Secret City Festival growing, evolving, but not ending, officials say

Secret City Festival World War II Re-enactment 2015

A Flak 88 firing during a Battle of Normandy re-enactment at the 2015 Secret City Festival in Oak Ridge. (Photo by Rob Welton)

 

Note: This story was last updated at 10 a.m.

A rumor that circulated widely this month said this was going to be the last year for the Secret City Festival.

But city officials said it’s premature to say that.

It is true that a Special Events Advisory Task Force has been studying changes to the annual festival, including moving it from June and making it into an expanded celebration in the fall, starting in October and continuing through Veterans Day (November 11). It could be renamed the Secret City Celebration, implemented by a new nonprofit expected to become self-sustaining within five years, and add events while continuing to include the Secret City Festival.

At a Wednesday evening meeting, Task Force members said many of the current festival activities could continue, including music, World War II re-enactments, historical displays, and children’s activities. But they also said there could be opportunities for new partnerships with other organizations, including Wounded Warriors and Oak Ridge Playhouse. And it’s not clear that the Secret City Festival would continue to be a two-day event.

Task Force members say they’re hoping to help create something bigger and better. [Read more…]

Cocke County says case closed after widow releases suicide note, but parents dispute note

Alexander John Heitman

Alexander John Heitman

Officials say it was suicide. But the parents are skeptical.

So questions linger almost four years after Alexander John Heitman, 29, of Knoxville, was found dead in Cocke County after being reported missing by Oak Ridge Schools. Heitman reportedly died on Tranquility Ridge Drive outside Newport on July 25, 2011. Officials said it was suicide, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

But Heitman’s parents, Don and Annette Heitman of Adams, Wisconsin, find it hard to believe. They aren’t the only ones. Some current and former Oak Ridge residents, including City Council member Trina Baughn, are also skeptical of the official cause of death.

Heitman’s widow, Kristie Heitman, is not. In February, she released a suicide note that she believes Alex, who was the supervisor of business and support services for Oak Ridge Schools, wrote the day before he died.

Neither is Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes. In March, he said the case is closed, and there is no reason to continue pursuing it. Investigators found no evidence that anyone else was involved, Fontes said.

But Don and Annette continue to seek answers. They started a website in October 2013 and used it to raise questions about the case. They’ve also asked for the death investigation to be re-opened, hired attorney Hugh Ward to help them, and won the support of Baughn and others. They’ve also asked the FBI to investigate. [Read more…]

Council to consider budget on Monday, Tuesday

They postponed a budget vote for one week, and the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday and Tuesday will resume those discussions. So far, the debate has included calls to raise the property tax rate to fund certain programs and other recommendations to keep the rate unchanged—or even lower it.

The budget will be discussed during a non-voting work session at 5 p.m. Monday, June 15, in the Oak Ridge Municipal Building Training Room. The Council could then vote on it in the first of two readings this month during a 7 p.m. meeting in the Municipal Building Courtroom.

Council will then discuss the budget in a second work session at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 16, in the Multipurpose Room at the Central Services Complex on Woodbury Lane. [Read more…]

Guest column: Council member offers summary of events related to ORPD investigation

Trina Baughn

Trina Baughn

By Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn

Given that there is some confusion over recent events, I offer the following summary about where we are, how we got here, and where we are headed with regards to the Oak Ridge Police Department investigation.

The ORPD has seen a total turnover rate of 45 percent in the last four years, having lost 34 of our 76 employees. Five of those individuals have departed in the last four months. Since February, all Council members have received communications from at least seven former officers, three current officers, and countless citizens expressing concerns about leadership and a potentially hostile work environment. Others have communicated anonymously citing similar concerns and attributing their anonymity to fears of retaliation.

On February 9, during a five-hour televised meeting, and in front of the largest audience any of us had ever seen, City Council formally committed to investigate the root causes behind the turnover, morale, and policy issues in the Police Department.

The resolution that was ultimately approved was brought forward by Council member Kelly Callison who stated that “We think that’s a broad, a very broad term that allows an investigator, an independent investigator to look at the issues that might be present…”  At the end of the meeting, councilmember Chuck Hope stated, “The investigation that we’ve come to an agreement among the seven of us was reached unanimously…there’s enough information that it warrants an investigation…”

During this same meeting, Council committed to ensure that the investigation would allow for the anonymity of all participants and would include both current and past employees. Mr. Callison also suggested that council select Municipal Technical Advisory Service, specifically Rex Barton, to perform the work. Council did not select MTAS at the time, but agreed to hold a special meeting to select an entity to conduct the investigation and define its parameters. Information regarding the other resolutions that Council rejected can be found here. [Read more…]

MTAS review of ORPD could cost $26,200

Oak Ridge Police Department Cars

Note: This story was last updated at 12:08 p.m.

A review of the Oak Ridge Police Department by a University of Tennessee agency could cost $26,200.

The Oak Ridge City Council has asked the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at UT to review the ORPD, with a particular focus on turnover, morale, and administrative policies.

The initial 30-day review approved during a March 27 special meeting was going to be free. But an uproar ensued after the initial list of employees to be interviewed was sent to the police chief, city manager, and all Police Department employees, raising concerns about the confidentiality and impartiality of the review.

The City Council then expanded the scope of the inquiry. During an April 21 special meeting, members asked MTAS to interview all ORPD employees and try to interview former workers who have left in the roughly four years since Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi started. [Read more…]

POST asks DAs, feds to investigate whether Akagi violated state, federal law

Tasha Blakney

Tasha Blakney

Chief’s attorney calls it one more effort to vilify Akagi

The organization that certifies police officers in Tennessee has asked state and federal authorities to investigate whether Oak Ridge Police Chief James T. Akagi violated state and federal laws by possessing a firearm after being issued an ex parte order of protection during divorce proceedings in Blount County three years ago.

The April 27 letter from Ray Farris, assistant director of the Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, was sent to Mike Flynn, district attorney general in the Fifth Judicial District in Maryville; Dave Clark, district attorney general in the Seventh Judicial District in Clinton; and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee in Knoxville.

“Documents provided to our office indicate that an order of protection was issued by the Blount County Court against Chief Akagi on April 19, 2012,” Farris said in the letter. “During the effective period of this order of protection, Chief Akagi submitted his firearms qualifications scores to the Commission, which appears to be a violation of the aforementioned order of protection.”

But Tasha Blakney, an attorney for the police chief, has said Akagi was not prohibited from carrying a firearm.

“I am absolutely confident that there has been no violation of state or federal law in this family law matter with regard to the ex parte order of protection that was temporarily entered and subsequently dismissed,” Blakney said Thursday. “They simply don’t carry any implications for an individual’s Second Amendment rights. That’s just a function of understanding the way that Tennessee law works.” [Read more…]

The numbers: ORPD turnover 2007-2015

James T. Akagi

James T. Akagi

Turnover in the Oak Ridge Police Department is one of several issues at the heart of a contentious debate over the ORPD and its chief, James T. Akagi.

But since the debate started in late January, there hasn’t been much public discussion of how the turnover rate compares, in either numbers or percentages, to the rate before Akagi started on July 1, 2011.

Information requested by Oak Ridge Today and provided by the Oak Ridge Personnel Department and Personnel Director Penny Sissom sheds some light. That data goes back more than eight years, starting in Calendar Year 2007. That’s roughly 4.5 years before Akagi started and more than 3.5 years since.

Oak Ridge Today analyzed the data by calendar year (January-December) and fiscal year (July 1-June 30). The data shows that ORPD turnover ebbs and flows from year to year, with a high of 19 and a low of one.

Oak Ridge Police Department Turnover (2007-2015)

Here are the numbers by calendar year (CY), from January to December, based on city data: [Read more…]

ORPD review expanded to include all employees, some former workers

Oak Ridge Police Department Cars

But MTAS will have to agree to changes

The review of the Oak Ridge Police Department has been expanded to include interviews with all employees. The review could also include interviews with former employees who have left the Police Department since Police Chief Jim Akagi started almost four years ago.

Initial plans had called for a limited review of the Oak Ridge Police Department and interviews of a random sample or cross-section of employees.

But the Oak Ridge City Council expanded the review during a special meeting on Tuesday. That special meeting was called after concerns were raised about the initial list of randomly selected interviewees being sent to the police chief, city manager, and all Police Department employees, which raised questions about the impartiality and confidentiality of the review.

By one estimate, the expanded review could include interviews with more than 100 people. And it’s not clear if the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee will agree to the expanded review, or if they might charge the city.

The City Council agreed to expand the review during a three-hour special meeting on Tuesday that included criticism of MTAS, accusations of collusion between Council members, and an attempt by Council member Trina Baughn to have resident Joe Lee, one of her chief critics, stop taking pictures during a public comment session. [Read more…]

Council to consider restart on ORPD review during special meeting Tuesday

Oak Ridge City Council on Feb. 9, 2015

The Oak Ridge City Council will have a special meeting on Tuesday, April 21, to consider three recommendations related to the 30-day review of the Oak Ridge Police Department that was approved in March. (File photo)

 

A 30-day review of the Oak Ridge Police Department had barely gotten started before it came under fire. But the Oak Ridge City Council will try to fix that on Tuesday.

The concern centers on a report that the list of ORPD employees randomly selected for the first 20 interviews was sent to Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi and all Police Department employees, raising questions about the impartiality and anonymity of the review. The reviewer, Rex Barton of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee, apparently sent the list to the police chief for scheduling purposes, seeking to minimize overtime and minimize stress on the officers’ off-duty life.

But those who have pressed for an investigation, including Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn, quickly objected when they learned that the list of interviewees had been sent to the police chief, who has been the subject of much of their scrutiny.

So, in a special meeting Tuesday evening, the City Council will ask Barton, an MTAS police management consultant, to create a new, random list of officers to interview. Council will also consider determining a point of contact in the Oak Ridge Police Department who can help coordinate the schedules of officers participating in the interviews. [Read more…]

MTAS: ORPD review to be extensive, but not clear who will be interviewed

Oak Ridge Police Department Review Protest

Protesters who want all officers to be able to speak to a consultant reviewing the Oak Ridge Police Department are pictured above outside the Oak Ridge Municipal Building before the Monday night City Council meeting.

 

Note: This story was last updated at 9:35 a.m. April 20.

The review of the Oak Ridge Police Department will be extensive, but it’s not clear yet who will be interviewed, an official said Friday.

The proposal submitted by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service and approved by the Oak Ridge City Council in March called for interviewing a randomly selected group of police department employees. It also called for interviewing other city employees and officers and possibly talking to community leaders not directly employed by the city.

But some have expressed concern that others who want to speak, including former officers and city residents, might not be able to under the limited 30-day review and random selection proposed by MTAS.

“These men deserve to be heard, all of them,” said Christen Thomas, wife of Oak Ridge Police Department Officer John Thomas.

The independent MTAS review will use Police Management Consultant Rex Barton, a former administrative captain for the Athens, Tennessee, Police Department. MTAS is part of the Institute for Public Service at the University of Tennessee. [Read more…]

Task force to consider changes to Secret City Festival

Secret City Festival Kix Brooks June 2014

Country music artist Kix Brooks, who was part of the country duo Brooks and Dunn, performs during the 2014 Secret City Festival. (Photo by Rob Welton)

 

A new task force is scheduled to discuss potential changes to the Secret City Festival on Thursday, including shifting the annual festival to small events from mid-October to November 11 (Veterans Day), creating a nonprofit organization to run the festival (and possibly other special events), and voting on changing the date of the festival and whether it should be a one- or two-day event.

The new task force will also discuss unique opportunities for a festival theme and could develop a list of potential entertainment venues to be used throughout the city for the festival, consider other potential festival dates, and develop a list of potential partners.

The meeting of the Special Events Advisory Task Force starts at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 23, in the Oak Ridge Recreation Center’s Craft Room at 1402 Oak Ridge Turnpike. [Read more…]

Council approves ORHS stoplight contract in 4-3 vote

Oak Ridge Turnpike Stoplight at Oak Ridge High School

In a 4-3 vote Monday, the Oak Ridge City Council approved a contract to install a traffic signal at the Oak Ridge High School on Oak Ridge Turnpike.

 

Note: This story was updated at 8:42 a.m. April 15.

The City Council approved a contract to install a stoplight on Oak Ridge Turnpike in front of Oak Ridge High School in a 4-3 vote on Monday.

Public Works Director Gary Cinder said the light will be green most of the time on Oak Ridge Turnpike. But it will turn red when cars are leaving the High School, giving those drivers a green light.

And the traffic signal lights will turn all-red when pedestrians are crossing, Cinder said. [Read more…]