The blues: State AG and Bessie

The blues: State AG and Bessie

September 16th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Herbert Slatery gestures to supporters after his appointment as attorney general in the Tennessee Supreme Court chamber in Nashville.

Herbert Slatery gestures to supporters after his appointment...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

New way forward?

Herbert Slatery, legal counsel for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, is likely to do an effective job as Tennessee's new attorney general. But it may be time for legislators to consider a new way for the state's attorney general to be chosen, instead of by the state Supreme Court.

That's because today, to Republicans, it may appear Slatery was unanimously chosen Monday by a chastened, Democrat-majority Supreme Court, which saw a well-financed but ultimately unsuccessful campaign conducted against its three Democratic justices in the August election. The campaign appeared to be mounted because those three justices helped appoint and seemed to support outgoing Democratic Attorney General and Chattanooga native Bob Cooper, who had refused to add Tennessee to the states challenging President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

To Democrats, the choice of Slatery may appear to be a sop to Haslam, who stayed out of the Supreme Court retention election but would certainly love to have someone of his own party, especially someone so close to him, as the state's top law enforcement officer. Prior to the announcement, the justices had whittled the original list to six candidates, at least three of whom were Republicans.

None of that may have entered into the judges' decision-making, but politics appears to be just below the surface of the choice.

Slatery, 62, would serve for a potential second term for Haslam if he is re-elected, as expected, in November. Then what? Would he want to continue serving his eight-year term under another Republican or Democratic governor? Would he then expect to be reappointed by a potential Republican-majority Supreme Court? The more partisan the two major parties become, it seems, the more political the office of attorney general seems.

Elsewhere, 43 states popularly elect their attorney general. In five states, the attorney general is appointed by the governor. In Maine, the legislature elects the attorney general. Tennessee is the only state in which the Supreme Court makes the pick.

It's certainly worth a debate.

Bessie crying for help

If Rose Martin is ousted as executive director of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, she may become a scapegoat for the problems that have been ongoing with the combination history center and performance hall since it opened in 1996.

Certainly the executive director, who was hired in 2007, deserves some of the blame for findings in a recent audit that included failure to impose controls that would have ensured funds were properly accounted for during the annual Bessie Smith Strut in June after $42,000 or more was stolen.

But the center's board, also cited in the audit, should be faulted for not setting better long-term policies or putting more firm accountability measures in place.

"The Bessie," as the facility has come to be known, was plagued by cost overruns during its construction, according to Times Free Press archives, and operated in the red in its early years. More recently, it lost money the last two years and is projected to be nearly $25,000 in the red this fiscal year.

Three years after it opened, then-city Councilwoman Mai Bell Hurley summed up the center's general problem, which still may be plaguing it today.

"It's a classic, a case study. Never launch such a project without a better understanding of what the community it will benefit wants," she said in 1999.

"But," she said, "it is not a metaphor for failure."

No one wants "The Bessie" to fail, but it must have a sound footing going forward, a plan that assures the center breaks even or better. Since the city has directed more than $285,000 to the center in the last five years, it should want that, too -- even a full audit. But City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem and Brent Goldberg, the mayor's chief operating officer, say such an audit is not needed at this point.

This is no time for the board and for community leaders who support it to become insular, though; instead, they should take all the help they can get before Bessie's "voice" dies out on Martin Luther King Boulevard.


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