Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Alexander Says Trump Should Wear Mask, Addresses Other Controversies in Chat with Rotary

Posted By on Wed, Jul 1, 2020 at 3:02 PM

Retiring U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who, like any seasoned politician, knows how to pull a punch, didn’t pull many in discussing President Donald Trump with members of the Rotary Club of Memphis this week.

Alexander addresing Rotarians
  • Alexander addresing Rotarians
Addressing an online Zoom audience on Tuesday made up of Rotarians from various local clubs, Alexander emphasized the importance of wearing face masks in public during the still ongoing Covid-19 crisis and made no exception for the President, who is notoriously reticent to be seen masked in public.

Early on in his dialogue with Rotarians, Alexander, who was speaking remotely from Washington, was asked about the mask issue. “I just came from a hearing with Dr. [Anthony S.] Fauci. And Dr. [Robert] Redfield and ...all the top people, really a group of extraordinary individuals who run those agencies. The thing that came through to me right now, and something I've talked about last couple of days is we need to be wearing masks.”

The Senator observed: “We've gotten into this political debate. That's if you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask and if you're against Trump, you do wear a mask. And that's just such nonsense because all the health officials tell us that there are three things we can do that would make a big difference in containing this virus and one is wearing a mask.” The others, he said, were social distancing and frequent hand-washing.

Alexander continued, speaking in diplomatic but direct terms, “One way that would help in this politicalization of the mask issue is for the President occasionally to wear a mask. I'm not sure I understand why he doesn't. Because he gets tested. Everybody around him gets tested. And so they're not infecting each other. He doesn't wear one when he's speaking and he's speaking a lot of the time. So there are really very few occasions when he could wear a mask. But if he would wear a mask sometimes — he has a lot of admirers. In Tennessee, about 90% of Republicans say they approve of him — so I think if he wore a mask if he made it clear it was important then I think millions of his followers would wear a mask — they'd follow his lead, which is a compliment to him not a criticism and our country would be better off we'd be more likely to contain the disease.”

Responding to questions, the Senator tackled other controversial issues. One concerned the fact that Vice President Mike Pence refuses to repeat or acknowledge the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Alexander himself approved the phrase and then said, “But It's so difficult for the vice president to say that. I don't know this, you know, if I spent every day trying to give a running commentary on what the President and the Vice President do, I wouldn't be able to do anything else. So what I try to do is say what I think and show respect for their offices and other offices here and let other people judge them and judge me.”

The Senator acknowledged the need for Americans to periodically reconsider their approved icons but advised moderation in the process: “I like to take American history teachers on the floor of the Senate, They go to my desk where Howard Baker and Fred Thompson once sat, they go to Daniel Webster's desk, they go to the desk the Kennedy brothers had, and they go to Jefferson Davis’, who resigned the Senate to be president of the Confederacy, and on that desk are some chalk marks. And the story goes that when the Union occupied the Capitol, this Union soldier started chopping at the desk with a sword to destroy it. And his commanding officer stopped him and said, 'Stop that. We're here to save the Union, not to destroy it.' Well, we could go burn Jefferson Davis's desk, but I think we ought to keep it right where it is. Why? Because I'd like for American history teachers to be able to teach their students An example i that we had a civil war. We had senators who resigned to be officers on both sides.”

Another question concerned the ongoing controversy over the treatment of African American citizens by police. The Senator told a story about his Senate colleague Tim Scott (R-S.C.0, who is black: “Two years ago, he was stopped seven times by police for being a black man in the wrong place while he was chairman of the county council in Charleston, and so I said to him a few weeks ago, I said ‘Tim, can I tell that story publicly?’ He said sure, because It happened again last month. So I told that story on the Senate floor. I wrote a column about it. And what I said was that maybe one step in understanding racism and how African Americans feel about it is trying to put ourselves in this in the position of a white man who might be stopped for being a white man in the wrong place and a community that's mostly black.”

One more controversy the Senator addressed concerned efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Alexander, who voted against the Act in 2009, made clear he still had misgivings about it but said, “I thought the lawsuit that the government brought was pretty flimsy. I mean, basically, what they're arguing is that Congress, this Congress repealed the Affordable Care Act when it voted to eliminate the penalty for the independent mandate. Well, I didn't hear any United States Senator say they thought they were repealing the entire Affordable Care Act when they voted to get rid in effect of the independent mandate. So I thought it was a pretty flimsy case.”

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Monday, June 29, 2020

Gov. Lee Extends Emergency Order on Coronavirus

Posted By on Mon, Jun 29, 2020 at 4:45 PM

Evidently spurred on by rising numbers of coronavirus cases in Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee has extended his state-of-emergency order (or “Executive Order Number 50,” as the Governor’s office refers to it) until August 29th.

Among the principal provisions of the order are to:

*Urge Tennesseans to continue limiting activity and staying home where possible, as well as following health guidelines and maintaining social distancing;

*Urge persons to wear a cloth face covering in places where in close proximity to others;

*Urge employers to allow or require remote work/telework if possible;

*Provide that persons with COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms are required to stay at home, and that employers may not require or allow employees with COVID-19 to work;

*Limit social and recreational gatherings of 50 or more persons, unless adequate social distancing can be maintained. (This provision does not apply to places of worship or to different directives on the subject issued by the six Tennessee counties, including Shelby, that maintain county health departments.);

*Provide that bars may only serve customers seated at appropriately spaced tables.

The governor also signed Executive Order Nos. 51 and 52, which extend provisions that allow for electronic government meetings subject to transparency safeguards and remote notarization and witnessing of documents, respectively, to August 29, 2020.

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

State Supreme Court Has Mail-In Ballot Case

Posted By on Thu, Jun 25, 2020 at 4:00 PM


The State of Tennessee remains on a losing streak in its appeal of a three-week-old ruling by a Nashville Chancellor granting the right to a mail-in absentee ballot to any eligible Tennessee voter who for any reason is wary of on-site voting this year because of the ongoing COVID-19 virus.

The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear the case on appeal but has denied the state’s request for a stay of Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s June 5th order, a request filed by Secretary of State Tre Hargett and state Election Coordinator Mark Goins.

The state Supreme Court granted a request by the defendants by bypass an intermediate appeals court in order to expedite a decision on the Lyle ruling, which directs the defendants to expand eligibility for mail-in voting, to send such mail-in ballots to voters requesting them, and to ensure that all election officials throughout the state also comply with such requests.

In her ruling, Chancellor Lyle had discounted the state’s objections — ranging from concerns about costs to concerns about fraud and excessive demands upon the state’s capability. She noted that the Tennessee constitution is “more explicit than the federal Constitution” in guaranteeing the right to vote and that the state’s “restrictive interpretation and application of Tennessee’s voting by mail law” constituted “an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote.”

Lyle did not require the state to automatically provide the state’s entire voting population with mail-in ballots, merely those voters who might apply for them. Voters could still choose to vote in person if they wanted.

Subsequent to her original ruling, she pronounced as invalid and confusing the state’s rewording of the official voter application forms for mail-in ballots and insisted on language that was clear and unambiguous in its listing of concerns about COVID-19 as an acceptable condition for requesting an absentee ballot.

In another follow-up ruling issued on Thursday, Judge Lyle admonished the state to ensure that all county election commission websites or other county posts included clear advisories of the COVID-19 reason, requiring Goins to provide proposed language for the court to order by 3:30 p.m. Thursday. This was in response to reports that dozens of counties across the state had failed to fully comply with the court’s order. Lyle said “an omission of COVID-19 in such Posted Information where the other reasons and excuses are addressed does not conform to the Absentee Ballot Application, and is inaccurate, incomplete and potentially misleading.”

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has asked for a brief in the case from the state by July 2nd. from the plaintiffs by July 9th, and any response to that from the State by July 13th. Oral argument via Zoom will be scheduled for some time thereafter.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Disproportion: The Legislature's Shorting of Shelby County

Posted By on Wed, Jun 24, 2020 at 10:13 AM

It probably needs to be enshrined in some encyclopedia of Tennessee county history. In 2020, a year of both medical and financial crisis, a statewide infrastructure development fund that ultimately totaled $215 million was recast by the General Assembly as a no-strings-attached emergency aid bill to be distributed to all of Tennessee’s cities and counties.

In the process, and this should take a central place in the encyclopedia, one county, and only one, Shelby County, saw the amount of its aid reduced from the first formulation of the aid fund until final distribution.

That was Shelby County, originally slated to receive $7.7 million — a sum proportionate to its population size, largest among the 95 Tennessee counties. But in the process of final allocation — which included budget reviews by the Senate, the House, and, ultimately, a joint House-Senate conference committee, Shelby’s amount was reduced from $7.7 million by $2.7 million, all the way down to $5 million. It was the only county so reduced.

For purpose of comparison, Knox County, whose population is 456,185 compared to Shelby County’s 937,005, began the process with an allotment from the fund of $4,108,218 but saw its final amount boosted to $5,151,760, outdrawing larger Shelby.

To be sure, the city of Memphis, with a population of 650,618, drew a separate allocation of $10 million. Meanwhile, the city of Knoxville (pop: 187,500) took home $4,167,836. In that case, the emergency-aid appropriations seem proportionate to the size of each city’s population.

Again, though, by any index of proportionality, Shelby County has undeniably gotten short shrift. And it bears repeating, too, that it was the only one of Tennessee’s five counties to withstand a reduction in its aid from beginning to end of the allocation process.

What gives? (Or perhaps: doesn’t give?)

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Threat of Reduction in State Funds Averted for Memphis and Shelby County

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2020 at 1:07 PM

UPDATE: Reportedly, the House-Senate conference committee has agreed on new amounts for Memphis and Shelby County, as well as for Davidson County (Nashville). Memphis and Nashville are to receive $10 million apiece as a result of negotiations by the conference committee, which included three participants from Davidson County but none from Shelby County.

Locally, this solution represents a partial restoration of the $14.3 million originally allowed to Memphis by the state Senate but reduced to $5 million in the proposed House version of the budget. Shelby County's amount reverted to the Senate’s original budget version of $7.7 million, a figure which had also been reduced to $5 million in the proposed House budget.

The funding is part of a $200-million package which was authorized by the legislature for statewide distribution in March as a response to the economic emergencies caused via the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, the money was restricted for specific infrastructure or COVID-related purposes, but the restrictions were lifted by the Senate last Thursday and by the House on Wednesday of this week, but the two chambers disagreed on the amounts to be allotted to the state's two largest urban areas.

Accordingly, the money, whose sums the two legislative chambers now agree on, is available for the general funds of both Memphis and Shelby County.
Rep. Mark White
  • Rep. Mark White

PREVIOUSLY REPORTED: What the Senate giveth, the House taketh away. The newly freed state financial resources that the Tennessee Senate voted last week to make available to Memphis and Shelby County have been truncated significantly by the House, and only the work of a joint-chamber conference committee can fully restore them. The issue is that of so far unreconciled differences in the budgets approved by each chamber.

On Thursday of last week, state Senate majority leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) announced that the Senate’s version of the fiscal 2020-21 budget would allow the lifting of restrictions from a $200 million infrastructure grant program approved in March. In practical terms, what this meant was that the City of Memphis was enabled by the Senate action to re-allocate some $14.3 million in previously restricted infrastructure-grant funds for any purpose it chose; Shelby County’s share of the newly freed-up funds was $7.7 million.

The problem is that the House version of the state budget, passed on Wednesday, allows the lifting of restrictions on how that previous statewide funding is spent by local governments but caps the amount allowed for the cities of Memphis and Nashville and for Shelby County to a maximum of $5 million each. That’s a cut of $9.3 million for Memphis, and one of $2.2 million for Shelby County. The theory of the reductions on the amounts for the state’s two largest urban centers, as presented by House majority leader William Lamberth (R-Portland), is based on the state’s need for fiscal austerity and the fact that Memphis, Nashville, and Shelby County, uniquely, had all been beneficiaries of the federal CARES Act, covering some of the same potential purposes, including COVID-19 needs, as were intended for the state infrastructure-grant money in March.

This has not gone down well with Shelby County’s legislative delegation in Nashville, nor with the two local governments here. “This does not seem so good a deal for Memphis and Shelby County,” observed state Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) in debate. The state, he said, would be doing a “back-out” and “end-around” of moneys the city and county governments had been led to expect. State Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Nashville) voiced similar sentiments on behalf of the state’s capital city.

Lamberth expressed confidence that Memphis and Nashville were able to “bounce back faster” from current financial predicaments than more rural areas, whose allotments were not cut — the idea seeming to be that the two big-city areas could better shoulder the pain of austerity.

A spokesman for Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland released the following statement: "We had included the original proposed state funding into our FY21 budget. We are hopeful that amount will remain intact as it goes through the conference process."

In the case of Shelby County, the $7.7 million figure provided for it in the Senate’s version of the budget has already been spoken for in the Shelby County Commission’s ongoing efforts to achieve a budget for fiscal 2020-21. The Commission voted on Monday to incorporate the whole amount into the county’s fund balance or reserve fund, there to be drawn upon to meet such needs as rehabilitation of The Med (Regional One) and funding for construction of the new Juvenile Justice Center.

Before receiving news of the House’s intended reductions of the county’s grant amount, Commissioner Van Turner and County Mayor Lee Harris had been reaching toward agreement on how to split the figure of $7.7 million between the two needs. Should the reduced House figure survive the forthcoming conference committee between the two chambers in Nashville, the county’s budget calculations will be even further complicated than they already are. State Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) was more sanguine about the consequences if the House’s budget figure should stand. “We’ll always take care of Memphis,” he said. "We’re now getting $5 million that wasn’t on the table to begin with. So we're $5 million ahead.”

White said he thought the federal government would end up taking the strings off the COVID-related funds it had previously allocated to Memphis and Shelby County, and that it was important meanwhile to take care of the distressed counties of rural Tennessee.

White's Democratic opponent for his District 83 seat, Jerri Green, responded to White's support of the House version by saying, "Budgets reflect our values. And the values of anyone who voted for this budget do not lie with this community. If I was asked to voted for it, my answer would be 'Hell no.'"

UPDATE: In the aftermath of the conference. committee report [see above], White, a member of that ad hoc committee, sent out a press release claiming to have influenced the final outcome and quoting GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton as saying, “Chairman White was instrumental in the negotiation process between the House and Senate in efforts to obtain this critical funding for Memphis."

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

State Funding Could Plug County's Budget Hole

Posted By on Sun, Jun 14, 2020 at 2:19 PM

After several marathon budget-review sessions and an interminable and mind-boggling amount of numbers-crunching and wrangling, Shelby
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson announcing relief of grant restrictions
  • Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson announcing relief of grant restrictions
County’s budget stalemate may finally reach something resembling a satisfactory conclusion at Monday’s scheduled Shelby County Commission meeting.

Going into the weekend, the commission still had something like a $5 million+ looming deficit to make up. In the weeks of fretting over possible cuts and reallocations, a schism of sorts had developed between the county administration of Mayor Lee Harris, whose initial budget was rejected, and Eddie Jones and Edmund Ford Jr., chairman and vice-chair, respectively, of the commission budget committee.

In recent meetings, the impasse had come down, more or less, to non-stop sparring between Jones and Ford, on one hand, and county Chief Financial Officer Mathilde Crosby, on the other. The discussion wandered, as they say, into the weeds, and the weeds grew ever denser and more impenetrable.

On the eve of Monday’s meeting, two possible solutions were on the brink of being proposed. Jones had a formula which, he said, involved changes to the education portion of the budget, while Commissioner Van Turner was ready to propose substantial borrowing from the county’s fund balance, or “rainy day fund,” temporarily dispensing with county government’s tradition of maintaining the fund at 20 percent of the county budget.
Meanwhile, state government, acting as a deus ex machina, may have resolved the dilemma for the county by removing restrictions on $200 million previously offered by Governor Bill Lee to the state’s local governments for help with infrastructure needs and COVID-related expenses.

In its version of a $39.4 billion state budget completed last Thursday, the state Senate, in order to deal with what Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (D-Franklin) called the “dire circumstances” of localities, voted to take any restriction off how local governments chose to spend the money. Indications are that the House, which has yet to finish its deliberations, will follow suit in approving removal of the restrictions.

Shelby County’s share of the money, which will become available as of the new fiscal year on July 1, is $7,756,653, enough, if applied to the county general fund, to overcome the remaining amounts of a prospective budget deficit.

The county’s sum had been spoken for some weeks ago in the form of a commission resolution to use it for partial funding of the county’s Juvenile Rehab and Education Center, but Commissioner Turner said he would be willing to pursue a formal rescinding of that proposed allocation — even, if necessary, to seek an override of a mayoral veto — in order to re-access the state money for the purpose of budgetary resolution.

Shelby County government isn’t the only local beneficiary of the state grant funds. Memphis’ share is $14,388,140, while the moneys available to the other county municipalities are as follows: Arlington, $288,135; Bartlett, $1,338,991; Collierville, $1,147,017; Germantown, $892,855; Lakeland, $308,438; and Millington, $265,802.

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Senate Vote Gives Rep. DeBerry New Opportunity to Run for Reelection

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2020 at 10:47 AM

The Tennessee legislature may not have seen the last of Memphian John DeBerry. The longtime state representative from state House District 30, whose bona fides as a Democrat were formally denied by the state Democratic executive committee in April, thus disqualifying him as a candidate in the party primary, has now been enabled to run for reelection as an independent.

The state Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a House amendment to a vaguely related Senate measure on the tenure of General Assembly members, the effect of which was to reopen the opportunity for DeBerry to file to run for his office as an independent on the November election ballot.

As stated, the amendment “[a]uthorizes an incumbent member of the General Assembly who has filed a petition for reelection to file a new petition as a candidate for another political party no less than 90 days before a primary or general election if the incumbent is disqualified from candidacy by the current affiliated party’s executive committee.”

DeBerry expressed gratitude at the outcome and indicated he would indeed take advantage of the opportunity to run again for the seat he has held for 13 two-year terms. “There are some nice new people running, but I think the people of my district know me well, and I want to continue to serve them,” he said.

Three candidates — Torrey Harris, Anya Parker, and Catrina Smith — will vie on the August primary ballot for the Democratic nomination and the right to oppose DeBerry in November.

DeBerry, who had always previously been elected as a Democrat, had filed to run in the party primary but was disallowed by a majority of the party’s state executive committee in response to complaints from Democratic activists regarding what they saw as DeBerry’s over-cozy relationship with legislative Republicans and his habit of voting for GOP-sponsored initiatives.

Among other matters, DeBerry has consistently voted for anti-abortion measures in the legislature, has supported private-school vouchers, has received significant financial support from Republican sources, and, in general, has been regarded by the complaining activists as being as a sort of GOP fellow traveler. DeBerry has always contended that he merely represents the interests of his district and votes his conscience.

The vote in the Senate Thursday was 29-1, with the only nay vote coming from state Senator Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, the Democrats’ Senate leader. Yarbro contended that the bill amounted to “enacting a protection for incumbents” and was backward-looking in its import. Other Democrats approved the measure — including state Senator Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, who as a member of the party executive committee had voted in DeBerry’s favor back in April.

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Election Commission: No New Voting Equipment for This Year

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2020 at 7:42 AM

Considering all the delays that have occurred in the drawn-out and contentious process of acquiring a new election system for Shelby County, this will not be the most surprising news: There will be no new devices — whether of the ballot-marking sort or of the hand-marked variety — for any county elections this year.

Word from the Election Commission is that, for several reasons, the federal/state primaries and the county general election scheduled for August will be performed on the county’s existing and outmoded machinery, and the same goes for the November election.

One of the reasons for the postponement, according to an EC source familiar with the thinking in the office of Election Administrator Linda Phillips, is uncertainty, at least in her mind, over the availability of funds allocated by the Shelby County Commission. Funding for a new election system was allocated last year by the county commission for the purchase of a new election system in the current fiscal year, but the money has not yet been appropriated.
Election Commissioner Linda Phillips - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Election Commissioner Linda Phillips

Phillips is said to believe that the funding process for new machines has been shifted to the coming fiscal year, 2020-21, but county commissioners involved in the ongoing process of determining the new budget said that was not the case. The administrator has told election commission members that no voting on any new system will occur until 2022 but that the state has committed to providing new scanners to accommodate the demands of increased mail-in voting this year.

There is still an element of suspense regarding the nature of the new election system, whenever it comes to be. The election commission recently accepted Phillips’ recommendation for the purchase of new ballot-marking devices from the ESS company, but considerable support still exists for hand-marked ballots, both in the community at large and on the majority-Democratic Shelby County Commission, which has the prerogative to appropriate the funding — and, arguably, to designate the type of machinery.

In any case, County Mayor Lee Harris has signed the necessary “intent-to-award” letter to allow the purchasing process to proceed. It remains to be seen when the county commission can cut through the current snags regarding budget calculations to address the matter.

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Judge's Ultimatum to State: Enforce Absentee-Ballot Order or Face Criminal Penalties

Posted By on Thu, Jun 11, 2020 at 5:38 PM

Circled is the line on the State's version of a mail-in ballot application found to be misleading by Chancellor Lyle
  • Circled is the line on the State's version of a mail-in ballot application found to be misleading by Chancellor Lyle

Admonishing representatives of state government that they would be risking criminal penalties, including possible incarceration, if they did not comply, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle gave the state a deadline of tomorrow, Friday, June 12th, to carry out her order of last Friday, June 5th, to expedite arrangements for mail-in voting for all eligible voters who seek it during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Lyle’s new ruling came on a motion from plaintiffs’ attorneys to ensure enforcement of last week’s order. One set of the attorneys represented a group of Memphians, including several associated with the organization Up the Vote 901, another set was on hand from the American Civil Liberties Union.

As argued primarily by University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy, the plaintiffs accused the secretary of state’s office and the state elections coordinator of several acts of obstructionism in an effort to avoid compliance with Lyle’s order. Those acts included turning away applicants for mail-in ballots, allowing local officials to threaten them with fraud, and printing a version of absentee ballots that suggested mail-in voting was available only to persons certifiably ill or hospitalized.

Speaking from the bench, Judge Lyle found that the state “took steps in direct contradiction” with her previous order and said, “Shame on you,” and “I’m calling the state out.” She noted that the state had not availed itself of alternatives to willful violation and had not, for example, filed a motion to modify her order, or proposed a conference to discuss it. She had previously denied the state’s petition for a stay of the order but allowed a right to appeal.

She said she would formalize her new order in written form later Thursday and said her instructions would include that the state print a new absentee form without misleading language, and do so by noon Friday, and that state officials begin to promptly process all absentee requests and, by 5 p.m. on Friday, inform all local county officials of the totality of her explicit conditions.

In suggesting that further non-compliance could be regarded as criminal behavior and dealt with accordingly, Lyle declined a request from plaintiffs that the state officials be fined, noting that the state was experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the same pandemic that was moving voters to seek the right to vote absentee.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Judge Rejects State Non-Compliance Efforts on Absentee-Vote Order

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2020 at 11:11 PM

The Flyer has learned that Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle has denied a motion from state attorneys seeking a stay of her order last week to permit universal absentee voting this year.

On Friday, Lyle had ruled affirmatively on legal motions on behalf of mail-in voting during the pandemic. The suits had been brought both by Memphis representatives of Up the Vote 901 and by members of the American Civil Liberties Union. But, as indicated in evidence presented by the plaintiffs on Monday, the state appeared to have resolved to take an obstructionist course rather than comply immediately with Lyle's ruling.

The evidence included:

*the transcript of a telephone conversation between state Representative London Lamar of Memphis and personnel of the Secretary of State’s office who temporized and delayed rather than comply with Lamar’s request for an absentee ballot;

*a Twitter thread from an East Tennessee voter who documented efforts by the Knox County Election Commission to discourage her from voting absentee and threatened her with prosecution for fraud; and

*an email from state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins instructing election officials to “hold off on sending absentee applications to voters” who sought mail-in ballots for reasons relating to their apprehensions about contracting COVID-19 at the public polls.

Judge Lyle entered an ordered denying the state’s motion for a stay but permitting them to take the matter up on appeal. Meanwhile her original order on behalf of honoring vote-by-mail applications continues in effect, and she will preside over an upcoming hearing regarding sanctions against the state.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Complainants Threaten New Suit On Behalf of COVID Victims in County Jail

Posted By on Tue, Jun 9, 2020 at 7:42 AM


A group of Individuals — including several well-known activists and representatives of such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union — have served notice on Sheriff Floyd Bonner and Shelby County government at large that they are on the brink of further legal action on behalf of local jail inmates suffering from, or at risk of, COVID-19.

The group has already filed one suit seeking release of such inmates, resulting in a hearing conducted last week by U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman, who has not yet ruled on the matter. The new action is in the form of a demand letter — a de facto ultimatum — promising to take further legal action “to assert the detainees’ rights to reasonable health and safety, including adequate medical care.”

The lengthy, detailed letter cites testimony of eyewitnesses, including protesters arrested during the recent demonstrations against police brutality against African Americans, attesting to ”inadequate preventive measures” against COVID-19 at the jail, as well as “unsanitary conditions and a disturbing lack of medical care or attention for those who have tested positive.”

Among the allegations in the letter: “We understand that individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 were kept in isolation pods that each housed up to 70 people, with rows of two-person bunks less than five feet apart. ... People kept in these pods had unreliable and inadequate access to such simple necessities as drinking water, and some people have resorted to drinking water out of the toilet."

COVID-19 positive “detainees had vomit and feces on their clothing, bedding, and towels. Their blankets, towels, and sheets were not replaced during their weeks-long confinement to isolation pods, and their clothing was replaced only once.The utensils and cups detainees used to eat and drink were not cleaned or replaced while they were in isolation pods.”

The letter insists a series of remedial actions the county should take by 2 p.m.,Thursday of this week, in order to avoid further legal action. Aside from seeking such precautions as providing hygienic toilet articles and pursuing systematic disinfectant actions, the complainants ask for such measures as provision of fresh masks, regular testing, guarantees of social distancing and “non-punitive” quarantine facilities to house infected inmates.

The writers note the obvious: that measures taken on behalf of those already infected would also serve the purpose of protecting those not yet diagnosed with COVID-19. They ask for “prompt access to the facility by a public health expert identified by the undersigned for the purpose of evaluating conditions and making recommendations.”
The signatories include: |

Thomas H. Castelliand, Stella Yarbrough, Andrea Woods, Maria V. Morris, Zoe Brennan-Krohn, all representing ACLU jurisdictions here and nationally; Joseph J. Bial, Darren W. Johnson, Meredith L. Borner, and Jonathan M. Silberstein; and Steve Mulroy, Josh Spickler, and Brice Timmons of Memphis.

To see the letter In its entirety, see below:

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Former Councilman Davis, Political Pioneer and Business Leader, Dies

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2020 at 7:49 PM

Fred Davis - JB
  • JB
  • Fred Davis
Fred Davis, a political pathfinder and a gentle but effective presence in Memphis affairs for more than half a century, died Tuesday at his home. In 1967, he achieved two milestones: He founded the Fred Davis Insurance Company, one of the largest and most influential such black-owned enterprises in the South, and he was elected as a member of the first Memphis City Council under the current Mayor-Council form of government.

He became a leader of the Memphis African-American community during a crucial phase of local history and helped ease the city through the period of crisis that included an epochal sanitation strike and the tragic death by assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, whom Davis had marched with.

Then and later, he would remain one of the most well-liked people in public life. Remembers Memphis Congressman Stever Cohen: “I’ve known Fred Davis for close to 50 years. There wasn’t a finer, nicer gentleman in politics and government during that period. Mr. Davis brought people together. He was a strong voice for Orange Mound and he was an important member of and was devoted to his beloved Beulah Baptist Church.

“Mr. Davis encouraged young African Americans to study hard and be successful. It’s a shame he won’t have the large public funeral he deserves during this ongoing pandemic because it would have been immense in numbers and diversity, and a tribute to a life well-lived. He will be missed.”

As Mayor Jim Strickland noted, the Innovation Center at the Entrepreneurs Network Center was named for Davis, acknowledging the inspirational force of his example as a black business owner.“

Davis was a longtime deacon and board member of Beulah Baptist Church in Orange Mound for 60 years. He leaves his wife, Ella Singleton Davis, and three children: Michael Davis, Marvin Davis and Sheila Davis.

Suit Filed to Extend Tennessee Citizens’ Right to Vote by Mail

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2020 at 9:37 AM

An important suit has been filed in Chancery Court in Nashville, seeking, in the words of its title page, “to expand access to vote-by-mail procedures to all registered Tennessee voters who wish to vote absentee during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Steve Mulroy
  • Steve Mulroy
The suit is filed on behalf of plaintiffs Hunter Dempster, Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Julia Hiltonsmith, Ginger Bullard, Jeff Bullard, and Allison Donald, "all currently registered Tennessee voters, including both Democrats and Republicans," with the defendants being Governor Bill Lee, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, state Director of Elections Mark Goins, and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery III.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are Steve Mulroy and Jake Brown.

The suit seeks to transcend both the narrow definitions of who may seek to vote absentee (currently restricted by such factors as hospitalization, school residence, and absence from one’s home base) and the time frame for filing for such status, expressed this way in current state law: “A voter who desires to vote absentee shall request an absentee ballot not more than ninety (90) and not later than seven (7) days before the election.”

In the language of the suit:

“Plaintiffs contend that, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the uncertain but growing population distribution of the novel coronavirus (the “Virus”), restricting Tennesseans’ vote-by-mail access to voters over sixty years of age, or who otherwise meet one of the other absentee-ballot qualifications enumerated under Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-6-201, would impose impermissibly burdensome conditions on the Individual Plaintiffs and others’ right to vote under the Tennessee Constitution … .

“[E]ach of the Individual Plaintiffs has an objectively reasonable fear that voting in person in the 2020 Tennessee elections would endanger his or her personal health and the health of those sharing these voters’ households, by exposure to the Virus. Each is also concerned about the extent to which his or her appearance at a crowded polling location may contribute to the community spread of the Virus. They sue on behalf of themselves and all similarly situated Tennessee voters who are currently ineligible to vote by mail.”

Several states already extend universal rights to vote by mail to their citizens, including Ohio, whose Republican government has recently successfully concluded a statewide election under those conditions.


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Monday, May 11, 2020

Further Questions About Linda Phillips

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2020 at 10:15 AM

As previously indicated in this space, the controversy over selection of new election machinery for the August and November rounds of voting in Shelby County has involved potential conflict-of-interest issues. 
Linda Phillips
  • Linda Phillips

One such issue involved the fact that John Ryder, attorney for the Election Commission,
shares office space in Nashville with the lobbying firm MNA Government Relations, headed by his longtime friend Wendell Moore, who represents ES&S, a major election-machinery vendor. (The voting machines currently in use in Shelby County are ES&S manufactures, and a majority of the Election Commission voted last Thursday night to award the company a contract for the new machines to be purchased this year.)

Ryder responded that his law firm, Harris-Shelton, is merely a tenant of MNA and, beyond that rental arrangement, has no direct working relationship with MNA. He said further that he had no involvement with the Election Commission’s decision process on vendors of new machines and did not even know at that point which vendors had bid on an RFP (request for proposal) sent out by Election Administrator Linda Phillips.

The other conflict-of-interest question continues to develop and concerns Administrator Phillips herself.

The first revelation regarding Phillips had to do with the fact that a contract for new voter-registration software approved by her office in 2017, a year after she began her work in Shelby County, was awarded to Everyone Counts, the firm she had worked for in Indiana before taking the Shelby County job. There is no evidence that she disclosed that relationship to the Election Commission, and then-Commissioner Norma Lester is adamant that Phillips did not disclose either that fact or the further one that Phillips had a son then working for Everyone Counts.

Asked about this, EC public relations consultant Suzanne Thompson, passed on the following explanation: “For the purchase of the VR equipment, a scoring machine [sic] made up from county IT reps and the Election commission. Each ranked the equipment …. She [Phillips] didn't make a recommendation for the Voter's Registration System because it was all up to the folks in Purchasing.” That Election Commission itself, as Lester indicates, seems not to have been asked to make a judgment about the contract.

Previous to the purchase, Phillips had inquired of Marcy Ingram, then ethics officer in the Shelby County Attorney’s office, whether she had a duty to disclose her previous relationship with Everyone Counts or the fact of her son’s employment with the company.
On the first matter, Ingram responded, “As you are involved in the evaluation of the proposals, you should disclose this former employment relationship to the other evaluators to avoid an appearance of impropriety.” On the second, she advised, “[A}s you are involved in the evaluation of the proposals, you should disclose this familial relationship to the other evaluators prior to exercising any discretion in the matter to avoid an appearance of impropriety.”

In her request to Ingram for an ethics ruling, Phillips had said, “I’m not going to be making the final decision on what to purchase; that will be the Election Commission decision to recommend the vendor.” [Our italics] As indicated, there is no record of any such recommendation from the Election Commission.

After the software contract was awarded to Everyone Counts, that company experienced financial difficulties and was purchased by Votem, which in its turn sold the Shelby County voter-registration contract to KnowInk. Records show that both of Phillips’ sons, Andrew and Chris, were employed by Everyone Counts when the contract was let, and son Chris was employed successively with both Votem and KnowInk, as each obtained the voter-registration contract.  [See below.]
In maintenance of the contract, the county still pays an annual fee to KnowInk, as it did to Votem. In April 2018, in apparent anticipation that the voter-registration contract would be made over to KnowInk in 2019, Administrator Phillips had purchased KnowInk e-poll books for $175,000 on a sole-source contract.

About the sons’ employment history, PR consultant Thompson had this to say:

“At the time the VR equipment was purchased, one of her two sons was working for KnowInc.

"The other son worked for the ES&S. He's no longer employed there. He left the company some time ago. The selection the company used to provide software for the voting equipment we currently use was made years ago., long before Linda came to Shelby County. I don't know this for sure, but that son was probably still in college when that long-gone group of commissioners made the decision on the software for the voting machines we currently use.”

For the sake of clarity a fuller version of the communication from Thompson, relating as it does to matters of public information, is appended below. Deleted from her statement are personal remarks and a discussion of another matter unrelated to the immediate one of public contracts.

The current process of purchasing voting machines, as you know, the Commissioners decide which company to select. Linda makes the recommendation. We don't even know what they will decide - it's up to them. Her son works for KnowInc., as a desk tech - a low level position. The company he works for has nothing to do with the voting equipment or software….

The county's system for the purchase of Voter's Registration equipment was quite different from the process currently underway. All the decisions go through purchasing. At the time the VR equipment was purchased, one of her two sons was working for KnowInc.

The other son worked for the ES&S. He's no longer employed there. He left the company some time ago. The selection the company used to provide software for the voting equipment we currently use was made year's ago., long before Linda came to Shelby County. I don't know this for sure, but that son was probably still in college when that long-gone group of commissioners made the decision on the software for the voting machines we currently use.

This is all laid out in the attached e-mail. The attachment is a memo that came from the Ethics officer for the Shelby County Attorney, Marcy Ingram, which pre-dates the issuance of the RFP for the Voters Registration system. For the purchase of the VR equipment a scoring machine made up from county IT reps and the Election commission Each ranked the equipment. Each member rated the system independently. That's about the only similarity in the two system' purchase - a scoring team.

She didn't make a recommendation for the Voter's Registration System because it was all up to the folks in Purchasing.

I thought it was probably best to sit down and write this out for clarity's sake….

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Administrator Phillips is Target at Zoom Seminar

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2020 at 10:09 AM

The minds of most people concerned about essential threats to the country are still focused on the coronavirus outbreak and the harm it can bring, but there is a dedicated band of activists whose concerns are threats to the validity of our elections through the means we provide for voting.

Linda Phillips
  • Linda Phillips
This is a group that communicates and compares notes with some regularity — mainly these days through Zoom or some other form of virtual web seminars. No few of them are residents of the Memphis and Shelby County communities, and, joined by sympathizers across the nation, they are focusing on the coming round of elections here scheduled for August 6th and on whatever voting apparatus is chosen to count the ballots.

Almost universally, they are suspicious of those in charge, notably of Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips, and of the voting-machine manufacturer, ES&S, that they fear she will steer the contract for Shelby County’s forthcoming voting devices to.

The group, including both local citizens and ballot activists from around the nation, convened again Tuesday night on a Zoom event billed as National Forum on Government Transparency & Election Security, with the subhead “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy on Shelby County Elections.”

Co-moderating the affair were Erika Sugarmon, locally, and Susan Pynchon of AUDIT Elections USA. Among the participants were, locally, Shelby County election commission member Bennie Smith, former EC members George Monger and Norma Lester, former Shelby County commissioner and University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy, and, tuning in nationally, Jennifer Cohn; San Francisco attorney, ballot-security writer, and election-integrity advocate Bev Harris of Black Box Voting; John Brakey, co-founder of AUDIT USA; and TV actress Mimi Kennedy.

Though all of the participants were proponents of hand-marked paper ballots as the safest and most effective election mode and a fair amount of commentary was turned in that direction, a good deal of the conversation concerned the background and presumed current attitudes of Administrator Phillips.

A point raised by several of the speakers was what they saw as potential conflicts of interest on Phillips’ part, citing her alleged affinity for products of the ES&S Co., manufacturers of the kind of ballot-marking devices she has expressed an open preference for, and noting, among other things, that the first major purchase she oversaw after being hired as Shelby County Election Administrator in 2016 was for voter-registration software manufactured by her then most recent employer, a company called Everyone Counts.

Everyone Counts, which Phillips left in the spring of 2016 to take the Shelby County job, was one of five companies bidding on a contract for voter-registration software, and Lester, a Democratic Election Commissioner at the time, remembers Phillips as having put a rush on for purchasing the software and making the selection without polling commission members for their preference. Nor did she disclose the fact of having an immediate past relationship with the company.

Harris characterized the Everyone Counts company as one without a reputation in the field at the time and which went out of business shortly thereafter, selling its assets to another buyer.

Philips was also taken to task by Mulroy and others for making unsubstantiated claims that fraud and voter error are both enhanced or even enabled by the use of hand-marked paper ballots

The Election Commission has a meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday of this week to hear Phillips’ recommendation for new voting devices for use in Shelby County elections, and participants in Tuesday's Zoom seminar were encouraged to audit those proceedings and to participate in them to the degree permitted.

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