UT breakfast much more than social

Victor Ashe
Government/Politics columnist

Mayor Madeline Rogero and council member Nick Pavlis deserve credit for adding to our greenway system with the recent announcement that almost a mile will be added in South Knoxville from the Mary Vestal Park over to the Ogle-Martin Mill Pike corner.

Now that greenways in the city are under new management, progress is occurring at a faster pace than in the prior five years. Better late than never for Team Rogero. Let’s hope this pace is maintained and even accelerated. This column will keep checking on the actual progress.

The announcement of a greenways maintenance crew under the able leadership of Chad Weth and David Brace is welcomed news as well. Small problems are more easily fixed than big ones, and a dedicated crew to this mission is important.

It is disappointing to criticize the University of Tennessee, but when the President’s office purposefully issues inaccurate information, someone needs to call them on it. One likes to think UT President Joe DiPietro is factually correct and transparent, even on issues where there is division of opinion. As a UT Law graduate, I am proud of our university and feel it is one of Tennessee’s greatest assets, but when the law is ignored one wonders and asks why.

Last month, DiPietro hosted a breakfast meeting for area lawmakers at Andy Holt Towers and closed it to the public, claiming it was purely social. A “social meeting” suggests that serious issues of interest to the public would not be discussed.

Imagine the surprise after the meeting when participants were interviewed. We discovered the discussion centered almost entirely on diversity and the restoration of the Lady Vols name to women’s athletics. Both are issues that could face the UT board and certainly have already faced the Legislature. There are strongly divided views on both topics, and neither could be considered simply a “social” matter.

Two members of the UT board were present at the breakfast, which triggers the Open Meetings law. The law applies equally to the UT Board of Trustees as it does to the Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission. DiPietro, in a letter to a legislator, actually said the number of trustees present does not matter in regard to compliance with the Open Meetings law. So on his theory, a majority of the full board could meet, discuss these pending issues with lawmakers and the public be barred. Does he ever confer with UT legal counsel?

Because DiPietro says a meeting is social or hopes it is social does not mean the reality is consistent with the wish or statement.

In this case, the President’s office was not truthful in its statement to the media. It was not a social meeting. After the meeting, participating legislators and UT officials spoke to the media about the issues discussed, which causes one to wonder why did they bar the public from the meeting in the first place if they planned to talk about it later?

DiPietro should be and is better than this. His secrecy achieves nothing positive. He should take charge of the news releases being issued in his name and rewrite them to be accurate. His own correspondence should acknowledge that the breakfast was far more than social. If not, he runs the risk of people thinking he thinks he is above the law. A big mistake.

Only last week it was disclosed the settlement of the latest Title IX lawsuit exceeds $3.2 million with final resolution nowhere in sight. These are public dollars which could be spent for better purposes than legal fees, media advice and consultants. This story never seems to end despite UT’s effort to keep the story quiet. But as long as it is someone else’s money the board does not seem inclined to call a halt.

KCDC will pay Ben Bentley $160,000 per year. He is the new director from Nashville who was chosen by a closely divided vote of 4-3. The outgoing director, Art Cate, was making $184,704. KCDC is doing the smart thing by hiring the new person (under 38) at a lesser salary than the person he replaces and then let his performance determine what pay increase he may receive in a year or two. The decision was made last Friday at a KCDC meeting.

This writer turned 72 three days ago on Jan. 1.

The Legislature returns for its 2017 session next Tuesday in Nashville.

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