Sunday, July 24, 2016

Commercial Appeal Editorial Praises Records Requests

Today's Commercial Appeal has an editorial about the records requests in Germantown. It begins:  

"The effort by Germantown residents Jon Thompson and Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman to bring more transparency to the suburb's administrative workings reinforces the importance of citizen watchdogs." 

The whole editorial is worth a read and can be found HERE.  Click below for a snapshot of the print edition. You may have to enlarge the print on your screen to be able to read it.

My commentary: 

None. This speaks for itself and I agree one hundred percent.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

City of Germantown Eclipses Tennessee Sunshine Law

In September 2014, Patrick Lawton and four aldermen had a private "meeting" online to discuss and vote on a streetscape project for which the City had a grant. Whether or not one cares about the particular project, it is vital that the rule of law be followed in all issues of governance. Even when there is no evidence that anyone had anything but the best intentions, any potential violation of the sunshine law, even in seemingly minor matters, calls into question the way business is done in general in the City. The details of the matter are below, but first let's discuss the law. 

All fifty states have what are known as “sunshine laws” that apply to the practices of certain government entities. Sunshine laws are in place to ensure that governance is conducted in an open and ethical manner. They allow the public to track activities or to request access to records about issues of governance. They are designed to stop corruption within the affected organizations and increase public trust through transparency.  

Read more about Sunshine Laws here:  

The Tennessee Sunshine Law may be found here: 

The Tennessee Sunshine Law is judged to be “dim” in this article from the Columbia (TN) Daily Herald):  

It is clear that under the Tennessee Sunshine Law, votes on matters by public councils such as the Germantown Board of Mayor and Aldermen must be noticed and discussed and votes recorded at public meetings. Also, business cannot be discussed by Boards or Councils at any “meeting” outside of one that is public and has been noticed.The definition of meeting is two or more people who are members of that governing body talking about the issue outside of a public meeting. This is extended to “electronic” meetings.  


An Open Records request reveals that the Tennessee Sunshine Law was potentially violated in the case of a “vote” requested to be taken on an issue in an email exchange between Lawton and four of the five aldermen on September 30, 2014.  

The City had been given a grant of approximately $90,000 for a landscaped median strip on Germantown Road directly to the north of Neshoba. City Engineer Tim Gwaltney first requested a response on this grant, which had been left out of the budget, on August 15. There was no response from Lawton, and Lawton was reminded again by Gwaltney on September 23. Lawton then responded that he would bring it up in “one on one” meetings within the week.  (“One on one” meetings are often held between the City Administrator and each aldermen separately, as a way not to trigger the requirement that meetings be held publicly, as a meeting with more aldermen than one would constitute a meeting under the definitions of the Sunshine Law.)   

The next email on this subject is from a member of the Germantown staff, Marie Burgess on September 30, saying that TDOT was calling her for an answer on this and she needed to know what to tell them about the status of the grant.   

Lawton then emailed four of the five aldermen in one group, BMA, asking them to weigh in. It ends with “Please give your thoughts. Majority wins.”

The aldermen then responded, and the records indicate (through email trails) that they were reading each other’s responses.  Two of the aldermen were not using their government issued emails, but private email accounts doing public business.  Forrest Owens and Rocky Janda were strongly for the project, Palazollo thought he might not be for it because it didn’t include landscaping (the plan actually did include landscaping and he was so told in another email), and Greg Marcom thought it would be unsafe and also might interfere with egress/ingress into Thornwood. Janda reminded Marcom that Owens said it would increase safety and he had the appropriate experience to know.  

Marcom appears to drop his opposition to the project, and Lawton informs Marie to tell the TDOT to go ahead with the project. 

After that point, the emails stop, and we the citizens hear nothing about the issue.  All we know is that when we ride down Germantown Road, there is no landscaped median strip.  Note that the only way that citizens were even able to find out about the grant at all was through Open Records requests.   
There is no record of the median issue or a vote taken on this issue in any of the records of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings in October thru December of 2014 that are on the Germantown, TN official website. Even if there had been a separate vote taken at a subsequent meeting, that does not affect whether the sunshine law was violated in the email exchange. 

Even more interesting is that Marcom had recused himself from votes on the Thornwood development due to his work with Reaves Firm, an engineering and land planning firm.  

Yet none of the participants questioned whether or not he should have been able to participate in this email "vote" due to the proximity of the project to Thornwood. Marcom was the only alderman who responded in the emails that was initially definitively against accepting the grant money. 

My commentary:

It would have been nice if Lawton had taken care of this matter in a public meeting when it was first brought to his attention. Instead it was let go until the very last minute and he felt he had to solicit votes by email. Had he gotten permission to hold this "emergency meeting" as required?  

More important, what happened to the project? The go ahead was given for it but we don't have the median strip.  Did we decide the median was dangerous?  Did the state pull the plug because of our slow response?  Did something else occur?  I doubt that there was anything nefarious going on, because all of the discussion had to do with what was best for Germantown.  But because this was not discussed and voted on at a public meeting, we may never know what happened to the median strip.  

Others may feel differently, but I like the idea of a median strip there.

Here are the files from the records requests, and below that I typed the emails so they could be more easily read by readers of this blog.    

*     *     *     *    *

Here are the relevant documents: (or if you prefer, the typed conversation) below: 

On Aug. 15 at 2:41 PM, Gwaltney, Tim wrote: 
Hello Patrick, 
Need to discuss the Germantown Road Streetscape project.  To refresh your memory, the City received a grant (80/20) several years ago to design/construct a median in G’town Road between North Bixby and S. Bixby Roads.  Various issues have arisen to impede progress.  Early on it was staff turnover.  Next it was a new requirement by TDOT that the City had to go through the Excess Land Committee for an OK to construct the median.  This process took them about a year.  Next was discussion among a few of the Aldermen (one in particular) who questioned the safety of a median in that vicinity due to the extreme high volumes of traffic and close proximity to The Villages.  There is actually some merit to that concern.  Furthering the safety concern is projected traffic from the proposed Thornwood development, Baptist Rehab about to open, and a proposed Campbell Clinic expansion.
Anyway, the state is asking for a project update from the City.  The project is not in the City’s FY CIP.  We are in danger of losing the ~$90,000 grant; city’s share~$18,000.  Is this a project that the City still wants to pursue? 
Tim Gwaltney, P.E.  
September 23, 2014 at 10:45 AM. Gwaltney, Tim wrote

Hello Patrick, 
This subject was going to be discussed at the BMA retreat that did not happen.  TDOT is still asking about this project………whether we want to do it or not.  They are requesting a conference about it this Thursday or Friday.    

On Tue., Sept. 23, 2014 at 10:45 AM, Patrick Lawton wrote: Tim, I will put it on my list to discuss with the BMA this week.  I have one on one meetings set up with them to discuss several of the retreat items. 

On Sep, 30, 2014, at 10:43 AM, “Burgess Marie” wrote (to Gwaltney, Tim, Cameron Ross,  

Butch Eder  
Good Morning All! 
I’m following up on this as I just missed a call from TDOT, and I know that they are wanting to discuss the status of the project. They had requested a conference call last week, but I put them off since Patrick was going to discuss with the Aldermen.  Please let me know the outcome as soon as possible.  I have been unable to give them any direction for nearly two months at this point (which is not how I prefer to communicate). 
Thank you. 

On Tuesday, September 30, 2014 10:58 AM, Patrick Lawton 
Board, is there still interest in the development of the median along Germantown Road near the thornwood development.  This is the project with the TDOT that has been in a state of flux for several years.  The funding is a 80/20 split The state wants to know our position or they are ready to pull the plug.  Please give me your thoughts.  Majority wins.  

On Tuesday, September 30, 2015 at 11:14 AM, Rocky Janda responded to “Patrick Lawton” and BMA  
Yes, anything that will set us apart or look like you’re coming into our ‘Main street”….!!!    

On Tuesday, September 30, 2014 11:31 AM Greg Marcom responded to Patrick Lawton, with a copy to BMA,  

I do not believe we need to move forward with this.  I think it impacts emergency response headed north bound if there is a problem that backs up traffic.  Often the case.  
On Sept. 30, 2014 at 11:13 AM, Mike Palazzolo wrote to Patrick Lawton: 

from his Yahoo email, not a government issued email account, and it is only in the system because it is at the bottom of the next email from Patrick Lawton)
I’m not a big fan since we are not allowed to landscape the median.  I can go either way, put me with the majority.  

On Tuesday, Septemter 30, 2014 at 11:39am, FO wrote to Greg Marcum, with copies to BMA (group), and Patrick Lawton: Yes I believe we should move forward with this as soon as possible.  As long as it doesn't affect the ingress/egress of Thornwood, I think it would look very nice and has been proven to increase traffic safety.

On Tuesday, September 30. 2014 at 11:52 AM, Patrick Lawton responded to Mike Palazzolo (unclear if this is to his Yahoo account or government account, although it is most likely his Yahoo account) 
Two strongly in favor, one not with you on the fence. I believe there will be some landscaping.   

On Tuesday, September 30, 2014 at 12:36 PM from Greg Marcom to Rocky Janda, with a copy to Patrick Lawton and BMA 
I would like to see how this impacts Thornwood.  Could someone please send me a sketch of the location. 
On September 30, 2014 at 11:01 AM, Patrick Lawton wrote to Marie Burgess:  Marie, I hope to hear from the board today or tomorrow, will let you know.  

On September 30, 2014 at 11:14 AM, Marie Burgess responded to Patrick Lawton: 
Ok. Thank you. 

On Tuesday, Sept 30, 2014 at 11:39 am Patrick Lawton wrote to Marie Burgess:  Marie, in addition to the seal design what does the rest of the landscaping look like?  

On Tuesday, September 30 at 12:11 AM Marie Burgess responded to Patrick Lawton:  

The current design and construction plans do not contain a seal.  My recollection is that the application has provisions for it to be included at some point, but it was not part of the submittal (which has been in the works……….since 2008, I believe???..........which is why TDOT is wanting answers).  I would have to contact Andy to understand why he omitted it from the plan set at this time.  It’s possible that to included it, would have exceeded the available funding. 
Regardless, I have included a PDF of the current landscape design which TDOT has reviewed and approved.  Basically, the way I see it, we have $ available to us at the moment for streetscape improvements (which I think is positive for the City).  I can appreciate concerns by some regarding increased traffic generated by existing/proposed developments nearby. However, perhaps an engineer can give us a professional review on the matter so we can move past speculation and make a determination or modifications to the design.  It would e unfortunate to turn down financial assistance offered to enhance the City’s aesthetics.  
I hope this helps. 

From Rocky Janda  September 30, 3:42 PM
to Greg Marcom, copy to BMA, Patrick Lawton 
You know FO was a city planner for Germantown, I think for over 10 years or so and if he says it increases traffic safety I think it probably does.   

October 1, 1:25  From Greg Marcom to Patrick Lawton 

Patrick and Cameron, Based on the review that Marie sent, I have no opposition to the median center other than my original concerns about it creating an impediment to emergency response in the north part of the city. 

I LOVE Germantown, TN 

A Little Background and Talking Trash  

Charter, charter, What's in the Charter? And what is the City Administrator's Compensation? 

A Car Plus a Car Allowance = a mistake and a payback 

Protecting Germantown Employees Comes at a High Cost for Taxpayers  

Thank You Jane Roberts, Vacation Buybacks and Other "Perks"

City of Germantown Eclipses Sunshine Law 

Commerical Appeal Editorial Praises Records Requests

Monday, July 18, 2016

Thank You Jane Roberts--Vacation Buybacks and Other "Perks"

7-23-2016 An addition clarifying the Commercial Appeal's paragraph about health insurance for outside contractors is added below. 
Her employment with the newspaper is now over. We owe her a debt of gratitude for all that she has done in shining a light on Germantown, so I want to extend a “Thank You.”  

If you have been enlightened by these articles based on open records’ requests, please contact the Commercial Appeal and tell them, so that hopefully someone else there will cover them.  

Here is the link to the article.  

Although the focus in mostly on vacation buybacks, a myriad of other things are dropped in our laps. The article speaks for itself, and it is well worth a careful read.

My commentary:

On the vacation buyback issue, I have to say I find the concept a bit odd. The whole purpose of giving employees vacation is that they have time to rest, relax, recharge, stay mentally and physically healthy, and ultimately perform better at their jobs. If people need to give up their vacations in order to have enough money to live, then their salaries should be higher. The last thing I would want to do is come across as being anti-police or anti-firefighter. My son-in-law is a firefighter, and they and the police put their lives on the line every day. I am not sure why they wouldn’t need to take actual vacation time? I honestly don’t have a very informed opinion on this because all that I know is from the article, and that article does not tell us how much vacation time is even given to employees every year. If a new look at vacation policy is warranted, and it looks like it is, I would hope that they would keep the needs of the rank and file in mind.

This blog is mostly about light and transparency, more than policies of any type, and in any case, whether or not you agree with the vacation buybacks, I would hope that we would all agree that we should at least know about it. Consequently my strongest opinion about it is this statement from the article.

“The city of Germantown adopted its buyback program in 2004, initially allowing employees to sell back 100 hours. In 2008, the number of hours doubled. It is not clear that the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved the change.”

Let’s see, in the midst of the Great Recession, a policy was changed, costing the taxpayers a lot of money, and it is “not clear” if it was approved by the Board. That is NOT Light, it is Darkness. Big changes in policies like this should be able to be scrutinized by the public. Back dealing such as approving the life insurance policies by asking aldermen separately about their purchase needs to stop.  

I am inserting an edit into this: The buybacks may be due partially to a staffing issue during the recession. If there were layoffs at that time, it could be that people were not able to get their work done without foregoing their vacation. The citizens should have been apprised of this change in policy and the reasons for it. One would hope that by this point, staffing should be at an appropriate level and the policy revisited. The City should revisit this policy after getting guidance from HR experts, as some of the aldermen seem to want to do.   

*     *     *     *     *

It is also interesting to note that the vacation buyback of Patrick Lawton for 2014 and 2015 was $41,285. That looks to be a very big share of the total buybacks.

Other bits of information that the citizens may not have known:  According to the article:

“Benefits are high partly because Germantown has employed unconventional practices. Until Jan. 1, 2016, taxpayers covered the health insurance of the lawyers (and their dependents) who did the city's business on contracts. Over the years, the practice cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Until 2013, two-term aldermen also received city-paid health coverage for life.”  

7-23-2016  Clarification
The Commercial Appeal is correct that the lawyers and their dependents were covered under the health insurance of Germantown, but it needs to be clarified that the premiums were reimbursed by the lawyers. It was a significant benefit to the attorneys due to low premium costs and good benefits, and according to the article the practice was costly for the citizens of Germantown.

Did the citizens of Germantown know these things? If these two costly perks were important for the citizens of Germantown to offer, we should have the opportunity to know about them and have the reasons explained to us. Both practices have stopped, according to the Commercial Appeal article, and the timing of the open records requests may have had an impact on the health insurance policies for attorneys being dropped.   

*       *       *       *       *             

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Protecting Upper Level Germantown Employees Comes at a High Cost for Taxpayers

Yes, another shoe has dropped. Jon Thompson so predicted. It seems that the City purchased policies that insured the lives of a host of individuals, including the City Administrator, Patrick Lawton, our former mayor, Sharon Goldsworthy and the current mayor, Mike Palazzolo. These policies were intended to remain in effect even after these officials left the City’s employ. The City has already spent $1.5 million on premiums, and will spend more in the future, despite the fact that almost all of the individuals currently covered are no longer employed by the City. In 2015, Rob Hale, the attorney retained by the City to assert a claim against the broker who sold it these policies stated, on the City’s behalf, that these policies made “little or no sense”, at least for the aldermen that are elected and not long term employees. Too bad our leaders did not realize this 13 years earlier when they purchased these policies.

The link to the new Commercial Appeal article is below. 

My perspective: 

This revelation is hardly shocking. After all, as discussed in my two previous posts, this is the same city that could not detect, for a period of six years, $40,000 in over-paid car allowances, and that for 28 years has been considerably less than transparent in its approval of the City Administrator’s compensation.

Some points to ponder-

There now have been FOUR “givebacks” since citizens began questioning how officials have handled the City’s finances.—the $40,000 reimbursed by Lawton for the car allowance overpayment, and the cancellation by Palazzolo, Lawton and Goldsworthy of the policies that insured their lives. 

It was only after the Commercial Appeal recently contacted her that Goldsworthy, just this past week, surrendered the policy that insured her life.

It was not until April 2015, after citizens began questioning Lawton’s compensation, that Palazzolo and Lawton cancelled the policies that ensured their lives.

Supposedly, $50,000 of the death benefits provided by each policy was to go to the city, but according to the Commercial Appeal article, only one individual designated that this be done. If the article is correct, not even Lawton, Goldsworthy or Palazzolo took the steps necessary to make sure, while their policies were still in effect, the City would in fact receive the $50,000 in death benefits.   

Even today the City claims it cannot confirm the extent to which, if at all, it will receive portions of the death benefits under the policies that have not been cancelled.

Lawton told the CA reporter that he and Palozzolo looked “long and hard” at whether it made sense for their lives to continue to be insured under these policies. It is fair to ask why Lawton did not look “long as hard” at this before the City purchased these policies.

And, why did Lawton not make sure that the citizens themselves had an opportunity to look “long and hard” at the policies by placing them on an agenda before a meeting of the Board of Mayor and Alderman?

Furthermore, did Lawton think “long and hard” about the extraordinary dollar amount of the death benefits that would go to his estate?

I urge the readers to pay particular attention to the statement by  Carol Hinley stating that Palazollo and Lawton did not want this reported.  

Here are some of the relevant documents.  Clicking on them will enlarge them.  I will probably be adding more over the next few days. 

This one shows the policy of Germantown is to limit the amount of insurance for employees to $300,000. Patrick Lawton's death benefits were $500,000. 


The investigation into the insurance matter followed this email by Rocky Janda.  He asked Lawton if Germantown did any business with Ed Barnett (the broker for these policies).  At the time, the City was in the midst of a very heated election.  

An affadavit signed by Pat McConnell gives details of the origin of the insurance polices. This affadavit was taken as a result of a threatened lawsuit by the City against Ed Barnett. The affadavit shows that Ed Barnett did not misprepresent the policies to the City.  It also states that the way it was approved was by asking each alderman individually. The City of Germantown did not pursue the lawsuit. You may have to zoom after you click on this to be able to easily read it. 

For those with smart phones, here are a list of the other blog posts: 

A Little Background and Talking Trash  

Charter, charter, What's in the Charter? And what is the City Administrator's Salary? 

A Car Plus a Car Allowance = a mistake and a payback 

Protecting Germantown Employees Comes at a High Cost for Taxpayers 

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Car Plus a Car Allowance=a mistake and a payback

The next two articles in the Commercial Appeal appeared on July 5, 2016 and July 7. 2016. These involve many issues about the City Administrator's salary, including but not limited to an insurance program, and a mistaken car allowance taken by the City Administrator (details in my commentary below).

A print edition is here:   


My Commentary:  Truly this was the article that got this ex financial manager to start the "Shining a Light on Germantown" blog. I finally couldn't contain myself. There are so many questions raised that it has my head spinning. For now, I will ignore the insurance issues and the salary issues and concentrate on the car issue. According to the Commercial Appeal, while Patrick Lawton had a city issued car, he also had a $6600 dollar a year car allowance. It was discovered by Ralph Gabb in October of 2014. This had gone on for six whole years. Lawton says he wasn't aware of it because it wasn't broken out separately on his check stub and he didn't notice it. Coincidentally, the Open Records Act requests were beginning to come in at the time. The payments were stopped, and then Lawton returned the overpayment to the city to the tune of almost $40,000 in January of 2015.   At this point I can say that I am surprised at Mr. Lawton's professed unawareness of the details of his own compensation.  I do know that an error like this that goes on for six years is indicative of an accounting system with very poor financial controls. My financial experience would lead me to believe that there may be other shoes to drop. This, of course, is contrary to the notion that some people have that this is a "well run" city. I am open minded and I cannot come to a specific conclusion about the two people without knowing more facts. Let us hope that our leadership insists on getting this investigated!   Here are all the blog posts, for those who have smart phones: 

A Little Background and Talking Trash  

Charter, charter, What's in the Charter? And what is the City Administrator's Salary? 

A Car Plus a Car Allowance = a mistake and a payback 

Charter. Charter, What's in the Charter? And What is the City Administrator's Compensation?

Here is a link for the Commercial Appeal Article that details the drama that occurred during the June 26 Board of Mayor and Aldermen Meeting:  

Lawton foes vocal in Germantown budget hearing.   

Also here: 


I rarely attend public hearings, mostly because I am lazy (I love my dark chocolate bars.) 

For those of us in the Snickers Crowd, thankfully there is another option to sitting in on meetings. 

The City of Germantown has these all recorded!  

Link to Archived Videos 

That meeting was something else, so much so that I decided to make a YouTube about it, focusing not specifically on Lawton's salary (which is discussed in the newspaper article) but all the ways that the Board may not have been adhering to Charter requirements. I went to the archived videos and just included all the pieces related to the charter. This should save us Snickers folks a lot of time. This YouTube is about 12 minutes long, vs. three hours for the whole thing.  

My Commentary  

You can make you own mind up about this. I am a BIG BELIEVER in the rule of law in issues of governance. It is pretty simple, really.  Follow the letter of the law. If the law isn't good, change it. This YouTube highlights what I think could be issues in the way City Hall has been operating.  I am very sensitive to diversionary tactics, which is why I will not allow them in comments on my blog. I love the police here too. I REALLY LOVE THE POLICE. I am having a difficult time trying to figure out how this really addresses the question of what is required by the Charter on the issue of the City Administrator's salary. If you have no idea what I am talking about you have not watched the YouTube.

Let me say this one more time. I love our police department. I love the parks, I love Germantown. I love dark chocolate bars. AND I love the rule of law in issues of governance. I am a loving multi-tasker.

Addendum:  The screen shots I used for the video--the charter sections that apply to  
1. setting the salary of the administrator,  
2. setting all salaries and benefits,  
3. the ability of citizens to see the full budget before it is voted on, and  
4. the revised draft minutes that will reflect the salary of the city administrator (after all that heated discussion!) 


For those with smart phones, here is a list of posts in this blog:  

A Little Background and Talking Trash  

Charter, charter, What's in the Charter? And what is the City Administrator's Salary? 

A Car Plus a Car Allowance = a mistake and a payback 

Protecting Germantown Employees Comes at a High Cost for Taxpayers