumor that Courthouse Maintenance Supervisor Don Dilbeck was seen rooting around in the parking lot of the LaFollette Annex shortly before dawn on Friday. To think that anyone would sabotage the air conditioner is just plain paranoia.

But, come to think of it, two county commissioners did get a good preview of what could happen if the courthouse system breaks down before they get it replaced.

With money being in short supply, perhaps Campbell County should take a page from the book of Tim Burchett. The Knox County Mayor is proposing a fire sale of county-owned property, everything from golf courses and greenways to parking meters and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

We could do something similar here in Campbell County. The school board, after all, just sold off the site of the old Caryville Elementary School to become the next Rocky Top Market. (Board members were undoubtedly relieved that they received no bids from Adult World).

I propose that we could follow Knox County’s lead and have our own fire sale. The Lonas Young Park, now complete and open for business, should be attractive to any number of developers. Maybe Dollywood Enterprises would turn it into a water park. We’ve already got plenty of water, after all.

The animal shelter? LMU could buy it and turn it into a teaching facility for future veterinarians. They could practice their spaying and neutering skills on all the strays that are brought in. The health department would make nice condos while the Veterans Service annex could join the ranks of law offices along LaFollette’s main drag.

We could sell the county quarry, sanitation department and recycling center to Chestnut Ridge Landfill. They’re always looking for somewhere else to dump Knoxville’s garbage. We wouldn’t need the quarry or for that matter, the Highway Department garage, which we could sell to Lyk Nu Body Shop.

We wouldn’t need them because we’ll also sell the county road system! Somebody could buy that and turn it into a system of toll roads. If you live on one of the toll roads, you will be allowed to purchase an annual pass, non-transferable, of course.

Campbell County government can all but shut down, having no responsibilities to speak of except to enforce the law, and arrest people who try to drive on the toll roads without a pass, or dump their garbage at the convenience center without paying or swim at Lonas Young Park or any of the formerly-public boat ramps without paying the admission fee.

For that reason, we will still need to build the new $10.6 million justice center, and probably expand it a bit to hold more beds, maybe up the price tag to $18 million or so. No problem. The county will have enough extra cash from selling off the county to keep the jails and the Sheriff’s Department running, insuring that all the new laws and restrictions are enforced.

About right now you are asking yourself, “Is Boomer nuts? The man has finally tilted completely off his rocker.”

Not at all, pilgrims. I’m proposing a full transition to a less government, no-tax, free enterprise system. I’m not crazy, I’ve just become a Republican.  (Week of July 18, 2011) 

Millionaire criminals, garden goodies and a little payback for General Sherman’s march

Another sign that the apocalypse is coming: Casey Anthony not only walks free because prosecutors blew their case, but now a California-based tell-all media type has announced that he will offer her a cool $1 million for her exclusive story.

There are a lot of places where crime can go unpunished, but only in America, it seems, can one become an overnight celebrity and wealthy for a) performing a criminal act and b) being dumb enough to get caught. Anyone up for a new reality TV series, “the real murdering housewives of California?”

The next criminal celebrity will undoubtedly be the woman from that state who has been charged with amputating her husband’s manhood while he slept and dumping it down the sink. Lorena Bobbitt, who achieved notoriety a couple of decades back for giving her abusive, philandering husband the same treatment, was simply ahead of her time. She never got a million dollar film offer.

Ah well, life in this country, in this time, is complicated to say the least. I may be considered old fashioned, but I’m beginning to wax nostalgic for the good old days. Summer always does that to me, particularly when that garden patch in my back yard begins to produce something besides weeds.

Last weekend I stuffed myself with corn on the cob, a zucchini-squash-onion- bell pepper casserole, salads of lettuce, broccoli, carrot strips, cucumbers and green pepper, green beans with new potatoes and topped off with strawberries. The only thing that didn’t come out of my own dirt was the butter and salt.

I’m consuming so many vegetables that I’m beginning to look like the Jolly Green Giant, but I can take little credit for this bountiful harvest. My longtime friend Maureen does all the work while I contribute little other than helping to insure that the harvest does not go to waste. .

Little, that is, except for the occasional contribution, such as digging up the sod for the strawberry patch, or digging the asparagus trench, or watering during dry spells, keeping the beans and tomatoes picked when my sharecropper is out of town, weeding a bit here and there and so on. I thought Southern gentlemen were supposed to sit on their verandas, decked out in a white suit with mint julip in hand, watching their peons toil in the fields, but then as most folks will attest, I am no gentleman.

The folks who hired me to enforce the county’s various taxes are beginning to realize that fact, if they didn’t know it before. So far I’ve hit a variety of people for wheel tax violations, including county officials, city officials, utility officials, current and former county commissioners, school board members, prominent attorneys and leading businessmen.

Most of these people, along with hundreds of other just plain folks who have received letters, are not intentionally avoiding the wheel tax. The problem comes from the fact that car dealers and motorcycle dealers have no legal responsibility to see that vehicles are registered in their customers’ home counties, and always give them tags from the dealer’s county.

The dealers charge a pretty penny for title transfer fees and registration and many buyers of new vehicles go away with the impression that all the paperwork is done and over with. Those who know that they need to take care of the local wheel tax themselves often put it off - that’s just human nature.

When Campbell County first passed a $35 wheel tax back in 1990, the state law allowing counties to enact such taxes was only a couple of years old. Campbell County was one of only a handful of counties in the state to have one, and it proved highly unpopular, as a majority of the squires who voted it in were themselves voted out.

In addition, hundreds of Campbell County motorists found it simple to run down to Clinton, or stop on the way to work in Knoxville, and renew their tags in those counties that had no wheel tax. State law now forbids county clerks from renewing license plates for persons who cannot show that they live in that county.

Campbell County is also no longer a lone wolf when it comes to the wheel tax. Of Tennessee’s 95 counties, around 65 have a wheel tax while several others will probably enact one this year. Local wheel tax levies range from around twenty bucks to, in one or two cases, over $100 a year, with Campbell County’s $45 tax ranging somewhere in the middle.

With local wheel taxes now being the norm, the Tennessee Dept. of Revenue has become much more cooperative in sharing information. In March, we received a list from the state showing every Campbell County resident with a license registered elsewhere, and have been notifying those without a wheel tax decal that they are violating the law.

Once the backlog is caught up, the county will receive an updated list every couple of months. From that point on, anyone who buys a new vehicle outside the county and doesn’t quickly purchase a wheel tax decal will be reminded of their responsibility within 60 days of purchase.

Will there still be a few bugs in the system? Of course. Some people will get notices for vehicles that are lying wrecked in a junkyard, or were given to a child who lives off at college somewhere. Some people are silly enough to sell a car or motorcycle to an individual and let the license plate go with it.

In such a case, the wheel tax is the least of your concerns – allowing someone else to drive around with a tag registered to you is like handing over your social security card. If they drive away from an accident, or get photographed by a red light camera somewhere, the officers will show up at your door when the license plate is traced.

One person told me that undoubtedly, many people living in the southern end of the county go down to Lake City and get a post office box so they can renew their tags in Anderson County and avoid the wheel tax. Not very likely, or very smart. A post office box costs $42 a year, almost as much as a wheel tax sticker, and means the owner must drive down to the Lake City post office every day to receive their mail.

Besides, if the rumblings coming out of Clinton prove accurate, Anderson County will soon jump on the wheel tax bandwagon to pay for, you guessed it, a larger jail. Why pay a wheel tax to support schools in another county instead of supporting schools in your own county?

Another person reported someone living in their neighborhood that is driving on Kentucky tags. We have not yet figured out how to catch up with anyone living in Campbell County but driving on an out-of-state license plate. There is a legal time limit for those people to transfer their tags, or be in violation of state law, so they are already living dangerously if they get pulled over for any reason.

But with a few exceptions, the days of large numbers of people avoiding the wheel tax are over. The opportunities for avoiding the tax are decreasing, as are the incentives as more counties begin to collect the tax. We may not like it, but the wheel tax is with us to stay. The school system has become dependent on the revenue to the point where rescinding the tax is merely a pipe dream, and the lost revenue would have to come out of our pockets in some other way, through higher property taxes or a local sales tax increase.

So when the wheel tax is being adequately enforced, what’s next? Well, you know all those nice million-dollar lakeside vacation homes? That’s right, the ones that are advertised for rent on the Internet for up to $4,500 a week during peak summer months by members of the so-called “Ohio Navy.”

Many of those folks are charging state sales tax and the county’s hotel/motel tax and paying on a regular basis. Many others are not. It’s been nearly 150 years since General William Tecumseh Sherman, who hailed from Ohio, laid waste to the South, making the immortal proclamation that “War is Hell.”

I’ve got another quote that will soon apply to any of our Ohio friends, among others, who profit from Norris Lake without giving back their fair share of taxes. “General Sherman, payback is Hell.”    (Week of July 11, 2011) 

    We turn a murder trial into reality television with predictable results 

My column is a little late this week, as I had to take a couple of days off to travel to West Virginia to do a little media consulting with a group up there.

I drove through the Coal River Valley, a trip that reminded me of driving along the Little River over in the Smokies, ringed in by steep mountains on both sides through a steep valley cut by a picturesque mountain stream. It could have been the Smokies, except for the conveyor belts that crossed the road every couple of miles, carrying coal from mines on the mountainsides down to crushers and tipples along the river and the road.

This is coal country, in a big way. No apologies, no debates. Coal is king, and without it there would be no jobs in this isolated region. Of course, if coal had never existed here in the first place, Whitesville, West Virginia, would be another Gatlinburg, those mountains would be a national park, the run-down coal camp houses would be replaced by million-dollar chalets and those coal conveyors replaced by ski lifts.

Instead of a handful of good-paying but dangerous mining jobs and a lot of unemployed people living in poverty, everyone would be working as motel clerks, ski instructors, chefs, real estate agents, whitewater guides or in some other segment of a tourism-based economy.

Some folks would rather have the coal and keep all the tourists away. I make no judgments here, just observations. You can decide for yourself which life you might prefer.

One observation that is easy to make is that King Coal is far from a good neighbor. Being the “backbone of the West Virginia economy” means the coal industry makes no excuses. It means that instead of paying a fair share through taxes, instead of providing a safe working environment, instead of being good stewards of the land and environment, the coal industry spends its energies subverting the laws, buying the politicians and perpetuating the myths.

The big debate right now is over mountaintop strip mining, a practice that has only recently come to Tennessee in a small way. In West Virginia, it has been done for years in a big way. One thing that amazes me is how the coal companies can be tearing the top off of a mountain with huge explosive blasts while a few hundred, maybe at most a thousand vertical feet below, they have men working in massive underground mines.

 It’s probably not a question of if, but only when, an underground mine collapses due to the activity above, trapping or killing another group of miners. Of course, West Virginia coal operators have never shown much compassion for the men that dig the coal, from hiring gun thugs in the 1930s to murder miners trying to unionize, to the Massey Coal Company disaster a year ago.

Regulators have discovered that the company kept two sets of books – one showing all the safety violations occurring in the mine, another to show to federal mine inspectors. The coal companies do not lack compassion, however. I noticed a sign erected at the entrance to one Massey mine that I passed, a simple memorial stating “We’ll never forget” and listing the names of dead miners.

Even in isolated West Virginia, in an area so remote that nobody can get service on their cell phones, folks were talking about the Casey Anthony trial. America is outraged by the “not guilty” verdict handed down by the jury in this media circus murder trial. They feel justice has not been served if Casey Anthony can walk free after everything points to the fact that she killed her two-year-old little girl, Caylee, so she could resume the life of a party animal.

Well, Casey Anthony will have to answer for her deeds, if not in this world than in the next when she meets her maker. Meanwhile, call me callous if you want, but I’m not sure at all that justice was not served.

Our entire American judicial system is designed on one premise – that it is better by far if a dozen people go unpunished for their crimes than if one innocent person should be imprisoned or executed for a crime they did not commit. That is the reason that the burden of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” rests with the prosecution and that is the reason that juries are instructed to weigh the facts and ignore public opinion.

The Casey Anthony case, like that of O.J. Simpson years ago, is a classic example of trial in the press, with the news media sensationalizing every motion, every facial expression, every twist of events. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and an army of bloggers, Americans didn’t even have to stay glued to a TV set to watch every suspenseful moment. They could keep up with the unfolding drama while flying to London, watching their son’s Little League game or over dinner at Cracker Barrel. Ah, reality TV without commercial interruptions!

Given that atmosphere, if I were a member of that jury, I would make every effort to weigh only the facts and shut out everything else. I would want to be able to go to sleep at night say, “You didn’t send someone to prison for life simply because some Fox News or CNN commentator says she should go to prison. You made a decision based on the evidence, not public opinion polls.”

Well, the prosecution failed to make a case that equaled the court of public opinion. They presented much circumstantial evidence but nothing that said, “Beyond a doubt, Casey Anthony planned and carried out the murder of her two-year-old daughter.”

In my opinion, the prosecutors blundered in the very beginning, when they decided to try her for first-degree murder. Did this obviously damaged woman really sit down and plot the murder of her own daughter, then carry it out and develop a string of barely credible lies to cover up her crime?

That, most likely, is the part that jurors found hard to accept and that prosecutors failed miserably to prove.

A more likely scenario is that the mother lost her temper, did something that caused the child’s death, then panicked. She hauled the little body around in her car trunk for days, maybe weeks while trying to figure out how to get out of the mess she put herself in and possibly decided to fake some sort of kidnapping scenario by placing duct tape over the child’s mouth and dumping the body in the woods.

Her lies to family and friends about where Caylee was do not point to a carefully planned murder and alibi, but toward a not-too-intelligent effort at covering up a crime of passion without a clue about how to successfully hide the truth.

If prosecutors had, from the beginning, decided to prove second-degree murder, they may have been successful. Proving Anthony guilty of premeditated murder was just too large a pill for the jury to swallow and they didn’t, much to their credit. But there was so much sensationalism around this trial that prosecutors decided they had to swing for the fences and try for a home run. Problem is, when you go for the home run, you just as often strike out.

So America, if you’re looking for someone to blame for the fact that Casey Anthony got away with murder, you don’t have to look far. Just walk into your bathroom and look at the mirror. This might be a good lesson for prosecutors in our own county to take to heart, as we prepare for our own media circus when Kenneth Bartley faces his second trial.  

You could have it worse – you could live in Anderson County, or Georgia

 Both the county commission and school board wasted little time in approving a few last-minute spending adjustments and adjourning this week at their year-end recessed sessions.

The only item that elicited any controversy at all was a resolution brought up by Mayor William Baird to increase the allowable mileage on the county’s ambulances before they must be retired. Thomas Hatmaker had some questions about the change and wanted to refer it to a committee but was outvoted 9-1.

The only surprise was an amendment to surrender a $171,000 grant from the federal Office of Surface Mining back to Uncle Sam and abandon plans to run water lines into the Westbourne area of Campbell County.

The water line extension, it was explained, was rejected by the board of the Clear Fork Utility District, despite the fact that the construction would cost the District exactly nothing to extend public water to the sparsely-populated area.

Utility districts must carry lines and such on their books and depreciate those assets on an annual basis, showing a cost on paper that can affect the utility’s bottom line and eventually result in rate increases. Apparently, Clear Fork’s board didn’t feel they could collect enough revenue from the new customers to offset the depreciation.

Too bad. I recall former County Executive Tom Stiner once stating that a goal of the county was to make public water available to every citizen. He didn’t figure on one thing though – that tall mountain that looms between the people in the White Oak-Cotula-Westbourne area and the two municipal utilities that must provide the water, LaFollette and Jellico.

Running water lines through a largely-unpopulated region of land company-controlled mountains to the few isolated communities on the county’s outer edge appears a pipe dream, at least until more people are able to populate that area and provide a broader customer base.

Clear Fork Utility District serves much of the White Oak area but the lion’s share of its customers are in Claiborne County. It has no moral obligation to see that all Campbell County residents are served, it appears.

Ah well. Things could be worse for the folks living along Westbourne Lane. They could live in Anderson County.

Two short articles caught my eye in Wednesday’s Knoxville News-Sentinel. The first, a couple of paragraphs in the news briefs section, reported that the Clinton City Council has managed to pass a budget with no property tax increase that still includes a two percent pay raise for city employees.

Wow, despite all the turmoil over the past couple of years around city managers and other personnel and outcries of mismanagement of funds, Clinton has managed, like a nimble kitty cat, to again land on its feet and cost the good citizens not a penny more in taxes!

Another, slightly larger article also caught my eye – “Anderson revenue will go to Clinton.” That story reported that the City of Clinton has won a review and appeal of the sales tax revenue collected by the state and paid to Anderson County from around 25 businesses out at the Highway 61 exit off Interstate 75.

The state apparently was paying the tax to the county, but Clinton annexed that entire area several years ago and now is due the local share of sales tax derived from the Super Wal-Mart, the restaurants, motels, filling stations and so on that have popped up around the exit.

The cost to county taxpayers is $270,000 for the past year of overpayments; the gain for Clinton the same $270,000. I guess that explains how Clinton can once more balance their budget without raising taxes.

This bothers me, not because Clinton isn’t due the money. They annexed five miles from their city limits out Highway 61 to take in all these businesses and grabbed them fair and square.

Clinton’s city fathers would undoubtedly argue that they annexed the area before much of the commercial development occurred, and that the availability of Clinton’s fire and police protection and other services encouraged Wal-Mart and all those other businesses to locate there.

Sorry, but if you buy that one, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell. Clinton knew, when they annexed, that the Highway 61 exit was due to be the next growth hot spot along I-75 from the Knoxville metropolitan area. The Raccoon Valley exit will never grow commercialy because of the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, and Emory Road in Knox County is already saturated with commercial sprawl.

So Anderson County, already under the gun for increased costs for the school system and like Campbell County, facing a multi-million dollar jail expansion, will need to increase county property taxes or pass a wheel tax to pay those bills and also to make up revenue lost to Clinton. The squires will undoubtedly face an irate electorate come the next election, and we all recall what happened to Campbell County’s squires after they passed a wheel tax 20 years ago.

Of course Clinton residents will have to pay the county tax as well as folks in Lake City, Norris, Oak Ridge and Briceville. They will also have to buy wheel tax decals if that is the direction Anderson County squires decide to go. But Clinton voters will remember who raised their taxes – the county commission – and who didn’t.

Meanwhile, although Clinton annexed along Highway 61 just far enough to take in Wal-Mart, Shoney’s, Fox Toyota and the industrial parks along Highway 441, they didn’t stray too far off the centerline to include all those subdivisions popping up in that part of the county. Clinton receives the sales tax and city share of commercial property tax, without the responsibility for serving all those people, which can get messy.

So, good people of Campbell County, count your blessings. Things could be worse – you could have Clinton for your county seat instead of Jacksboro.

One more thing caught my eye in that same edition of the newspaper – a column by Bill Maxwell reprinted from the St. Petersburg Times about Georgia’s new immigration law. Both Georgia and Alabama have followed the Arizona model and passed tough new immigration laws designed to send those funny-talkin’ feriners back south of the border where they belong. In Georgia, any worker caught with phony documents could be fined up to $250,000 and spend up to 15 years in prison.

Georgia’s good ole boy Bubba legislators reasoned that if they chase all the illegal, Hispanic immigrants out of the state, it will open up many jobs that can be filled by out-of-work good ole boy Bubbas from Georgia.

Problem is, the good ole boys don’t want to work at the jobs the Latino farm workers were doing, for the money the Latinos were being paid or for that matter, any amount of money.

As intended, the new law has kept thousands of illegal migrant farm workers from migrating north with the picking season. Georgia farmers are finding only 30-50 percent of the 11,000 workers they need to harvest their peaches, peanuts and Vidalia onions. The labor shortage, according to the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Association, will hit the industry with a loss of $250 million.

At least this will solve the little feud between Tennessee and Georgia over water in the Tennessee River. The next time Atlanta suffers a drought and dries up its water supplies, it can just pump the water up from the southern part of the state – they will no longer need it to water crops. 

So when that peach cobbler costs you an extra buck or two, a bag of onions doubles in price and you have to leave the peanut butter off the peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, think of the Georgia legislature. They can wait on the next election and ponder the meaning of the phrase, “Be careful that you might get what you wish for.”     

Naming a ball field after someone? Squire suggests we kill them first

 The county commission accomplished the unlikely, if not impossible, Monday night by actually finishing and approving a budget on time, without any continuing resolutions or dragging the process out until the end of summer and start of the school year.

Since they had already ironed out all the wrinkles in committee meetings, the actual process of approving the various resolutions took up less than ten minutes, leaving the squires with much time on their hands for the remainder of the meeting.

Now a county commission or any elected legislative body with time on its hands can be a dangerous thing. Think the U. S. Congress – the last time they had time on their hands they declared war on Spain. The Tennessee General Assembly this year had a little time on their hands and declared war on teachers.

Our erstwhile squires did nothing so drastic. They did what county commissions have been doing with spare time for centuries, and dedicated a few public places to various individuals.

Well actually, they just discussed dedicating a few public places. Sue Nance offered a resolution to name the new justice center after Judges Lee Asbury, Conrad Troutman and Billy Joe White, and to name the courtroom in the justice center in honor of late County Mayor, and attorney, Jeff Hall.

Rusty Orick objected, not because he opposed honoring these individuals but because the justice center hasn’t been built yet, not the first brick. Rusty said he would prefer dedicating the center after it’s completed and moved to table Sue’s motion.

This commission has been virtually in lockstep on everything they’ve done since taking office, with seldom more than two or three dissenting votes on most issues. Not this time. On the question of whether to dedicate the justice center before or after it is completed, the squires deadlocked 7-7.

Steve Rutherford complicated the situation by missing the meeting, so the commission had its first tie vote. Enter Mayor William Baird. In his first tie-breaker, William voted to table the motion, thus postponing any honors until a later date.

This might not be a bad thing. If the justice center runs into any cost overruns, delays or complications, Judge White may prefer that his name not be associated with the edifice, along with the Hall, Asbury and Troutman families.

The squires weren’t finished, however. Later a motion was offered to dedicate the new little league ball field at the Lonas Young (formerly Campbell County) Park at White Bridge. The recipient of this honor? None other than Commissioner Melvin Boshears, despite the fact that through the years, Doctor No has probably voted against the majority of motions to spend money completing the park.

Since the ball field is completed and ready to dedicate, nobody could object to this honor. Well, you would think as much. Bobby White objected, casting the only “no” vote against Doctor No. Bobby felt a need to explain his vote and stated that he felt such honors should be given posthumously.

Now for some reason this explanation bothers me, although it didn’t draw any questions from the squires. Was Bobby suggesting that the ball field should remain un-dedicated until Melvin has passed on to that big bass tournament in the sky, perhaps many years down the road?

Or was Bobby suggesting that Melvin should be killed in order to qualify for the honor? Bobby didn’t say and we may never know. Personally I’m just disappointed that they didn’t dedicate a football field instead. Then Campbell County could host the annual “Doctor No Bowl.”

OK, so I’ve gone a bit overboard with the Doctor No jokes this week. Indulge me. Since the commissioners were so derned agreeable this month, they left me with precious little to write about. Even Thomas Hatmaker went along with the majority on most things, and postponed his items for discussion until later.

I guess I’ll just have to shift my sights to our friends down in Nashville, who have gratefully adjourned for the year before they could do any more damage to the citizens of the state. That doesn’t exclude damage to the body politick, however and the Pachyderms in control of the legislature seem to have done enough damage there to last into the next election year.

Vanderbilt University released their latest public opinion poll this week, showing that the majority of Tennesseans were not amused by the actions of Tennessee’s first Republican-controlled legislature since Reconstruction.

The poll revealed that support for the General Assembly has plunged 20 percentage points since the legislature convened in January. Before they actually began governing, this bunch had a two-thirds favorable opinion from Tennesseans in the same poll. The post-session results show less than half of Tennesseans, 45.8 percent, have a favorable view of the legislature.

Democrats, predictably, have a low opinion of this legislature, but more ominous for the political future of many of those Republican lawmakers, independents also have an unfavorable opinion of what they have seen so far.

The Pachyderms may be able to shuffle a few districts around, now that the census results are in and re-districting can commence, and strengthen Republican seats and weaken a few donkeys. But try as they might, there’s no way to create a district without independent voters – there’s just too many of ‘em.

Not even all Republicans are happy with the direction this legislature has taken. When will politicians learn?  Tennesseans tend to like their Republicans moderate, their Democrats conservative and their independents, well, independent.

Tennesseans all have splinters in their political tail ends from sitting the middle of the fence, and anything too far to the left or right of the center of the fence is gonna get pushed off when voters go to the polls. Maybe we can just avoid all the turmoil of an election and simply dedicate a few public buildings to the Tennessee General Assembly, posthumously, of course.     

Want to feel good about our squires?  Just watch Knox County in action

The Campbell County Commission is on the verge of a historic milestone, or at least a somewhat historic milestone – completing their budget before the June 30 deadline without any major unfinished business.

Oh, they’ve managed to approve budgets in June once or twice before during Moneybags Marlow’s long tenure as Finance Director, but usually not without postponing some major spending decision until the following year.

Back in the days of Melvin Boshears, Mack Dilbeck, Johnny Joe Dower and other old-timers, one of the squires’ favorite acts was to approve a no-increase tax rate before seeing the first line of departmental budgets. They would then postpone final action into September while they tried to figure out how to trim the spending to match their frozen revenue, sort of like fitting a square peg into a round hole.

This bunch, having already been bitten when the previous commission postponed until after elections a huge tax increase caused by shrunken state revenues, got right down to business.. They were helped by a school board that didn’t toss out any big surprises and managed to submit a balanced budget of their own by the deadline.

That’s not to say that everyone is going away happy. Road Superintendent Dennis Potter is still looking for an answer for how to pave more than a couple of miles of county roads each year without an increase in local money, and most county employees are foregoing raises and settling for still having jobs in a sour economy.

But to balance the budget, meet the need to build a new jail, cover increased costs for fuel, complete several minor capital improvements to schools and a new central office and do all this without layoffs, without increasing taxes yet again and all by the June 30 deadline – no small feat to be certain.

Of course the squires are unlikely to get much credit from the public, which is still steaming over last year’s increases to both the property tax and wheel tax. Perhaps in the long run that was a good thing. This group of commissioners caught so much flak over last year’s tax increases that many simply decided they are doomed to one term in office anyway, so stop worrying about votes and just do the job to the best of their abilities.

The result? They did a good job, with a minimum of in-fighting and clique-forming, are on the verge of passing a balanced budget and seem to be keeping the ship of state sailing in relatively calm seas for the time being. Maybe politicians would all do a better job if they stop worrying about getting re-elected and just do the best job that they can.

If you want to feel better about our own county commission, you don’t have to look too far afield. Our big city friends over in Knoxville just finished their budget as well, and made some interesting changes.

While much of the debate and media attention was focused on County Mayor Tim Burchett’s proposal to slash funding for the African-American Beck Cultural Center, the Knox County squires slipped a few other surprises into their budget that are just beginning to attract attention. They eliminated the $3,000 discretionary funds for individual commissioners, for one thing, leaving Knox County non-profit groups with fewer options for getting a little help from county government.

The Knox County squires also went along with Burchett’s proposal to cut $50,000 that supported free public transportation on K-Trans buses for the elderly and low-income citizens. I guess the Knox County Commission and Burchett figure, “Why help the elderly and poor get around town? They have no business going out to shop when they have no money anyway.”

But while they were busy cutting the budget, that group of squires managed to add a travel stipend for Knox County commissioners of $300 per month for each commissioner.

Folks, my job requires me to travel all over Campbell County delivering delinquent tax notices and to the communities around Norris Lake looking for renters who aren’t collecting and paying the motel tax. I’m paid a decent 46 cents a mile for my travel and I seldom turn in more than $150 in a month. How can a Knox County commissioner who is a part-time official manage to spend $300 a month on travel?

That’s $3,600 a year for each commissioner, or around the same amount for the whole Knox County Commission as the amount they cut from free transportation for the elderly. I guess in Knoxville the squires get the ride and the poor and elderly get the shaft.

I predict that those Knox County squires are going to miss that discretionary fund as well. Campbell County commissioners flirted with eliminating their discretionary money when the new squires took office last year and discovered that all the departed commissioners, whether voluntarily retired or retired by voters, had spent all of the 2010-11 funds before leaving office.

They wisely decided to leave it in rather than face a parade of non-profit groups asking for a slice of the regular budget. At Monday’s workshop, Robin Malowsky, a member of the Anderson County Commission herself, appeared before the squires to ask for some financial help for Junior Achievement. The organization operates the Hollingsworth Center in Anderson County and hosts BizzTown, a training program that teaches fifth graders how to manage simple personal finances and another program aimed at eighth graders entering high school.

All Campbell County schools participate in the Junior Achievement programs, but Campbell County government has not supported the program financially in the past, only a few local businesses, she explained. Malowsky asked the squires to consider pledging $3,500 to support the program..

A moment of hesitation, and then David Adkins commented that his child had attended BizzTown and learned a great deal about handling money wisely. One or two other squires had good things to say about the program, but nobody seemed to have an answer for her financial request. Finally, Steve Rutherford noted that Valley View students always participate and he feels it to be a valuable asset to the county.

“I’ll pledge $250 from my discretionary fund. If every commissioner would do the same, we could meet your request,” Rutherford observed. Quickly, every commissioner nodded, grunted or whistled their agreement and Robin Malowsky went away a happy woman, with a pledge from Campbell County of $3,750 from the commission’s discretionary funds.

The squires were happy as well, meeting a request from an agency that has provided a service to Campbell County students for years without receiving any payback. What’s more, they did it without complicating an already balanced and approved budget, by dipping into their discretionary funds.

Predictably, I haven’t heard anyone suggest eliminating the discretionary fund this year. Squires have found it to be a useful tool for meeting last-minute funding requests, not to mention avoiding the guilt that comes from not being able to support worthwhile causes.          

A foolproof plan for retiring in comfort, if Mother Nature doesn’t get in the way 

I have finally figured out how I can retire in comfort, with enough cash to live well and enough years left to enjoy it.

I will go to work for the University of Tennessee Athletic Department, probably in the media/public relations office. I’ll work for peanuts, if necessary, or even for nothing to land the job. All I’ll ask for is the standard UT contract with severance pay if I’m fired or resign. I will then foul up badly enough to be fired, collect my $1.8 million severance payout and head for the couch, or perhaps a cruise ship to Tahiti.

Hey, Athletic Director Mike Hamilton resigned, and they’re paying him off with seven figures. I guess Mike must have negotiated that contract with himself.

I’ve shunned my alma mater since Athletic Director Doug Dickey squeezed the width of the seats down by a couple of inches so he could pack another 10,000 fans into Neyland Stadium. When I stood up to cheer for the first time and sat back down on two people’s knees, I swore not to return until Dickey was fired.

They never fired him, and I’ve yet to attend a UT home football game since, although I’ve been to road games in Georgia, Florida and Kentucky. The way Hamilton has managed to waste money has done nothing to change my mind about donating to the athletic programs. A cool $10 million paid out to coaches he has fired, and now he has fired himself with another $1.8 million gift. No big deal, its just donors’ money, after all.

Perhaps that’s what is behind this heat wave we’re experiencing – a few thousand UT contributors growing increasingly hot beneath the collar.

Come to think of it, what has happened to all those global warming skeptics lately? I haven’t heard anyone denying the theories of those “crackpot scientists” in the past couple of months.

I find it interesting that most of those denying the existence of climate change, or at least denying that we humans are contributing to it, tend to be of the more conservative political persuasion, good “red state” Pachyderms, supporters of big oil or big coal, a few fundamentalists who expect the world to end next month anyway and so on.

So when Mother Nature decides to hand the good old USA a whuppin’, where is all the damage? Well, let me see . . . tornadoes in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Southwest Missouri. Record-setting forest fires and drought in Arizona and Texas. Floods in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The Donkeys might be crowing a bit over this ironic twist of climate change but they’re too busy working on damage control over the sexual misadventures of Anthony Weiner and John Edwards.

Old Ma Nature might be sending a message, but I got the message a long time ago. It doesn’t matter how badly we foul the air or mess with the climate, until somebody figures out a way to make more money cleaning it up than what is made polluting it, the United States is going to do nothing much to change its ways.

The post office will sell stamps that promote clean energy, schools will promote composting and hold “Earth Days” and automakers will design all-electric cars that only wealthy Hollywood celebrities can afford. But then our nation’s leaders will sit down in back rooms and agree we can’t afford to move too fast on this clean energy thing; it might make Wall Street nervous.

My advice? Stop worrying about it. Invest in cheap swamp land in central Georgia – if the crackpots are right, that will be our new seacoast when the Arctic icecap melts and we’ll all be several hours closer to the beach.

Build underground homes – that’s the wave of the future. Safely insulated from tornadoes and forest fires. Make ‘em waterproof with a retractable snorkel that can be raised to bring in air in case of flooding. Since the younger generation hardly pauses from tweeting, texting or surfing the net long enough to breathe fresh air or gaze at the sky, they won’t even miss it when its gone.

Or maybe they will miss it – it is hard to get a signal underground.

Seriously, it is sobering to go back and read some of the predictions those crackpot scientists were making twenty years ago: warmer and drier summers in regions that usually enjoy temperate weather and ample rainfall, excessive rainfall in previously dry climates, more severe weather, more frequent and stronger storms, gradually rising sea levels and in some areas, colder winters with heavier snowfall.

This may all be alarmist propaganda from people who want us to go back to riding horses and reading by candlelight; just don’t scoff too loudly around the folks in Joplin, Tuscaloosa, New Orleans, along the Mississippi River or in eastern Arizona. They’re all becoming believers the hard way.

Slowly, world governments, including our own, are waking up and realizing that new energy policies are needed and we all need to be less conspicuous consumers and more conspicuous conservers. Too late. Those crackpot scientists predicted twenty years ago that strong measures were needed immediately if we were gong to reverse the effects of climate change.

We didn’t, and it did. Change, that is. Hope ya’ll are fond of 90 degree summers, because they are about to come around more often. As for me, I’ll be taking that UT payout and setting off on that cruise to Tahiti . . . . while it’s still there.

County, as usual, has a bad case of gas.  Will the real “illegals” please stand up? 

Campbell County has certainly been making the Knoxville area news consistently of late, and as usual none of it is good. Foremost at present is the decision to give Kenneth Bartley a new trial. This is an almost-unprecedented decision, for a judge to grant a new trial in a case where a defendant has pleaded guilty, accepted a plea bargain and the appeals court has upheld the decision.

What spurred Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood to order the new trial was not a question of whether Bartley is guilty of shooting three Campbell County High School administrators back in 2005, killing Assistant Principle Ken Bruce.

The new trial was ordered after it came out that Bartley, then only 14, had been given only a few seconds by his attorney to decide whether to accept 44 years in prison or face a jury and possibly receive a life sentence.

Attorney Mike Hatmaker, who was grilled on the stand for much of the afternoon, admitted that the final plea bargain offer was made to him without involving Bartley or his parents, and he had urged the teen to accept the deal at the last second. Mike, according to the News-Sentinel, broke down at the end of his testimony on Thursday and apologized to Bartley’s father.

What’s that old saying, “Beware that you may get what you wish for?” Bartley, now 20, has his new trial. The families of Ken Bruce and the other victims must now relive a tragic time in their lives that they had hoped was behind them.

Bartley’s plea deal would have meant he would be incarcerated until he was nearly 40 years old before qualifying for parole. Apparently that was not acceptable to him or his family. Ken Bruce will never walk the earth again, period, and the other victims’ lives were changed forever.

A jury may now reconsider the charge of first-degree murder levied against Bartley, which could bring a life sentence if they find him guilty. In that case, Kenneth Bartley would be considerably older than 40 before he sees the light of day. He will now be standing trial as a young man of 20 or 21, not a considerably more sympathetic, confused 14-year-old boy.

Also in the news this week were yet another collection of public officials who have failed to live up to their positions of trust. The Knoxville paper reported that the State Utility Management Review Board is looking at an ouster suit against the commissioners of the Sevier Count Utility District, and has already recommended the ouster of the three commissioners for Powell-Clinch Utility District, which provides natural gas to Campbell and Anderson counties.

The Powell-Clinch commissioners are accused of failing their fiduciary duties by allowing former manager Del Roberts to scam some $95,000 from the utility’s ratepayers, as well as abusing their own positions by taking excessive travel reimbursements and paying for employees and vendors to travel to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica? If Powell-Clinch was in the business of providing geothermal energy, that might make sense, as that tiny county is dotted with active volcanoes. The only kind of natural gas you’re going to find in Costa Rica, however, is the smelly “rotten egg” sulfur dioxide emitted from volcanic vents.

Nothing new here. As I pointed out once years ago, Campbell County has always had a bad case of gas.

Something else we have in growing abundance is residents living and working among us that are of Hispanic origin. As long as these Spanish-speaking folk keep to themselves, do their work, are seen only at the corner table of the Mexican restaurant or late at night down at the Laundromat, nobody seems to care much about whether they have the right paperwork or not.

That is, until some of them decide that legally documented or not, they deserve to be treated like human beings and begin to make waves. Apparently that is what 21 Hispanic employees of Baird Tree Company in Caryville have done, and the company first tried to fire the disgruntled employees, and now is attempting to turn them in to immigration authorities.

<