NASHVILLE — In one of their last acts during this year's legislative session, Republican state lawmakers approved a bill that will vacate the entire membership of the nine-member board of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission on Sept. 1 while also stripping Gov. Bill Lee of his ability to control the majority of new appointments going forward.
Among those being removed from the commission — which oversees anti-discrimination complaints in housing, employment and public accommodation on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, gender and disability — are its current chairwoman, Robin Derryberry of Signal Mountain, and Hamilton County Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler.
The move came amid an outcry from some Republican lawmakers over some of the commission's actions and the management style and operating philosophy of its former executive director, Beverly Watts. Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, charged the agency was being too aggressive and unnecessarily pursuing many complaints.
Watts stepped down, but GOP lawmakers weren't satisfied. Among other criticisms was Derryberry having set up an executive committee to look into problems and take action.
Lee, also a Republican, currently appoints five of the nine commission members. That changes under Senate Bill 2774, which Bell sponsored, and its companion measure, House Bill 2877.
The governor's appointments are cut from five to three. Appointments by the House and Senate speakers are increased from two each to three each. That gives the speakers control over six of the nine appointments and, in theory, the ability to set the agency's course going forward if their appointees march to the speakers' orders.
Reviewing the bill
"I'm going to be looking at that and reviewing the implications of that," Lee told reporters Monday when asked by the Chattanooga Times Free Press about the measure.
Asked whether the bill might be a candidate for a veto, the governor demurred.
"I haven't reviewed that yet, but I'll review and see," he said.
During last week's floor debate, House sponsor Rep. Chris Todd, R-Humboldt, a businessman, said he got interested in the commission during his first year in the legislature when a local nonprofit agency had an issue.
"And I'm trying to figure out how to put this tactfully," Todd said. "I was very frustrated to learn that a state agency would treat citizens of this state in a manner in which my constituents were treated. It was a racial issue, it was a racial allegation. It was not true. I think they even found it not true, but the director at that time demanded that something be done anyway. So they began to force them to spend money and jump through a lot of hoops that didn't do anyone any good."
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat and attorney, was incredulous.
"We're blowing up the entire commission because you're upset over that single instance?" Clemmons said. "Redo all of it because of a single incident?"
Todd said the bill bars the commission from forming any type of internal committee that has more authority than the commission itself.
"All of these things are correcting some problems we have discovered with this particular commission," Todd said.
The legislation also establishes a new process for aggrieved parties to complain about a Human Rights Commission action, placing the handling of the complaints within the Tennessee Attorney General's Office.
Derryberry declined comment Monday.
Back in March, Derryberry told Senate Government Operations Committee members that the commission had taken actions to put things in order. She said the panel began as early as 2018 to question what appeared to be a revolving door among employees at the agency. But she said Watts assured board members that was because agency employees were well-trained and made attractive candidates for other agencies able to pay higher salaries.
That ended in September, Derryberry told lawmakers, when a commission employee complained in an email to a fellow board member about Watts' alleged abusive management style. She said she called the state Department of Human Resources for advice on how to take action. That triggered a human resources investigation in which at least seven employees alleged Watts was verbally abusive, fostered a toxic work environment, micromanaged staffers and ruled by fear. Watts denied all of it.
Bell was critical during the March hearing, charging he saw an ideological bias at the agency.
"I think this committee has seen problems for years," Bell told Derryberry. "Why couldn't you see it? I asked [Watts] about how many violations a year, and when she said millions, that to me was evidence that she had a bias."
Bell also criticized the agency's outreach to workers, calling them "pep rallies to get employees to sue employers."
Derryberry said that every time the commission went through the evaluation process, the executive director was meeting the commissioners' goals. Watts announced her retirement at a Feb. 9 commission hearing at which members were going to hear the allegations, which she denied, calling them untrue.
Bell said last week in an interview that the governor as well as the speakers are free to reappoint current members.
Hamilton County Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler said in a telephone interview Monday he wasn't going to second-guess lawmakers' actions but said the agency's work is very much needed.
"Now, that said, I know that there's been some history of some questions and things. I try to stay out of that political end of things and do what I was charged to do," he said.
Behler said it's unfortunate that this comes as the commission prepares to move forward with the state Department of Human Resources on hiring a new executive director.
"I would have liked to have seen the commission to have the opportunity to proceed with that and to kind of carry out the reboot that had happened. They've got good folks on the staff there," he said.