NASHVILLE — The head of the Tennessee State Museum's governing board told state lawmakers Tuesday his panel will revisit a controversial "code of conduct" as the new policy repeatedly came under fire during a specially called public hearing.
Critics charged it amounted to a crude attempt to "gag" former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a member of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission and sometimes its most vociferous public critic.
"Do you want to take the Legislature on?" Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, pointedly asked Thomas Smith, the museum commission's chairman.
Nearly two hours later, Smith told Bell and other lawmakers at the Joint Government Operations Committee hearing "it is not our intent to take on the legislature."
"Clearly," Smith added, "we are going to go back and evaluate all of these items."
Bell, other lawmakers, Ashe and an open government advocate earlier took aim at the new museum policy that included restrictions on commission members' interactions with staff, as well as with the public and news organizations.
Ashe said he and other board members were being pressured to sign the policy that included a provision saying they could not publicly "disparage or malign" the board that made them agree to resign in advance if they violated it.
But Ashe, a former museum commission chairman, said he was refusing to sign it, questioning whether it amounted to "prior restraint and contrary to sound public policy."
"Does it mean I can't speak candidly with members of the General Assembly?" asked Ashe, who served in the General Assembly in the 1970s and early 1980s, later was elected Knoxville mayor for four terms and then served as U.S. ambassador to Poland.
Ashe noted he was recently re-appointed to the museum commission by the Senate's new speaker, Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge. And McNally has told him he supports his ability to speak out, Ashe said.
The former Knoxville mayor also questioned what would happen if the board acted to oust any member violating the new code of conduct. Nothing would prevent the appointing authorities — McNally, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam — from turning right around and reappointing an ousted member 20 minutes later, Ashe said.
Ashe has at times been fiercely critical of museum operations, especially when it was under the control of then-museum Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezell. She stepped aside last year amid growing scrutiny, controversies and criticism over her administrative actions and staff hirings.
Housed for decades in the basement of a state office building, the museum is scheduled to relocate in early 2019 to a new $160 million building now under construction on the state's Bicentennial Mall in downtown Nashville.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, told the legislative panel that "we think this policy chills the free flow of information about government, and we're concerned this commission is limiting what the public can know."
Museum officials also came under fire for directing a museum staffer to snatch documents from a Nashville Post reporter who had received them after they were distributed during a recent board meeting
In his remarks to lawmakers, Smith said, "in no way are we limiting members' ability to communicate with the media" and the code "doesn't preclude" members from speaking to news organizations.
But the rules would require commission members to provide advance copies of remarks.
Smith, who has clashed with Ashe in several meetings, said officials want to make it clear that individual members aren't necessarily speaking on behalf of the museum or the commission.
And, Smith said, they'd like to have a little advance warning before a controversy erupts publicly. He said he sits on the Tennessee Residence Foundation, which oversees the governor's mansion, and it has a similar policy on how board members speak out. Smith said he also recalled the Tennessee Arts Commission has a similar policy.
One of lawmakers' concerns was whether the museum commission should have tried to implement the new code through rule as opposed to policy. Bell and others argued that it required a rule, which ultimately requires the General Assembly to approve it.
Alexander Rieger, an assistant attorney general, disagreed, saying the change could be legally done as a matter of policy without specific legislative approval.
But Henry Walker, an attorney and one-time member of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation board, took issue with that assertion, saying the board expelling a legally appointed sitting member without specific authorization in state law amounts to a violation of current law.
Both Chairman Bell and House Government Operations Committee Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said their legislative counsel agreed it needed authorization in law through a rule change specifically approved by the General Assembly.
Four-and-a-half months ago, museum commissioners named Ashley Howell, deputy director of the Frist Center in Nashville, as their new director to lead the institution into a new era.
Howell is preparing the museum for re-accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, a status first granted to the facility in 2003.
She said the alliance requires museums to have codes of conduct proscribing behavior of their governing boards and individual members. But she acknowledged under questioning by lawmakers that those codes don't necessarily require limiting board members' ability to speak.
Sitting in the audience section watching the hearing was Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who is a member of the museum board. Like Ashe, he had been unable to attend the hearing where the new code of conduct was passed.
"I think it's clear from today's hearing that the commission overreached," Watson said. "I think they know that. I hope they will go back at our meeting in October and reconsider their actions."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher.