Tennessee State Museum

TN political news and opinion roundup Jan. 8, 2017

The legislative session that begins Tuesday is the focus of much Tennessee media reporting in recent days. A sampler:

Legislative issue overviews

This week’s legislative meetings will be devoted to organization matters, followed by a recess until Jan. 30, when Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his “state-of-the-state” speech. But there’s a pile of proposals awaiting action afterwards — a gas tax increase, cuts in other state taxes, a big budget surplus, school vouchers, Sunday liquor sales, de-annexation, school bus seat belts, bathroom bills, etc. Andy Sher’s roundup is HERE; Sam Stockard’s list of main issues is HERE.

McNally profiled

The Tennessean has a well-done profile on Sen. Randy McNally, who will replace Ron Ramsey as Senate speaker and lieutenant governor on opening day.

The two have similar political backgrounds — they rose through the ranks over a long period of time — and are natural leaders. But in other ways, the differences are stark. Both have their own specialties.

“A lot of times in baseball you need to follow the guy that throws at 100 miles an hour with the guy that throws the circle change-up 75 miles an hour,” said Brad Todd, a longtime political consultant who has worked closely with both men.

McNally’s ascension this week will be the culminating act for a man who has commanded respect through his dedication to a life of public service that began in the muddy streets of Oak Ridge.

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Nepotism at the Tennessee State Museum?

Less than a year after her son resigned, Tennessee State Museum Deputy Director Mary Jane Crockett-Green’s sister came out of retirement to work for the museum, raising further questions about the agency’s hiring practices in the days before Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell retires.

So reports Nashville Post Politics. Further:

Allegations of nepotism and favoritism have long followed both Riggins-Ezzell and Crockett-Green, but now even staff within the agency is revolting, as Crockett-Green looks like a favorite to replace her boss on Jan. 1 — at least in the interim until a new, outside hire is made. The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission will meet Friday afternoon to discuss possible replacements.

Riggins-Ezzell hired Loretta Lisa Hester, Crockett-Green’s sister, this past March for a part-time job. According to DHSMC Chair Tom Smith, the position is just on a project basis to complete data entry and inventory during a deaccessioning process, and the work is of a nature no other current museum employee was qualified to handle… Per the museum’s own organizational chart, Hester is working directly under Crockett-Green — a violation of the Tennessee State Employees Uniform Nepotism Policy Act of 1980.

Smith says that he has been told Hester is working directly under Riggins-Ezzell, despite what the chart says, and that her work will wrap up by the end of the month, before her sister could possibly take over as executive director. However, employees within the agency itself say Hester reports to both women, and that it wasn’t clear for months that the two were actually related. But it is clear Riggins-Ezzell knew the women were sisters.

…Chris Crockett (Crockett-Green’s son) was hired in 2005 as a museum preparator — someone who builds and tears down installations, among other duties. At the time of his hiring, Crockett did not disclose a 1998 felony conviction for dealing drugs, or that he was still on probation for the incident; in fact, he lied on his application about it.

… Crockett had also been arrested on additional felony drug charges in 2007 (later dropped; he pleaded guilty to felony possession of a weapon). He was then arrested again for reckless driving in 2012. And on June 30, 2015, he and two other men were arrested after attempting to purchase 100 pounds of marijuana in Wilson County, a drug bust that also led to the collection of 143 grams of cocaine and over 700 pills, including more than 100 ecstasy pills. (A trial on those charges is scheduled for January.)

TN museum fundraising chair resigns over $40K fundraising gig for retiree

The longtime chair of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation, Bobby Thomas, has resigned that position after the board voted to hire outgoing museum Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell for a $40,000-per-year job, reports Nashville Post Politics. The foundation is a n0n-profit group that raises money for the museum and recently voted — with Thomas absent — to give Riggins-Ezzell a post-retirement job as fundraiser with unspecified duties.

“It has been my privilege and pleasure to serve on the Tennessee State Museum Foundation Board for over twenty-six years and as your Chair for the last six years,” Thomas wrote in an email sent to board members Monday. “At the age of 75, I believe it is time for new leadership to guide the Foundation’s fundraising and other activities for the new museum and beyond. Accordingly, I hereby resign my position as Chair effective December 31, 2016. I do look forward to continuing to serve the Foundation as a Board member.”

But in a conversation with the Post, Thomas confirmed his resignation was about more than his age.

“I want to say first that I believe strongly in the Tennessee State Museum, its mission and its people,” Thomas said. “I resigned because the executive committee of the Foundation board and I are no longer of the same mind, and I believe they are entitled to have someone else lead the Foundation.

“First, I agreed with the decision of the [Douglas Henry State] Museum Commission to ask Lois Riggins-Ezzell to retire and to bring in a new director of the museum who can be involved in the planning of our exciting new building. Second, I did not agree with the Foundation’s decision to hire Lois following her retirement from the museum. I have nothing but praise for the work Lois has done at the museum, but I do not think it a prudent use of the Foundation’s money, which is raised through donations, to pay Lois $40,000 a year as a fundraiser when the Foundation is already paying a professional fundraising firm. The executive committee of the Foundation disagreed with me on both of those issues, and therefore I decided to step down.”

Legality of state museum leader’s pay raise procedure questioned

State Rep. Steve McDaniel, as chairman of the board overseeing the Tennessee State Museum, apparently approved a 25 percent pay raise for Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell earlier this year and told no other board members about the move, reports Cari Wade Gervin. Some other members of the board – though all apparently agree she was underpaid — are now questioning whether the procedure was legal.

When asked why he didn’t bring up the raises during the relevant discussion of the April DHSMC meeting, much less the rest of the year’s meetings, McDaniel didn’t have a good answer.

“I didn’t think about it, to be honest. We probably should have had it on the agenda, but it just didn’t occur to me,” McDaniel said. “If I had thought to bring it up, I would have brought it up.”

When asked if he thought he had done anything wrong by approving the raises without letting anyone else on the commission know, much less discussing it with them, McDaniel seemed unconcerned.

“Did I do anything wrong? Apparently not,” McDaniel said. “I don’t know that I had to tell them, because I was acting in my role as chair.”

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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.

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Retiring museum director gets $40K-per-year part-time job

Longtime Tennessee State Museum Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell will go to work for the museum’s fundraising arm when she retires Dec. 31 at a $40,000-per-year salary, reports the Nashville Post.

The board of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation voted to hire Riggins-Ezzell at a meeting Monday that included closed doors for part of the session. The Foundation is a separate entity from the board that oversees the museum itself,.

 But members of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, the actual governing body of the museum, are not so sure about the unprecedented move to to keep the 35-year veteran executive director in the same building as her yet-to-be-hired successor, even though Riggins-Ezzell will no longer be a state employee. And with the new salary, plus her state pension of around $52,000, the 76-year-old Riggins-Ezzell will actually make more than her current annual salary of $90,216.

“The Foundation is making decisions for the space that only the Commission can make,” said DHSMC member Victor Ashe. “No other state employee gets these kind of benefits when they retire. What sort of message does that send?”

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