Haslam appoints new ABC commissioner; Harwell and McNally may do same soon

West Tennessee pharmacist Richard Skiles has been appointed by Gov. Billl Haslam to the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission, filling  vacancy left on the board by the resignation in January of Mary McDaniel of Memphis.

While Skiles is the newest member of the panel, he probably won’t have that status for long, as observed by Nashville Post Politics. A bill already passed by the Senate (SB556) was approved by the House State Government Committee on Wednesday. It adds two new members to the ABC – one appointed by the House speaker, the other by the Senate speaker – to join the three now appointed by the governor.

Similar legislation passed the Senate last year, but was killed in the State Government sub about the same time the ABC’s executive director abruptly quit the post – moves that Senate Republican Leader  Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro says were related.

The House sponsor this year is Republican Rep. Bill Sanderson who shares Kenton as a home town with new Commissioner Skiles and is also chairman of the full State Government Committee.

Note: For a lengthy review of the pending bill and some of the ABC politics involved, see a News Sentinel report HERE. An excerpt:

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, sponsor of the legislation both last year and this year, explained to colleagues during a committee hearing that “politics got involved over in the House” in 2016.

One new provision in this year’s version: The $6,000 annual salary paid to ABC commissioners would be eliminated and a commissioner missing more than two monthly meetings in a year would be removed from office. The bill passed the Senate 33-0 on Feb. 27 and is scheduled for a vote Wednesday in the House State Government Subcommittee, the panel that killed it last year. This year, the bill has a different sponsor – Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, who chairs the subcommittee.

Death of the bill in the subcommittee in a March 2016 meeting coincided with the abrupt resignation of Keith Bell as ABC executive director without explanation. Ketron said in an interview that Bell, “comfortable with the way things were” with the sitting commissioners, had been working for defeat of the bill. Bell could not be reached for comment. 

ABC Commissioner John Jones of Johnson City said in a telephone interview that Bell’s resignation was tied to “internal issues in the ABC that left us (commissioners) thinking it was time to make a change.” Jones said he was basically neutral on the bill – then and now – as a matter left to legislative discretion. He indicated Bell’s resignation involved other considerations, though declining to elaborate.

Jones, former editor of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle (now known as the Johnson City Press), was appointed to the ABC in 1990 by then-Gov. Ned McWherter following the death of his father, Carl A. Jones, who had served as an ABC commissioner since the agency was created in 1963.

Jones’ lengthy service on the panel has been critically cited by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, (no relation to the former ABC director) and some other legislators. In a committee meeting last week, Bell said the ABC “has been a mess,” though he praised current Executive Director Clayton Byrd for “what you’re doing to clean things up.”

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, recently wrote a letter to Haslam at the urging of Bell and other members of the joint House-Senate Government Operations urging the governor to consider appointing new members of the ABC. Bell and Ragan have cited a comptroller’s audit of the ABC that declared some problems within the agency – lack of control over confiscated liquor, for example – were first cited in a 2007 audit and remained unresolved in 2016.

Jones said the 2007 problems were “completely addressed and taken care of” shortly after the comptroller’s report at the time, but the changes “fell through the cracks” during executive director Bell’s tenure and similar problems developed again prior to the latter audit. He said the trouble with keeping track of seized liquor related to computer problems and a lack of storage space – at times involving entire moonshine stills.

As with Sen. Bell, Jones praised Byrd and other new staff at the ABC for moving quickly with commissioners’ approval to resolve problems cited in the latest comptroller’s audit. Byrd previously worked as an attorney in the comptroller’s office.

He also defended the ABC’s overall performance in the past, noting there has been a huge increase in licensed retailers overseen by the commission – especially with legalization of selling wine in grocery stores – and little increase in staffing for the agency. The ABC’s operations are funded by licensing fees and fines collected for violation of liquor and wine laws, but Jones noted that much of the money has been diverted by the administration and legislature to other purposes.

“I will say that we have functioned well and successfully, in the days when my dad served and in the time I have served, with a three-member commission,” Jones said when discussing the pending legislation.

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