Nine officials, ninety minutes, more than 150 participants
By Pam Horne, Managing Editor
Nine elected officials, representing government bodies ranging from the county school board to the state’s General Assembly, answered a variety of questions from citizens last night at a first-time public forum held at the Drury Plaza Hotel.
A local organization called The Clapham Group, a subsidiary of Franklin Resolve, organized the 90-minute event.
The Clapham Group’s stated mission, according to Edd Parker, of Maury County, is as follows:
“The Franklin Clapham Group shall promote the application of a Biblical worldview in all spheres of life, including but not limited to, self-conduct, family, church and civil government, using all means possible.”
Open to the public, the event was attended by state Sen. Jack Johnson, state Rep. Glen Casada, state Rep. Charles Sargent, County Mayor Rogers Anderson, Franklin Mayor Ken Moore, County Commissioner Kathy Danner, County Commissioner Cheryl Wilson, Alderman Bev Burger and School Board member Tim McLaughlin.
Though the event was not an official campaign event, it was held on the heels of upcoming elections.
An Oct. 22 city election places Burger on the ballot with challenger Jeff Walker.
In 2014, all countywide offices and state legislative offices will be on the ballot, including members of the local judiciary.
The Republican primary is set for May, with the county’s general election in August and the state elections in November.
Event moderator Dr. George Grant, a county resident and founder of Franklin Classical School gave the audience parameters, including a request that everyone introduce themselves to the panel prior to posing a question.
“We’re not going to take a lot of time for anything but your questions,” he told a seated audience of more than 150. “This is your opportunity to ask your best and toughest questions. Make sure questions are not speeches. There are no ground rules about what we are talking about.”
“Each one of your magistrates are either recovering from a campaign, preparing for a campaign, or in a campaign. But tonight is not about campaigns. We are blessed to have these magistrates represent us. If a question doesn’t get an answer, we will reframe the question and ask again.”
Grant then asked each official to give a one-sentence introduction.
What followed was about an hour and fifteen minutes of q-and-a-style dialogue that covered topics ranging from Common Core to the amount of fluoride in the city’s drinking water to the size of the county’s debt to the state’s decision to pass on an opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage for Tennesseans.
The size of Franklin Police Department, as well as traffic concerns and the adequacy of both Wilson Pike, a city road, and Arno Road, a county road, were also discussed.
Officials struggled a bit in the beginning due to a malfunction with a cordless microphone, but opted at times to forgo using the tool.
At times, Grant made his microphone available.
The inadequate equipment gave way to sarcasm and laughter mid-way thru the evening when state Sen. Jack Johnson, who was seated at the far end of the panelists’ table, and closest to Grant, said to his fellow leaders:
“Let the record stand, the microphone works here when you’re on the far right.”
|Franklin Ken Moore fields questions from the crowd.
Tensions at one point became heightened, when a resident took issue with the new educational standards called Common Core, particularly the described “mining” of personal data that is required in the current state-mandated education program.
Fourth District School Board member Tim McLaughlin responded to a direct question by parent Julie West who asked why Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney had not been reprimanded for “lying to the national media on six different occasions” about his alleged failed promise to remove the personal information of several families from the federally-mandated electronic database.
McLaughlin, who told West that he had “no problem with holding Dr. Looney accountable,” suggested that she follow-up with him regarding the matter.
Another question regarding the fluoride currently used in the city of Franklin’s drinking water drew these responses from Burger and Moore.
“I was elected in 2005,” Burger said. “That issue came up in 2006 and 2007. I’ve done some research on it. I’ve spoken with my brother-in-law, who is a reknown researcher in fluoride. It really does need to be discussed. I think we need to bring it back to the city. We need to do some serious studies on it.”
Moore had this to say.
“There are divergent opinions. We have five water districts. The city produces two million gallons a day. At peak times we may use eight million gallons a day. The bulk of the water comes from the Harpeth Valley Utility District. It’s not as simple as us turning a valve off to get rid of it.”
Kim Goff, of Franklin, thanked the panel for participating before asking her question.
“If we have more police officers. Why do we need more cameras?” she asked referring to the city’s Traffic Operations Center (TOC) monitoring devices.
“The cameras are not for ticketing purposes,” Moore explained.
The TOC, he said, uses them to monitor and control the traffic flow through signalization timing at various intersections.
Burger noted that the TOC was a city service that Goff should come and learn more about.
Sherri Clark, of Franklin, asked panelists about the status of “dialogue with regard to school vouchers,” specifically state lawmakers’ work on giving families who use private schools tuition relief.
Both Casada and Sargent responded that they were working on legislation that would give households some type of financial credit for the cost of a private education, but they added there was not consensus as to how much it should be or how it could be implemented.
“We can not tell a private school how to set that up, and they might turn around and charge (the parent) another $12,000 a year, Sargent said, referring to a hypothetical scenario where a private school tuition bill of $17,000 a year would be offset by a state credit of $5,000 a year.
Rather than a school accepting the state portion as total tuition, Sargent said there was concern that the school would charge the parent the entire amount.
How to monitor the tuition transaction, he said, was an issue.
Casada told Clark that four to five legislative bills would be introduced in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
He noted that there would “be improvements on vouchers and charter school” legislation.
Later in the evening, questions about the content of public school textbooks drew this question from Dr. Elizabeth Burgos.
“Why don’t we have some pro-Christian and pro-American textbooks in general?”
Burgos, noted prior to her question that she believed Williamson County to be a “fairly Christian county.”
“There was a textbook this year where at least one part of it was anti-Christian and anti-American.”
Casada said he believed the current state committee charged with approving textbooks for public education was not putting the content of the books “through a filter.”
“We’ve got to get parents involved in the educational process,” Casada said.
“I’m hoping to have thousands of parents and teachers that will read the books that want to be (in our classrooms).”
This comment led Burger to ask a question.
“I have a question for Glen because he’s my representative. What do you think about electing a state school board?”
“Yes, I do support it, but it would have a price tag.”
Two final questions—one from a voter and another from a student in Boy Scout uniform-wrapped up the night.
The first, from Tim McCorkle, was addressed to Anderson regarding the current amount of debt held by county government.
“As managers of the financial institution of Williamson County what level of debt do you think we can have and remain healthy and economically viable and still pay all of the money back that is due?”
Anderson, who said he did not have those exact numbers, referenced having a prior meeting with McCorkle.
“As we had our meeting and you asked me to bring forward some of these numbers, we are in the process of going to the bond market,” Anderson said.
“An intent to fund passed the county commission and in the coming weeks we will be meeting with bond counsel in Nashville.”
He added that both the county’s financial bond representatives and legal counsel would be examining the debt issue to prepare for a future bond issue.
He quickly added that “(bond counsel and bond managers) don’t generally give us a number. They understand that people are still moving here and businesses are still coming here.”
Anderson noted that a decision to fund $1 million worth of staffing for School Resource Officers at local schools was not planned, but because of the Connecticut school shooting, he felt it was a good decision on the part of county commissioners.
Dialogue continued with Anderson noting that schools needed to be built in Nolensville and Spring Hill, with an estimated price tag of upwards of $100 million.
“Our tax rate is low for surrounding areas and I’m very proud of that,” Anderson said, later offering the following comparison.
“We are not Washington, D.C., we pay our bills.”
He noted that the county spends 63 percent of its budget on public education.
The school system, he noted, has 200 more teachers on the payroll than the state of Tennessee requires.
A recent 1.5 percent salary increase for teachers statewide had to be absorbed, he said, by local government, which pays 60-65 percent of the bill.
“I don’t get dollar for dollar back from Nashville,” he said.
“We take care of our own and I’m proud of it.”
McCorkle pressed Anderson regarding unfunded pensions due to county employees, which he said made the total debt much higher than what was stated at county commission meetings.
Earlier in the evening, a question from resident Chuck Shelton also focused on the county’s debt.
Shelton pressed Anderson about the current $530 million in rural and general obligation debt and undetermined amount of pension obligations.
“In any growing community,” Anderson responded, “we are going to have debt. I can overcome debt if you’ll allow me to raise taxes.”
He referenced the nearly 1,000 additional students that have come into the school system beyond what was projected.
He also referenced the county’s AAA bond rating status.
“There are unfunded liabilities we can’t run from. We have a self-funded insurance plan.”
Anderson explained that the state retirement system requires that employees contribute five percent along with an employer contribution paid for in the county budget.
The final question came from a young man, who did not identify himself, but waited in line until his turn so he could ask why the state Legislature did not pass a bill that would have expanded the current Medicaid program in Tennessee.
Casada responded to him that Gov. Bill Haslam had made the decision not to expand Medicaid.
“We just did not take the federal money, and we did not expand Medicaid,” Casada said.
He emphasized that he believed the future cost of that expansion was too uncertain, and that the state did not want to obligate itself to a program that could grow exponentially.
At exactly 8:30 p.m., the forum was concluded with Grant’s remarks to the audience:
“This is what representative government is about. Our magistrates want to hear from you. Take your issues and make your voice heard. Turn out to the polls and support those magistrates that make Williamson County a better place.”
Posted on: 10/4/2013