Museum retreats from new code of ethics in face of legislator attacks

The chairman of the Tennessee State Museum’s governing board pledged that the panel would reconsider its controversial “code of ethics” in the face of round of strong criticism from state legislators at a hearing Tuesday.

“Do you want to take the legislature on?” asked Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, addressing Thomas Smith, chairman of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission at the outset of a hearing.

An hour and a half later, Smith declared, “It is not our intent to take on the Legislature… Clearly we are going to go back and evaluate all of these items.”

In between, members of the Joint Government Operations Committee repeatedly questioned the new code of ethics – both the procedure used in adopting it and the policies it encompasses.

There was also harsh criticism from former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a member of the commission who is widely seen as the target of the new code and who declared he is refusing to sign it – a decision that is supported by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, he said.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said is “kills the free flow of information” from a government body to the public. And Henry Walker, an attorney and former member of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation board, said a provision in the code providing that a commission member can be expelled for violations is contrary to state law.

Procedurally, the commission declared it was adopting an internal policy, not a formal rule. That meant that the changes did not require a public hearing, at least 30 days advance notice and other legal niceties required for an official rule. It also meant that the code was not formally subject to being approved or rejected the Government Operations Committees of the House and Senate — as is the case for all rules made by state boards and commissions.

The substance of the rule requires commission members to provide copies in advance of statements to the public or media and prohibits them from making comments that “disparage” the museum, the staff or the commission. It calls for all commission members to sign the code, pledging to abide by its requirements and to resign from the commission upon a violation.

Bell and Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, contended – based on research by legal staff – that the code amounts to a rule and should have gone through all the procedural requirements.

Alexander Rieger of the state attorney general’s office, who advised the commission in developing the code, disagreed.

But at one point Bell said that, if the commission sticks with that position, the Legislature can always pass a law to override the commission action.

At the end of the hearing, Faison told Smith that, if the commission will revise the code and treat it as a rule rather than an operating procedure, legislators will work with the commission to “fast track” its handling of the revision. Smith and Ashley Howell, executive director of the museum, said they want a new code in place while seeking accreditation of the museum from the American Alliance of Museums.

UPDATE/Note: For more, see the Times Free Press report, HERE, and the Nashville Post report, HERE. The latter begins with the statement, “The last two weeks have been rough on the Tennessee State Museum” and wraps up with this:

It’s clear that Howell is trying to right the ship at the museum, at least as much so as is possible given the slow pace of government bureaucracy. On July 31, Howell formally fired graphic designer Bill Tyler, who had been hired by Lois Riggins-Ezzell in 2015.

Tyler is the brother of country songwriter Dan Tyler (who had a minor hit as a novelist with his roman-a-clef Music City Confidential  in the late 1990s), and his wife Cynthia is an assistant commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and former board member of the Nashville Film Festival. According to current and former employees, speculation at the time of his hiring was that Tyler was brought on for his ties to the music industry in the hopes that his connections would help Riggins-Ezzell’s son’s music career (just as she had hired her son’s manager in 2009).

The same sources say that over the past two years, multiple complaints about Tyler’s erratic behavior were lodged with Riggins-Ezzell to no avail. (No formal complaints about Tyler exist in his human resources file.) But on July 20, Tyler brought an antique firearm to the museum without prior permission and tried to get staff to evaluate its worth, which was the last straw for Howell, according to the letter explaining his dismissal (which also lists a number of other unprofessional behaviors). Tyler was escorted out of the museum by security that day and placed on leave; he was formally fired July 31.

And, furthermore, Ashe penned a commentary piece that appears in Tennessee Star, HERE. His bottom line: All in all it was a good day for Tennessee as an assault on free speech was thwarted by the legislative hearing and the General Assembly asserted its rightful role as a co-equal branch of government.

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