Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher Discusses Its Mission

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher Discusses Its Mission


Live from Music Row Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed the executive director for the Tennesse Coalition for Open Government, Deborah Fisher in studio to discuss her background the mission of the organization.

Leahy: We are delighted to have in studio our new friend, who we should have met a long time ago. Deb Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Just before we get started. You’re from Paducah, Kentucky?

Fisher: I grew up there. Yes.

Leahy: Paducah. Went to college where?

Fisher: Baylor.

Leahy: A Baylor Bear. What a fabulous school that is. They’ve done very well. And now you spent your career in local journalism, right.

Fisher: That’s correct.

Leahy: So you were in Tyler, Texas.

Fisher: Tyler and Beaumont, and then for several years and Corpus Christi as the editor of that newspaper there and then moved to The Tennesseean as the business editor and then eventually became the senior editor for news there. I oversaw the news part of the operation, the investigative team. A lot of the reporters.

Leahy: You know what you’re doing?

Fisher: I’ve been around.

Leahy: You hired a good friend of ours.

Fisher: I did. Clint Brewer, right.

Leahy: So, you know, quality. Obviously, Clint is an all-star panelist here. A frequent guest on The Tennessee Star Report. In 2003, you set up this Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

It’s a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, small but mighty. And tell us what the objective of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is. Where can people learn about it on the web?

Fisher: So we do have a website. It’s TCOG, tcog.info. And we’ve had that website up for quite a while. Our mission is to preserve and promote open government. We really focus on access to public records.

We focus a lot on open meetings. That’s been a big issue for us in the past year. We track legislation that would impact those things. We also track courts and decisions that impact access to that.

Leahy: Now ideologically, would you say you are center-left, center-right, or nonpartisan? Where would you describe your center for Open Government?

Fisher: Ideologically, we’re nonpartisan. We stay in our lane. We are very interested in public records. I run a helpline and I get calls from people with all kinds of different ideological backgrounds and interests in public records.

But our belief is that people need access to public records to know what their government is doing to be able to make informed decisions about who they elect and what they tell their representatives.

Leahy: Do you focus mainly on state and local documents or on federal documents?

Fisher: No. We focus entirely on the state. Obviously, we get questions about federal documents. TVA operates in our area, and all the federal agencies operate in our areas and they intersect.

But our focus really is on Tennessee law and access to state and local governments, because that’s an area that’s not really covered by a lot of people.

Leahy: Tell me about it. It is not. It’s very much ignored.

Leahy: In the 18 years since you set this up, would you say Tennessee state government has become more, less, or the same in terms of transparency?

Fisher: Well, let me clarify for a second. I didn’t set it up in 2003. I became executive director later in 2013.

Leahy: So it was running for 10 years?

Fisher: But people ask that all the time. I think probably the biggest difference is that I think we have more problems with certain types of records. Certainly, you have more people and spokespeople in government putting out narratives and our thoughts are that’s great. They give out information, PIOs.

Leahy: PIO?

Fisher: Public information officers, but also leaders,

Leahy: This is a job at every state agency department that has a PIO.

Fisher: You mentioned at the top of the hour that there was a correction of a statement, and I don’t know anything about that story. But what I do know is that public officials can say things, but what we always and what I always tell reporters is you need to check it out.

You need to have a document state of mind, because the public records really document what happened, which sometimes can be different than what people say. And so that’s really why we focus on access to those. And sometimes that’s why those things are hidden.

Leahy: Now, let’s get to this bill. Two bills passed yesterday in the special session of the Tennessee General Assembly. One set up this governing board for the Memphis regional mega site that appears to be not all that transparent, at least from what I read.

And then another bill appropriated $884 million for use by Ford. Elements of the $500 million incentive and its clawback provisions also appear to be very transparent.

Do I have that right? What can you tell us about these two bills that were passed to incentivize Ford to come to West Tennessee?

Fisher: The governor said that the legislative hearings offered some kind of visibility into the deal. And that is true. There was more information that lawmakers learned about the deal, but the documents, the proposed agreement with Ford is still confidential.

So we don’t know the details about the clawback. And we know that there are clawback provisions, but that’s the idea. In terms of setting up the authority right there in the legislation were some major exemptions to the public records law.

The one that we were most concerned about was the one that allows the new CEO of the mega-site authority to keep any record confidential that he or she, I suppose, considers sensitive for five years.

And we’re concerned about that discretionary authority of really one person and who has to get approval from the AG. But basically, one person making that decision.

Leahy: I just learned about that today talking to Scott Cepicky. That part is very troublesome. We’ll get to the money in a bit and the clawback and the lack of the details and the confidentiality.

Actually, most things about this deal seem to be directly confrontational to the mission of your open government coalition.

Fisher: We really don’t take a position on economic development and whether the deal itself is good for West Tennessee, and it’s been described as a game-changer, and it may well be. I mean, we’re not taking it.

Leahy: You’re not focused on that. You’re talking about transparency.

Fisher: Right.

Leahy: But I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like if you were to grade this on transparency, A being just what you want. B being kind of there. C is not so good. D being major problems. I don’t think you’d give this an A.

Fisher: I wouldn’t give it an A. We’re always concerned when an organization is set up that has these major exemptions to the public records law, because you may not know the impact now, but down the road, when you’re trying to get information, you’re trying to get accountability about what actually happened there’s an automatic wall there to get that information.

Leahy: It sounds to me that this automatic law won’t apply to this commission that’s running it.

Fisher: Well, I mean, some laws will. The exemptions don’t cover everything. There will be access eventually to the agreement. Although, of course, the CEO could decide parts of it should be confidential.

But in general, the governing body will have open meetings. And I know that the legislature was really concerned about the makeup of that governing body, which is why you saw an amendment to that bill to add more oversight with lawmaker appointments.

What I saw in the questioning at the legislature is they were really concerned about who this board reports to the accountability of the board. But the lawmakers weren’t quite ready to make changes to the public records exemptions.

Leahy: Yeah. Sounds like a mistake to me. But when it comes to transparency now, this governing board. Let’s focus on that for the rest of this segment. Eleven board members. Governor Lee, the commissioner of Economic and Community Development, the commissioner of Finance and Administration, and the commissioner for General Services.

So Governor Lee and three members of his administration, then the governor will appoint two members. The speaker will appoint two, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the Senate will appoint two.

And then the speaker and the lieutenant governor will jointly appoint someone else. That’s eleven people. Now they will hire the CEO, is that right?

Fisher: Right. They’ll hire the CEO, and they’ll be in charge of kind of executing the contract, building out the site. The state owns the site, so they’ll have their hands on a lot of things.

Leahy: Does it show how they will go about selecting that CEO?

Fisher: No, not in the legislation. That’s not contemplated in the legislation. They would hire them just like any other company.

Leahy: So any board, they can pick whoever they want in a normal majority vote. Hmmm. This is all very interesting to me Deb Fisher.

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Deborah Fisher” by Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. 








Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher on the Clawback Provisions of the Ford Deal

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher on the Clawback Provisions of the Ford Deal


Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Deborah Fisher who is the Executive Director for Tennessee Coalition for Open Government in studio to discuss the funding of large corporations, clawbacks, and the role of commissioner of Economic Community Development.

Leahy: In studio with us, our new friend, we should have met a long time ago, Deb Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government on the web at tcog.info.

Well, first, let me just say I am delighted that the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government exists. It’s very much needed. And thank you for all the work that you’ve been doing there.

Fisher: Thank you.

Leahy: It was founded in 2003. You’ve been the executive director since 2013. We are focusing in this hour on the details of the two bills that were passed in the special session yesterday of the Tennessee General Assembly and what can only be described as a bit of a political stampede.

Only three members of the Tennessee House of Representatives voted no on the bill. Scott Cepicky, Terry Lynn Weaver, and Tim Rudd from Murfreesboro. Hats off to all three of those people, in my view.

And then in the state Senate, only four state senators out of 33 voted against Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, Mark Pody of Lebanon, and Kerry Roberts of Springfield.

All frequent guests here on The Tennessee Star Report. Hats off to them as well. Personally, I think they made the right decision, but there was a political stampede there. And what I’m concerned about and I wanted to talk to Deb Fisher, the executive director in studio with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

I’m going to read this part of our lead story about this. The spending bill totaled $884 that was approved yesterday includes $500 million in incentives for Ford related to the completion of the project. $138 million to the Regional Megasite for infrastructure, demolition of structures, and more.

And the funding of the project is supposed to come out of the state’s $2 billion in reserves. We’ve got the reserves. That’s a good thing. What they did is they appropriated those funds, which they hadn’t appropriated for this purpose. Senator Bo Watson, Republican from Hickson, said.

Now, this is where we get into the details, Deb. I want to bring you in on this. The $500 million incentive will be paid as Ford submits expenses related to the project.

Ford will also have the option to become the owner of the 3,600 acres after ten years and would then be required to pay local property taxes. The way the deal works is, there would be “clawback provisions.”

Clawback provisions were purportedly 10 years from today, if they don’t hire 1,800 workers or 90 percent of those 5,800 workers for a period of a year in that 10th year, some of that money will be given back to state taxpayers, but we don’t have any of the details on that. Do they give any details on this agreement?

Fisher: They shared some details in answer to questions from lawmakers. Yesterday, I was in the House Commerce Committee and heard a lot of information about what was in the memo of understanding with Ford. But of course, the document itself is not available to the public or really to lawmakers.

Leahy: Well, hold on just a minute. We want to focus on that a minute. The memorandum of understanding that lays out the terms by which Tennessee taxpayers will write a check to forward in its subsidiaries $500 million, we don’t know when those checks will be written. And we don’t know the provisions of the so-called clawback.

Fisher: Right. And really, it’s actually is much more than $500 million. That’s just part of the deal. And that’s just the capital grant. And as they submit expenses, the authority will reimburse them. But there’s really much more to it.

The pilot agreement, which is a payment in lieu of taxes, how much it goes to the local government, how much doesn’t?

Leahy: So is it more than $884 million?

Fisher: It was interesting to hear lawmakers asking this question, trying to get a total amount. And no, it is more, but it’s in different pieces.

Leahy: Again, this is what’s troubling to me. They do break down. It purported an $884 million, a $500 million incentive for Ford related to the completion of the project.

$138 million to the Memphis Regional Megasite for infrastructure, demolition of structures, and more than $138 will go to this Megasite group managed by this 11 board for things that I think Ford ought to be paying for.

Then there’s $40 million for this college. And then $200 million for construction on state roads 194. Then another $5 million for consulting and less than a million to create the Megasite Authority of West Tennessee. I think that adds up to $884. But you’re telling me it’s more than that.

Fisher: Well, right. This is a good deal for Ford. They will have in addition to that, a lot of franchise tax credits related to job creation and so forth. The problem with ECD.

Leahy: ECD is the Economic Community Development run by Bob Rolfe. Previously, the other previous people held that job. Randy Boyd ran for governor, lost. He was head there.

And then before that, Senator Bill Hagerty, who became an ambassador of Japan and now is a U.S. Senator. Some high-powered people in that job, right. And the mission of that group is what?

Fisher: It’s to promote economic development.

Leahy: Can I interject?

Fisher: Yes.

Leahy: Is it to promote economic development or is it to give corporate welfare to Fortune 500 companies?

Fisher: I think people have different viewpoints about that. (Leahy laughs) But let me say something about the clawback. Let me say something about the clawbacks.

Lawmakers have been trying to get some insight into this. They first started at putting legislation in 2013, two Democratic lawmakers carry the bill to require clawback in these contracts.

Leahy: When we say clawback. That’s a very colorful term, right. It suggests somebody with their fingers out clawing back the money. If you don’t honor the promise we’re giving you $500 million, we are going to get our fingers out.

We’re going to claw back that $500 million. And the impression is, well, if you hit 50 percent of the goals, we’re going to claw back $250 million. Is that how it works? You’re shaking your head?

Fisher: No, I sometimes call them pawbacks (Leahy laughs) Listen, we got the first report this year. The only reason we got the report is that some lawmakers passed a law report.

Leahy: From what report?

Fisher: From ECD on how many clawbacks they’ve executed and which ones have been in default and not repaid. When a company has trouble and doesn’t meet its obligations and either capital investment that they’ve promised or jobs created, it’s very hard to get money back from them.

Leahy: You can’t get…

Fisher: Blood from a turnip.

Leahy: There you go. You took the phrase right out of my mouth.

Fisher: I think those clawback agreements are important because they reserve the right for the state to get some or all of these capital grants. Remember, it’s not a clawback for everything like tax credits and so forth. It’s a clawback for the portions.

Leahy: To build a building, to do some construction or whatever. But let me just say. Why is it that the Economic Development Administration, until recently never provided information about all these big corporate giveaways that are supposed to have clawback? And why only now are we getting one report on that?

Fisher: That would be something you would ask them. They have a lot of information. It’s like anything.  They want to promote their successes. They know and I’m sure they keep a dashboard on what doesn’t go so well. But lawmakers wanted to be able to assess these deals better, and they wanted to see how this was going. So there is this new report that has to be provided.

Leahy: A law was passed when? Just recently.

Fisher: There’s been several, but one was passed in 2020 to require some transparency.

Leahy: And who were the sponsors of that bill?

Fisher: The sponsors were Representative Clark Boyd, I think, from Lebanon. And John Lumberg up in East Tennessee.

Leahy: Oh, very good. John’s, he’s a good guy.

Fisher: And there were some co-sponsors, Hazelwood and Senator Bell.

Leahy: Senator Bell, good guy. He sat in the very chair you’re sitting in right now. Way back when. So now they say, okay, give us a report on these clawbacks to show the efficacy of all these corporate giveaways? When was that report released?

Fisher: The first report was July 15th as far as I can see.

Leahy: Of this year.

Listen to the full second hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.