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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


MLGW Tweaks Transparency Rules, Begins Posting Disclosures

IPSR investigation leads public utility to honor pledge to post financial disclosures on web – just in time for a City Council hearing

MLGW power lines in Midtown. (Marc Perrusquia)

City-owned Memphis Light, Gas & Water has begun posting personal financial disclosure statements of each of the five members of its governing board of commissioners on the web.

MLGW general counsel Cheryl Patterson announced the new feature Tuesday, March 1, under questioning by a City Council committee seeking answers following a digital news investigation that found MLGW wasn’t honoring an earlier pledge.

“We went ahead and posted them because it is not our intention to give anybody the impression that we don’t want to share this information with the public,’’ Patterson said.

The forms now appear underneath the biography of each commissioner.

The development follows stories by the Institute for Public Service Reporting that found MLGW was failing to honor a transparency pledge in its 2007 ethics policy that requires the utility to “promptly and prominently” post personal disclosure statements of board members, top executives and other key employees on the Internet to allow the public to identify sources of income that might pose a conflict of interest.

The policy requires MLGW to post the forms on the website of the joint Memphis-Shelby County Board of Ethics, an agency once planned but never formed. MLGW never pivoted to find another website to post the forms.

Despite the failure to post the forms, they have been available to citizens who file written requests in accordance with the Tennessee Public Records Act, Patterson said.

MLGW President and CEO J.T. Young said after the council meeting the utility posted the financial disclosure forms on its site earlier this week.

But council member Chase Carlisle also questioned the adequacy of the utility’s disclosure statements. MLGW’s forms require far less detail than the forms that the Tennessee Ethics Commission requires from members of the City Council and other elected officials across the state.

One key difference is that the state forms require far more disclosure about business investments such as stocks and other holdings.

Patterson conceded during her presentation to the committee that MLGW’s forms “are not the best forms.’’

She said MLGW administration plans to recommend to the board by the end of March how best to revise the forms. 

“We are in the process and have been for the past several months at looking how best to structure our ethics better,” she said.

Patterson said the utility collects financial disclosure forms from roughly 70 employees every year. One challenge it faces is which ones should be published on the Internet.

Carlisle said it’s important for MLGW to revise personal financial reporting, and to do it quickly, to promote transparency and public trust.

“It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances that we’re here today talking about this in the midst of probably the singular, most impactful process that’s been undertaken in the last 50 years as it relates to MLGW,’’ he said, referring to the current study underway to determine if MLGW should sever its decades-long relationship with the Tennessee Valley Authority in search of cheaper electricity rates.

“I hope we can clean it up to the point, rapidly, that is satisfactory to this body and the public … that nothing nefarious was going on. That this was a slight lapse in paying attention to something that is incredibly important.’’

Written By

Ben Wheeler is an investigative reporter for the Daily Memphian. He previously served as an intern for the Institute for Public Service Reporting and has worked at the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan in South Dakota and the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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