Ashe asks comptroller review of museum leader’s pay raise

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a member of the board overseeing the Tennessee State Museum, has asked state Comptroller Justin Wilson to “review and investigate” circumstances surrounding a $23,000 boost in annual pay given in April to Lois Riggins-Ezzell, the museum’s longtime executive director.

Ashe has also questioned the propriety of a $40,000 job approved for Riggins-Ezzell that will take effect after her retirement on Dec. 31. The new position as a fundraiser was approved last week by the Tennessee state Museum Foundation (previous post HERE.).

And he says the $95,500 contract recently awarded to Carter Balwin Inc., an Atlanta-based executive search company, to seek a successor to Riggins-Ezzell seems excessive, given  that the University of Tennessee is paying $75,000 for the search for a successor to retiring UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.

Excerpt from the News-Sentinel:

Riggins-Ezell began 2016 with an annual salary set at $90,216 that has been increased to $113,940 currently, according to Ashley Fuqua, public information officer for the state Department of Human Resources. Almost all that increase came in April, following a discussion of salaries at a meeting of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, as the museum oversight board is officially known.

Both Thomas Smith, current chairman of the commission, and state Rep. Steve McDaniel, who was chairman in April, say they were unaware of the Riggins-Ezell pay raise until Ashe reported the increase and raised questions about how it was approved in a series of emails to commission members and media last week.

Fuqua, however, said the department has a form – signed by McDaniel – authorizing the April salary increase. McDaniel, who earlier said he did not remember the pay raise or any action approving it, said when told of the form that he must have been mistaken.

“I still don’t recall it, but if they say I did, I guess I did,” he said in a telephone interview. McDaniel said he does recall filling out an evaluation of Riggins-Ezzell and “giving her the highest marks I possibly could.”

Ashe said he thinks the full commission should have voted on a salary increase of 25 percent and questioned whether the chairman – “if he did actually sign the form” – could act on his own. Smith said he understands that the commission chairman is entitled to approve pay raises without a commission vote, though he is still seeking more information on the situation.

… Besides getting a pay raise herself, Riggins-Ezzell also approved salary increases for two museum staffers who work closely with her – Mary Jane Crockett-Green, director of administration, and Sharon Dennis, her executive assistant. Crockett-Green got a pay raise of about 25 percent – on the same level as Riggins-Ezzell – that puts her current salary at $6,449 per month or $77,348 annually. Dennis received a pay raise of $7,716 per year – though a portion of that was a regular step increase not tied to the executive director’s approval – that makes her current annual salary $46,521.

Note: Text of Ashe’s email request to the comptroller is below.

Dear Comptroller Wilson,

I am writing  as a member and first chair of the State Museum Commission, to request that your office review and investigate the sequence of events which led to Lois Riggins-Ezzell,current Executive Director,  receiving a 25% pay raise in April which far exceeds the 2% to 4% raise given to other state employees.  One other Museum Commission employee, Mary Jane Crockett, apparently received a similar pay raise in the same time frame which perhaps was authorized by the ED.

 

In the ED’s case, it is murky and unknown as to how it occurred.  The Commission itself never voted to implement or approve it. The chairman of the Commission does not possess the legal authority to grant such pay raises.   It would be most strange if the ED herself authorized such a pay raise for herself and it would be equally strange if the CFO who reports to the ED and also was receiving a substantial pay raise would direct it for a person to whom she reported.

 

There was discussion at the April, 2016 meeting which I started on the subject of salaries but at no point was action taken to direct a pay raise by the chair or the commission. If there is paperwork showing the chair signed approval of the pay raise, it would be relevant to ask about the circumstances under which this occurred and if the chair can authorize such high pay raises without approval or knowledge of the Commission itself.  Does the chair even recall it as he never shared this significant action with his colleagues on the Commission.   What was the date that this pay raise was signed and did the chair sign it or someone acting in his place signed it?

 

My concern is that legal and appropriate state procedures were not followed in this case. Your office can undertake an impartial review without any conflicts, report back to the Commission and advise us to what we should do in this matter to follow recognized best practices and state law/regulations if they have been ignored.

 

I have copied the current chair, Tom Smith, on this e mail and Martha Campbell at the office of the Attorney General .

 

I look forward to hearing from your office when this matter is fully probed and concluded.

 

Victor Ashe

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