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Historic Troubles

Report alleges lack of training, oversight at Tennessee Historical Commission.

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A new report found some big problems with the Tennessee Historical Commission (THC), the group that tried but failed to block Memphis from removing statues of slave owners.

An August audit by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury's office found that THC members lack the legal training to properly administer the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act (THPA), the law they tried to use to block the removal of the statues.

The report said another state agency left the THC with no formal way to communicate with the media during the turbulent Memphis statue-removal process. Also, the report says THC lacks proper oversight of 14 historic sites that are in the group's care.

The now-gone statue of Nathan Bedford Forest. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • The now-gone statue of Nathan Bedford Forest.

The THC is "administratively attached" to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). While some commissioners informally asked for the assistance of TDEC lawyers through the Memphis statue-removal process, the THC failed to formally ask for the department's help, the report says.

"Without the services provided by [TDEC's] Office of General Counsel, the commission would not be able to fulfill its duties under the Heritage Protection Act," according to the audit.

New commissioners are given an introductory handbook, the audit says, which has a section about the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. But that's about it.

"However, commission staff stated that they do not have the legal expertise to give commissioners training on legal aspects of the waiver process," reads the report.

For this, the comptroller recommends formal training for all THC members.

"Members should have some training on legal aspects of their actions, as well as opportunities to ask questions about processes that are unfamiliar to them," reads the audit.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that THC and TDEC have no formal contract to bind them. The last agreement was signed in 1987. So, THC has no standing to demand help from the department, according to the audit. This became important during the Memphis statue-removal process.

"In recent months, the commission experienced increased media attention as a result of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act," reads the audit. "Simultaneously, [TDEC] management decided to stop providing the commission communication services, including press releases, and media handling in 2017."

The groups are working on a new, formal contract and TDEC has committed three attorneys to the THC.

Historical sites

THC contracts oversight of some historical sites to various nonprofits organizations.

The audit found none of the organizations have disaster plans for their sites. Only five of them could show proof of insurance. Only half of them have inventory lists of historic artifacts. Some that do have such lists are out of date.

"Specifically, we found that one inventory list was dated 1986 without indication of a more current list," reads the audit. "In another case, we could not determine whether the inventory list was current as it was missing the date altogether."

Without such lists, "the historic site operators do not know what they have and would not know if an item was lost."

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