New Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn has asked Mayor Tom Beehan to drop his bid for a third term as mayor and consider resigning.
In a column posted on her website and submitted to local media, Baughn lobs accusations at the mayor that range from his alleged public encouragement of “backroom meetings” on the high school debt to the alleged benefits he received from the $30 million Kroger Marketplace shopping center.
“An overwhelming percentage of Oak Ridgers have lost all confidence in Tom Beehan’s leadership abilities,” Baughn said. “They elected me to be their voice, and with this letter, I am keeping the only campaign promise that I specifically made: I will not cast my vote for Tom Beehan as mayor.”
The seven-member council is expected to appoint a mayor to serve a two-year term during a Monday, Dec. 10, meeting.
It’s Baughn’s first major move as a new City Council member, and Beehan dismissed it with dismay this week.
“If you had to fact-check that whole column and label it, it would be ‘pants on fire,’” Beehan said. “It’s mostly fiction.”
He said he would consider legal action if he weren’t an elected official.
“It’s called libel in the real world,” Beehan said. “If I were an ordinary citizen, my lawyer would be at work right now.”
The mayor said he has no plans to resign.
“I will not do it,” Beehan said.
Baughn alleged that many residents believe Beehan has more power than he is allotted by the City Charter.
“Rather than appoint various council members to serve on over a dozen different political and economic associations, he keeps those roles (and his activities with them) primarily to himself,” Baughn said. “Many of these organizations are recipients of Oak Ridge property tax dollars, and some are thought to have competing interests with the needs of our citizenry.”
Beehan chairs the national Energy Communities Alliance and serves on the regional PlanET’s board of mayors, among other things. But he said those leadership positions are not city roles, and he has been selected by nominating committees for some of them, such as the ECA and Tennessee Municipal League.
“That is not a city role,” he said.
The mayor said his job is to be a leader but also support the city manager.
“I’m very cautious and very careful about how I handle that,” Beehan said.
All council members have an equal voice in setting policy, he said.
As an example of “stepping aside,” he cited the appointments of council member Chuck Hope and former member Ellen Smith to represent the city in meetings with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a federal mandate to repair sewer system overflows.
However, Baughn said citizens and business owners alike are disappointed in the mayor’s handling of the mandate, which is expected to cost millions.
“The EPA water/sewer mandates are only just beginning to take their toll in the form of large rate increases,” Baughn said. “There is no projected final cost as of yet, but despite his extensive connections in Washington and with DOE (the U.S. Department of Energy), Mr. Beehan has done nothing to advocate for the citizens of Oak Ridge on this problem. Rather, he has voted each time to approve the issuance of multi-million dollar bonds without any consideration for his constituency’s ability to pay for them.”
Beehan dismissed Baughn’s charges as “fiction again.”
“I was involved early on,” he said.
Baughn said council and school board members who met one-on-one last year to discuss high school debt repayments pushed legal limits, although she stopped short of saying they violated the state’s open meetings law.
“I don’t think they broke the law,” Baughn said in an interview this weekend. “I think they walked right up to the line.”
Under Tennessee law, government meetings are generally considered open if they include two or more members of the same public body.
Beehan said the one-on-one meetings between school board and city council members were used to clarify the positions of the two sides, and the process was led by the city manager, not council.
Baughn also alleged the mayor benefited from the Kroger Marketplace shopping center, a 25-acre development that will replace a neighborhood of more than 50 homes and other properties near Oak Ridge Turnpike and North Illinois Avenue. Beehan is an affiliate broker at Betsy Coleman Realty, which has helped with the project.
“Countless individuals have expressed outrage that Mr. Beehan works for the firm that has made up to $1 million from the Kroger project,” Baughn said. “Even if he did not directly profit from the deal, Mr. Beehan’s role as a realtor has long been perceived as a conflict of interest, and there is no way that he did not benefit in some way. At the very least, the deal will enable him a longer term of employment and a possible chance to represent buyers or sellers of the homes to be purchased by those 50-plus displaced residents.”
To derive the $1 million estimate, Baughn said she took total property sales for the project, multiplied by an expected 6 percent commission, and added some money for residual income potentially gained by helping displaced property owners find new homes.
Beehan, who declined to comment on the estimate, said Baughn was criticizing a business that has helped Oak Ridge.
“She attacked a small business that has done an outstanding job to give this city additional retail and sales tax,” Beehan said. “That’s ridiculous.”
The mayor said the Kroger developers used a small Oak Ridge real estate firm, instead of a Knoxville company, and that’s not always the case.
Coleman, who worked on the Kroger deal, declined to comment in general, saying she didn’t have time to be concerned with Baughn’s assertions about her firm.
Beehan has recused himself from council votes on the Kroger project.
He expressed dismay at what he called Baughn’s lack of civility and what he said were character attacks based on information that is not correct. He said he is trying to move the city forward in a positive manner and said Baughn, known for her columns and critical analyses of government spending, is now a public official held to a higher standard.
“You’re not a blogger anymore,” he said. “The responsibility for the truth rises. You’re an elected official responsible for getting the facts correct.”
Seeking her first public office, Baughn was one of five candidates running for three seats in the Nov. 6 election. She also ran for a council seat in an Aug. 2 special election but lost to Hope.
Baughn received the second highest number of total votes in November, finishing behind Hope, an incumbent, and ahead of council member Charlie Hensley, also an incumbent. Baughn collected the most votes in Anderson County, but Hope passed her in total votes in Roane County.
Smith, a one-term council member, was defeated in the November election.
Beehan has been a council member since 2001, serving as vice mayor for six years before becoming mayor in 2007. He was the top vote-getter in the 2009 election.