Tennessee Journal: Museum retreats from new code of ethics in face of legislator attacks

The Tennessee Journal did a good writeup on what happened at the Joint Operations Committee Hearing, in which the state museum commission’s new code of conduct policy was under scrutiny. From Tom Humphrey with The Tennessee Journal:

The chairman of the Tennessee State Museum’s governing board pledged that the panel would reconsider its controversial “code of ethics” in the face of round of strong criticism from state legislators at a hearing Tuesday.

“Do you want to take the legislature on?” asked Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, addressing Thomas Smith, chairman of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission at the outset of a hearing.

An hour and a half later, Smith declared, “It is not our intent to take on the Legislature… Clearly we are going to go back and evaluate all of these items.”

In between, members of the Joint Government Operations Committee repeatedly questioned the new code of ethics – both the procedure used in adopting it and the policies it encompasses.

There was also harsh criticism from former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a member of the commission who is widely seen as the target of the new code and who declared he is refusing to sign it – a decision that is supported by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, he said.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said is “kills the free flow of information” from a government body to the public. And Henry Walker, an attorney and former member of the Tennessee State Museum Foundation board, said a provision in the code providing that a commission member can be expelled for violations is contrary to state law.

Procedurally, the commission declared it was adopting an internal policy, not a formal rule. That meant that the changes did not require a public hearing, at least 30 days advance notice and other legal niceties required for an official rule. It also meant that the code was not formally subject to being approved or rejected the Government Operations Committees of the House and Senate — as is the case for all rules made by state boards and commissions.

The substance of the rule requires commission members to provide copies in advance of statements to the public or media and prohibits them from making comments that “disparage” the museum, the staff or the commission. It calls for all commission members to sign the code, pledging to abide by its requirements and to resign from the commission upon a violation.

Bell and Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, contended – based on research by legal staff – that the code amounts to a rule and should have gone through all the procedural requirements.

Alexander Rieger of the state attorney general’s office, who advised the commission in developing the code, disagreed.

But at one point Bell said that, if the commission sticks with that position, the Legislature can always pass a law to override the commission action.

At the end of the hearing, Faison told Smith that, if the commission will revise the code and treat it as a rule rather than an operating procedure, legislators will work with the commission to “fast track” its handling of the revision. Smith and Ashley Howell, executive director of the museum, said they want a new code in place while seeking accreditation of the museum from the American Alliance of Museums.

What do you think?