Taxpayer-funded chamber’s targeting of Williamson public school board brings cries of crony capitalism

Taxpayer-funded chamber’s targeting of Williamson public school board brings cries of crony capitalism

Williamson County’s taxpayer-funded chamber of commerce has formed a PAC targeting public school board candidates who too often fail to go along and get along.

The chamber, otherwise known as Williamson Inc., formed the PAC last fall.

Several people affiliated with Williamson Inc., including President Matt Largen, failed to return several messages left at their offices and homes this week.

County Commissioner Todd Kaestner said the PAC’s fundraising goal of $50,000 is more than enough to dominate this fall’s school board elections, in which voters will decide six seats.

Those associated with the PAC, including Dennis Norvet chairman of the PAC, have reportedly accused school board members of failing to embrace diversity, engaging in too many heated debates and generating bad publicity for the county.

Todd Kaestner (photo courtesy of Facebook)

Todd Kaestner (photo courtesy of Facebook)

Norvet didn’t offer more specifics.

Kaestner says the chamber is using taxpayer-funded resources to threaten school board members and, perhaps, a few county commissioners.

“This is crony capitalism at its worst,” said Kaestner, who will introduce a resolution during Monday’s scheduled commission meeting to keep Williamson Inc. from getting more county money.

“I don’t think we ought to fund them with any taxpayer money if they’re going to mutate into a political organization. Their CEO is taking a leading role in fundraising, and the chamber will appoint the PAC’s board of directors every year. If they want to engage in political activity then they ought to go ahead and give up their taxpayer-funded subsidy.”

Williamson Inc., which is responsible for promoting economic development, agreed to get off the county’s dime years ago, Kaestner said.

The chamber’s budget this year is $900,000, and just a third of that was from the county, Kaestner said.

“They have obviously found a way to raise more money for themselves.”

“If that’s true, then they don’t need our money anymore, and they should wean themselves off right now.”

Nelson Andrews (photo courtesy of www.williamsonpac.org)

Nelson Andrews (photo courtesy of www.williamsonpac.org)

Norvet told the Williamson Herald the PAC is separate from the chamber and “will have distinct boundaries.”

Kaestner isn’t buying it.

“That’s a bunch of crap, in my mind. They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths.

“They may say it’s separate, but it’s still the chamber’s PAC.”

Bad publicity

Kaestner said school board members bring the county neither bad publicity nor economic hurt.

“Williamson is the 15th wealthiest county in the nation and is building new schools like crazy. The school system recently took in nearly 2,000 new students, he said, and overall test scores are up.

County Commissioner Barbara Sturgeon said school board members recently learned Superintendent Mike Looney accessed their school email accounts without the members’ permission.

Some took their concerns to the media, she said.

Matt Largen (photo courtesy of Williamson Inc.'s website)

Matt Largen (photo courtesy of Williamson Inc.’s website)

Kaestner, though, said chamber members are using an article from The Atlantic magazine as reason to whine. The story portrayed Williamson as a stereotypical white, Christian, Republican county where parents are panicking over what they call a pro-Islamic, anti-Christian bias in certain textbooks.

“What’s hilarious to me is when people say this Atlantic magazine article caused them to form that PAC. The truth of the matter is the PAC was formed before the magazine article was published in December.”

In an emailed statement, school system spokeswoman Carol Birdsong failed to address questions about the alleged notoriety.

“We have an excellent working relationship with the Williamson County Chamber. The school district is not involved with the PAC.”

School board member Susan Curlee, who was mentioned in The Atlantic article, said the political establishment is particularly upset with her.

“I ask questions to make informed decisions. I’m chastised for simply asking questions. I’m not a rubber stamp.” She isn’t up for re-election this year.

“A lot of what they say is nothing more than talking points and assertions that fit their political agendas, versus things that are based on fact.”

Anti-schools?

According to a form filed with the Williamson County Election Commission, as of January several local businesses have contributed nearly $4,500 to the PAC.

Even Largen donated $1,000 of his own money, according to the document.

County Commissioner Kathy Danner, who said she supports Kaestner’s resolution, told Tennessee Watchdog donating to the PAC isn’t good PR.

Kathy Danner (photo courtesy of Facebook)

Kathy Danner (photo courtesy of Facebook)

“School board races are a contact sport. It gets rough,” Danner said.

“How do they explain to employees and customers that they put money down on a candidate that might want to zone their employees out of their favorite school? Businesses and chambers are supposed to be building each other up, not entering something as divisive as school board politics.”

Nelson Andrews, general manager of the Brentwood-based Andrews Cadillac, donated $1,000 to the PAC through his business.

When asked why, Andrews said only he was “pro-schools.”

Tennessee Watchdog asked Andrews whether he knew of any school board members who were were “anti”-schools.

“I don’t know,” he responded. “It’s not my place to say as a local businessperson.”

“I’m not aware of anyone who is overtly anti-business or anti-schools or anti-education, but I certainly think schools are important in the county and an important part of our economy.”

Sturgeon had an interesting take on that point.

Barbara Sturgeon (photo courtesy of Facebook)

Barbara Sturgeon (photo courtesy of Facebook)

“They say they will only support candidates who are pro-schools, but who runs for the school board who is not for the schools?” Sturgeon asked.

“What they’re trying to do is drive out the voices of average residents for school board elections while saying they want more harmonious voices. If I vote yes on this resolution, then do I need to worry that I will be targeted by this political PAC? Or should I vote yes and hope they support me in next election.

Sturgeon said she has one reason to worry Kaestner’s resolution won’t survive: “Too many commissioners have strong ties to the establishment.”

Kaestner expects a contentious board meeting Monday and predicts the PAC will target him in the next election.

“If they’re running around saying this is the chamber of commerce PAC, and the average person thinks the chamber is a part of government, then that’s a problem,” Kaestner said.

“Whether it’s a technical or a legal problem, I don’t know, but it sure as hell is an ethical problem.”

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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