AG opinion sought on legality of Fall Creek Falls privatization

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, whose district includes the 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls State Park, has requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery on whether proper procedures were followed in plans to privatize park operations, reports the Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee State Employees Association also is raising questions about Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to turn hospitality services over to a private operatorĀ at Fall Creek Falls, long considered the “crown jewel” of Tennessee’s park system.

Employees association Executive Director Randy Stamps, an attorney, told the Times Free Press he questions whether Haslam has the legal authority to go forward with the move.

“We believe they’re in such a big hurry to rush through this RFP [request for proposals] that maybe they overlooked some pertinent sections of state law,” said Stamps, a former Republican state representative.

Bowling said in an interview that employees asked her to seek the legal opinion.

“I’m glad to do that,” Bowling said. Park workers in her district have protested over fear for their jobs, and Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson worries about lost revenue for up to two years while a new lodge is built that a for-profit company would run.

“Confusion is always the enemy of good public policy,” Bowling said, “and so if we know in fact that’s following the code, that’s one set of information. If we know that it wasn’t, that opens up a different avenue. But we have to know. That’s foundational.”

Two Democratic lawmakers are convinced Haslam wants to privatize other state parks with similar amenities. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, held a town hall meeting Friday in Spencer, the town closest to the park.

And Stamps said the statute dealing with state parks and contracting “appears to prohibit the outsourcing of state services without it being part of the master plan for parks.”

“At this time, we’re unaware that this is part of their master plan that’s been approved appropriately,” Stamps said.

“It could be that they overlooked the law,” he added. “It could be that they dealt with it in some way. But right now it appears they’re in violation of the statute.”

Eric Ward, spokeman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said officials are on sound legal ground.

“TDEC hasn’t seen Sen. Bowling’s request, but we’re confident our proposed effort to ensure the long-term viability of Fall Creek Falls is well within our legal authority and we’re happy to answer any questions from the attorney general or members of the General Assembly related to this matter,” Ward said.

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