Monthly Archives: August 2020

Teachers’ union warns new COVID-19 liability protection could backfire on schools

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, says the new law enacted to provide legal protections to businesses and schools may have the opposite effect.

TEA President Beth Brown said in a release that the new law’s standards of gross negligence or willful misconduct could make schools liable if they buck federal guidelines and designate educators to be “essential workers.”  

 “TEA believes the few school districts designating educators as essential to avoid isolation protocols for staff directly exposed to a positive COVID case could meet the definition the ‘gross negligence’ and ‘willful misconduct’ outlined in the new liability law,” Brown said in a release. “CDC guidance on isolation after exposure limits spread and protects communities. Disregarding this guidance may have liability repercussions as well as unnecessarily jeopardize the health of students and educators and increase the likelihood of school closures and disrupted instruction.”

The full release follows.

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He’s back: Sethi’s social media footprint restored

We’ve had a bit of fun at unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi’s expense both in the print and blog editions of The Tennessee Journal for the unexplained wiping of his social media footprint after losing the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

But just as suddenly as Sethi’s Twitter and Facebook pages disappeared following the Aug. 6 primary, they’re back online in all their glory (his Instagram, however, remains AWOL).

UPDATE: We’re informed that the social media accounts were taken down while Sethi mulled changing his handles now that the campaign is over.

Lee extends executive orders through September

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has extended several executive orders through the end of September, including special provisions to allow governing bodies to meet electronically and for bars to sell alcohol to go.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today signed Executive Order No. 59 to extend certain, targeted provisions of Executive Order Nos. 36, 38, 49, 50, 54, and 55 through September 30, 2020 to facilitate the continued treatment and containment of COVID-19 through regulatory flexibility, promoting social distancing and wearing face coverings in public places, and protecting vulnerable populations.

Gov. Lee also signed Executive Order Nos. 60 and 61, which extend through September 30 provisions that allow for electronic government meetings subject to transparency safeguards and remote notarization and witnessing of documents, allowing for implementation of best practices developed during COVID-19 for providing live broadcasts of electronic meetings and safely conducting in-person transactions, respectively, beginning October 1.

Executive Order No. 59 extends previous provisions that:

  • Urge persons to wear a cloth face covering in places where in close proximity to others, while facilitating local decision-making concerning face covering requirements;
  • Urge social distancing and limit social and recreational gatherings of 50 or more persons, unless adequate social distancing can be maintained;
  • Limit nursing home and long-term-care facility visitation, while providing a framework for safe, limited visitation, and continue the closure of senior centers;
  • Provide that employers and businesses are expected to comply with the Governor’s Economic Recovery Group Guidelines (e.g., Tennessee Pledge) for operating safely (the 6 counties with locally run county health departments have authority to issue different directives on businesses/venues);
  • Provide that bars may only serve customers seated at appropriately spaced tables and must follow the Economic Recovery Group Guidelines (e.g., Tennessee Pledge) for restaurants (the 6 counties with locally run county health departments have authority to issue different directives on businesses/venues);
  • Continue access take-out alcohol sales to encourage carryout and delivery orders;
  • Allow broad access to telehealth services;
  • Increase opportunities for people to easily join the healthcare workforce;
  • Facilitate increased testing and health care capacity;
  • Extend deadlines and suspend certain in-person continuing education, gathering, or inspection requirements to avoid unnecessary person-to-person contact; and
  • Increase opportunities to work remotely where appropriate.

Executive Order No. 60, as previously extended by Executive Order No. 51, is extended through September 30 and allows governing bodies to meet electronically regarding essential business as long as they provide electronic access to the public and meet the safeguards established in that order to ensure openness and transparency. The order ensures that governmental entities are able to carry out essential business in a safe, transparent way without creating large gatherings in a confined space and endangering persons, particularly those at increased risk of suffering severe illness from COVID-19, while requiring that governing bodies transition toward adopting best practices developed during the pandemic, like providing real-time, live public access to electronic meetings, beginning October 1.

Executive Order No. 61, as previously extended by Executive Order No. 52, is extended through September 30, and allows for remote notarization and remote witnessing of documents, subject to compliance with certain procedures. The order ensures that persons, and particularly populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19, including older adults and persons with compromised immune systems or serious chronic medical conditions, can continue to engage in commerce and execute legal documents without requiring in-person contact while also making preparations to implement best practices for a safe return to in-person transactions beginning October 1.

Haile seeks open government assistance with effort to block ‘malicious’ records requests

Senate GOP leaders hold weekly press gaggle on Jan. 18, 2018. From left are Sens. Mark Norris, Randy McNally, Bo Watson and Ferrell Haile. (Photo credit: Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.

Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) is asking for help from the Tennessee Advisory Council on Open Government to craft legislation aimed at blocking abusive public records requests. Haile has introduced a bill aimed at accomplishing that goal, but his efforts have foundered amid concerns that a new law would also affect the ability of citizens, the media, and researchers to obtain public records.

Here is the full release from Haile:

NASHVILLE – Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) said today he has asked the Tennessee Advisory Council on Open Government to review legislation he is sponsoring to discourage malicious abuse of Tennessee’s public records requests process. Haile sponsored legislation during the 2020 session of the Tennessee General Assembly to curtail the practice and plans to reintroduce it when the legislature convenes in January.

He is asking for the Council’s input to protect the integrity of Tennessee’s open record law, while preventing repeated abuse when requests serve no purpose other than to harass local governments and their employees.

“We need open government and this legislation is not intended in any way to interfere with our public records request process or to discourage such requests,” said Senator Haile. “This legislation is about the few people who abuse our public record laws to bully and harass government agencies by repeatedly making requests that any reasonable person would deem has no purpose except for harassment. The legislation will have no effect on other citizens. Also, media outlets, academic researchers, investigators, or those independently engaged in gathering information for publication or broadcast are exempt from provisions of the bill.”

The legislation allows a records custodian to seek an injunction against an individual who makes six or more requests that constitutes harassment within a one-year period after providing the requestor with notice after the fifth such request. Harassment is defined as conduct that is not made for any legitimate purpose and is made maliciously or seriously abuses, intimidates, threatens, or harasses. The public records custodian must petition the court in such cases in the appropriate jurisdiction for an order enjoining the person from making further requests. A court can find that an individual’s record request constitutes harassment and enjoin a person from requesting records for up to a year.

A records custodian who petitions a court for an injunction must also provide a written report to the Office of Open Records Counsel that includes a copy of the petition and any injunction or orders issued by the court. It will also become part of the Counsel’s annual report to further track these cases and ensure the integrity of the state’s open records law remains in tact. The measure will sunset in 2024 when it will be reevaluated for that purpose.

“Honest inquires are what our open records law is meant to protect,” added Haile. “The proposal is not meant to discourage citizens from requesting information, nor is it intended for a county attorney or city attorney to use this against folks who are irritated with someone or upset with some aspect of their government. This is a positive appeal that will help those who seek to have open government and it will help prevent abuse of those who utilize our public records process as a tool to harass those who work for us.”

Rep. Beck blames ‘highly risky’ special session for COVID-19 infection

Democratic state Rep. Bill Beck of Nashville is the latest House member to test positive for COVID-19. The lawmaker is blaming a “highly risky” special legislative session for his infection.

Lawmakers attend a House floor session in Nashville on March 16, 2020. Watching from the gallery are, from left, Reps. Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville), Bob Freeman (D-Nashville), and Bill Beck (D-Nashville). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

“Unfortunately, staying safe is a group effort and the General Assembly as a whole failed to follow the medical advice of wearing a mask and social distancing while in Nashville for the special session,” Beck said in a statement Thursday. “I and many others said this special session was unnecessary and highly risky. We have been proven right on both accounts.”

House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) disclosed she had tested positive after leaving the special session due to feeling ill. Others who have come down with COVID-19 include Reps. Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville), Kent Calfee (R-Kingston), and Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah). Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) said he did not attend the special session because he had been exposed to COVID-19, but refused to say whether he had tested positive. Former Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland), now the mayor of his hometown, tested positive after serving as pastor of the day on the last day of the regular session in June.

Beck’s full statement follows.

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Judge orders state to include specific guidance on absentee ballot eligibility due to COVID-19

A judge has ordered Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office to include wording in absentee ballot application forms to make clear that people at greater risk from contracting COVID-19 are eligible to vote by mail.

Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s ruling Tuesday came after the state Supreme Court agreed to vacate the injunction she had imposed earlier when the state took what the chancellor called the “extraordinary step of a last-minute concession during oral arguments” that people with a special vulnerability to COVID-19 (or those who care for people who do) had a valid reason to cast absentee ballots. Had the state taken this position earlier, Lyle said, the case would have been settled long before it reached the Supreme Court.

The high court’s ruling had instructed Hargett’s office to “ensure that appropriate guidance is provided to Tennessee registered voters” about the state’s new stance. While Hargett issued a press release that included reference to people with a special vulnerability to COVID-19 being able to vote by mail, the new application form included no such information.

As such, Lyle ruled the application forms should now include the following excuses for people seeking to vote by mail:

I am hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and unable to appear at my polling place to vote (this includes persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

I am a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person (this includes caretakers for persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

Lyle also deemed that other materials issued by the state on the subject of absentee balloting — such as language highlighted at the bottom of the form offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction for voter — to be “confusing and misleading.” But the chancellor said those details fell outside of her purview.

Hargett’s office was critical of the decision.

“It is ironic to us that the same Chancellor who chastised us for changing the form is now upset because we did not change the form,” Hargett spokeswoman Julia Bruck said in an emailed statement. “The Chancellor is legislating from the bench.”

Hedy Weinberg, the exeutive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, lauded the decision:

The court’s ruling today will ensure that people with special vulnerability to COVID-19 and their caretakers know exactly how to request mail-in ballots. The state’s delay in making this information clear is yet another example of voter suppression in Tennessee. Our state should be working to make it as easy as possible for people to vote, not creating obstacles at every turn and requiring a court order to fix them. We applaud the court for compelling the state to make Tennesseans’ voting rights clear and to do so quickly.

Read the ruling here.

Like it never happened? Sethi scrubs social media accounts

Following his disappointing showing in the Republican nomination contest for the U.S. Senate, former candidate Manny Sethi’s campaign has taken the unusual step of scrubbing his social media accounts from the internet.

Gone are Sethi’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, though some of his ads are still to be enjoyed on his YouTube page.

Sethi, a Vanderbilt surgeon, gained gained 39% of the vote in the Aug. 6 primary, compared with 51% for winner Bill Hagerty, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan. Sethi had sought to characterize Hagerty as being the establishment candidate while he represented the GOP grassroots.

Sethi’s message resonated in some areas of the state (he gained his biggest advantages in Rutherford, Knox, Coffee, Williamson, and Maury counties). But Hagerty blew Sethi out of the water in Shelby County by more than 12,700 votes — enough to negate the 9,429 margin Sethi pulled out over Hagerty in all 12 counties he won.

In all, Hagerty won 83 of 95 counties, including 29 in which the margin was more than 1,000 votes.

In contrast to Sethi’s social media disappearing act, former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who lost a bruising race to U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) in 2018, has kept his Twitter account. It still touts his highest profile endorsement of the race: that of pop superstar Taylor Swift.

Dickerson endorsed by Sierra Club

State Sen. Steve Dickerson has landed the endorsement of the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club. The Nashville Republican is facing a tough re-election campaign this fall against Democrat Heidi Campbell, the mayor of Oak Hill.

“I’m proud to have the endorsement of the Tennessee Chapter of Sierra Club, a grassroots organization that works nationwide to build an equitable and sustainable world,” Dickerson said in a release. “I have spent my life consistently and proudly pro-environment. As your state Senator, I will continue working to put legislation in place that protects our environment here in Tennessee and worldwide.”

Dickerson first won the redrawn district in 2012, beating Democrat Phillip North 54% to 46%. Four years later, Dickerson defeated Democrat Erin Coleman 56% to 44%.

Blackburn to speak at Republican presidential convention

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn is speaking at the Republican presidential convention this week. She is scheduled to appear on Wednesday, the penultimate day of the event to nominate President Donald Trump to a second term.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) speaks at a Tennessee Titans event in Nashville on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Blackburn also spoke at the 2016 presidential convention when Trump was first nominated. Here’s an excerpt of her comments that year:

Some of our greatest leaders have been people who have worked in the real world…. Leadership is not about lines on a resume. Gender, race, zip code, pedigree, lineage, hurt feelings are not qualifiers for leadership.

Blackburn isn’t the only Tennessee politician making a repeat appearance at a presidential convention this year. State Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis spoke at the Democratic nomination festivities last week after doing the same in 2016.

Democrat Camper, Republican Hicks test positive for COVID-19

House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) and House Finance Subcommittee Chair Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville) have tested positive for COVID-19.

Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) speaks tp reporters on Nov. 25, 2018, after her elected as House minority leader. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Camper felt ill during the start of last week’s special session, but an initial test did not detect the virus. She went home to Memphis as a precaution, where another test determined she had been infected. Camper is resting and recuperating at home, according to a statement from the House Democratic Caucus.

Hicks attended last week’s special session and was among several Republicans seen interacting with others without a mask. He works at Rogersville City School, which last week announced it would delay opening after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and while it awaited test results on a third.

The two positive tests follow the hospitalization this week of Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) due to COVID-19. Carter had skipped the special session along with former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who said he stayed home because had been exposed to the coronavirus. Casada wouldn’t tell The Tennessean whether he had tested positive, but said he had no symptoms and felt fine.

Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tested positive for COVID-19 following the conclusion of the regular session in June, as did former Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Cleveland, who was hospitalized with pneumonia on both lungs. Brooks had served as as the minister of the day for the final House floor session in June.