Note: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m.
Two Oak Ridge City Council members have requested a special meeting this week to consider litigation against the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, seeking to prevent the business organization from conducting political activities on public property, including through a new political action committee.
The special meeting, which would be open to the public, has been requested by Oak Ridge City Council members Trina Baughn and Anne Garcia Garland. Baughn said she requested the meeting to “vote upon initiating litigation against the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce so that the city may seek either injunctive relief and/or a temporary restraining order with regards to their conducting political activities on public property.”
On Friday, the Chamber announced it had formed a political action committee named the Progress PAC. The multi-candidate PAC will support candidates in the November elections for Oak Ridge Board of Education and City Council, a press release said.
Stephen Whitson of Oak Ridge has been elected Progress PAC chair, and David Bradshaw, also of Oak Ridge, has been named treasurer. Both are past chairs of the Chamber’s Board of Directors.
In the press release, Whitson said the Progress PAC will only consider supporting candidates who respond to an issue-based written questionnaire and participate in an interview with Progress PAC members.
On Saturday, Garcia Garland raised questions about the new PAC.
“Doesn’t it strike you as inconsistent at best for the Chamber of Commerce to support candidates for City Council when the Chamber has a contract to do business for the city?” she said. “Not illegal, perhaps, because a 501(c)(6) can endorse political candidates. But would a candidate with scruples accept funds from an organization upon whose potentially expensive contract he or she might be called on to vote? Sounds too much like Congress.”
On Monday, Baughn said she wanted an immediate injunction that “prohibits the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce from conducting any and all political activities on city-owned land until such time that the courts can determine whether or not the Chamber misrepresented their intent to the City Council in our July 14 meeting. Those activities should include, but are not limited to:
- Vetting of candidates for their PAC’s promotion and financial support
- Use of equipment within the building for communications regarding PAC activities and solicitations
- Foregoing the planned candidate forums (September 25 and October 2) scheduled to take place on city-owned land.”
Baughn said a letter sent by the Progress PAC last week to City Council and Board of Education candidates contradicts a presentation of the Chamber’s intent during a discussion of an amendment to the lease agreement between the city and Chamber during a July 14 meeting. That amendment lifted a ban in the lease on political activities conducted by the Chamber, Baughn said.
In a Monday email, she appeared to be concerned that the July 14 discussion suggested that the Chamber would offer the same opportunities to all parties and candidates, but the Progress PAC could promote selected candidates through financial contributions or advertising.
“It appears that the Chamber of Commerce is attempting to influence local elections through multiple new initiatives,” Baughn said. “In addition to this newly formed PAC and the activities of board members listed above, over half of its staff members belong to a newly formed group called Friends of Oak Ridge Schools, or FORS,” she said. “The group was founded, in part, by one of the seven chamber staff members with the intent of ‘recommend(ing) for your consideration candidates for City Council and Board of Education…’”
Baughn also pointed out that Bradshaw will the moderator for new candidate forums sponsored by the PTO Council, “which are being promoted by the taxpayer-funded school email system.” Those forums are scheduled for the same week as the Chamber forums, Baughn said.
“Given how much the Chamber benefits from the taxpayer, this council must address the appearance of any potential improprieties,” Baughn said. “Their political activities, at the very least, have the appearance of a conflict of interest and at the most, an abuse of the taxpayer’s generosity.”
In the press release last week, Whitson said the Progress PAC is contacting all candidates for both races and hopes “they’ll be interested in sharing their ideas and opinions with business community leadership.” He said the Progress PAC is a non-partisan committee that “will be focused on candidates whose values and platforms are consistent with the Chamber’s mission, vision and legislative priorities.
“The November election is a crucial one,” Whitson said. “Oak Ridge is on the brink of major business investment, and priority issues such as school funding, housing, and city capital investments are key decision points for the future. It is important to elect candidates who understand those issues.”
Chamber President Parker Hardy declined comment Monday evening, referring questions to attorney Jim Normand because of the possible legal action. Normand wasn’t immediately available for comment on Tuesday morning.
Any decision to file a lawsuit against the Chamber would require the support of four City Council members, Oak Ridge City Attorney Ken Krushenski said.
Baughn and Garcia Garland have requested a special meeting on Friday, September 26, possibly at 5 p.m.
More information will be added as it becomes available.