Note: This story was updated at 8:35 p.m. Jan. 31.
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson on Thursday said he has “absolute confidence” in Police Chief Jim Akagi and has no plans to further investigate concerns raised this week by City Council member Trina Baughn.
Baughn raised concerns about the turnover rate in the Oak Ridge Police Department and claims made in a grievance filed by former officer Chris Bayless. In a Sunday email, Baughn said her calculations showed that the police force had lost 30 members in 3.5 years under Akagi, and that equates to 11.7 per year, or an estimated 15 percent turnover rate.
Baughn said some officers who have resigned felt “forced out,” while others who remain are “just counting the days” until they can leave.
“I believe that our turnover issues are not a reflection on the character of the majority of our men and women in blue; rather they are attributable to leadership,” Baughn said in an email to Watson and carbon-copied to Oak Ridge City Council members and reporters.
She said she is ready to help Watson “immediately address these problems and stabilize our police department.”
But city officials questioned Baughn’s numbers and said they don’t think the turnover rate is significantly out of line with what it has been previously. An average of 7.25 employees per year have left in the last four years due to resignations, retirements, or being asked to leave, Watson said Thursday.
“I don’t think it’s a significant change,” he said.
Watson said police departments can have the second-highest turnover for municipal governments, trailing only the lowest-level jobs.
“You’re always going to have a rate of turnover,” Watson said.
Watson said he has not had concerns about the management of the Oak Ridge Police Department. Many prospective officers want to work in Oak Ridge, Watson said, pointing out that 65 people applied the last time there was an opening.
“Something’s happening right,” the city manager said.
He said the department is more professional than before, security has improved, and employees have new office space while officers have new cars.
“We’ve come a long way,” Watson said.
Watson said no other Council member besides Baughn has expressed concern about the Police Department.
Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, who was elected in November, said he has talked to thousands of residents during the past six months, and very few mentioned dissatisfaction with the Police Department or with crime.
“Oak Ridgers that I talk to are focused on and concerned about the development of Main Street, the Preschool, the new national park, and funding for the Department of Energy missions in Oak Ridge,” Gooch said. “That’s what I’m focused on.”
The mayor, who is a member of City Council, said he is always concerned and focused on the well-being and security of Oak Ridge residents.
“I’m going to focus on moving the city forward,” Gooch said. “I’m not going to interject myself, nor do I think it’s appropriate for City Council to interject itself, into personnel matters in the Police Department.”
Under the Oak Ridge City Charter, City Council members have to deal with personnel matters through the city manager. Watson is the municipal administrator, and he supervises Akagi and other department heads.
Watson said he has not met face-to-face with Baughn, although she is welcome to discuss her concerns with him. Police officers are also welcome to come talk to him, the city manager said. He said he does his own informal “sounding” of city employees to try to learn about any concerns they might have.
Baughn said she would be happy to meet with Watson, although she said previous meetings with the city manager about department heads, including Akagi, haven’t yielded results.
Watson and other city officials expressed concern about the impact the negative publicity this week might have on economic development and projects ranging from the Preschool to Main Street Oak Ridge.
The information published this week has included excerpts from a letter from former Oak Ridge Police Chief David Beams that was highly critical of Watson and Akagi, relying in least in part on what Beams has heard from officers and supervisors, and claims by Bayless that, among other things, he was going to be sanctioned with a letter of reprimand and 48-hour suspension only after he submitted his resignation notice this month (it was effective January 23) for an incident that occurred in November. He said he had never had any disciplinary action before then, and he perceived the proposed punishment as an attempt to humiliate him and “diminish my moral character and professional career.”
Watson overruled that disciplinary decision this month, saying it was time to let the officer move on.
“That thing was handled,” Watson said Thursday. He said he thinks the city needs to avoid having disciplinary issues play out in public because it affects careers, families, and employees.
Bayless, who had other complaints about the chief as well, called for an investigation of the Police Department, claiming that officers are leaving due to Akagi’s lack of leadership skills.
Watson said he doesn’t have any concerns over the chief’s actions, and Akagi is not commenting. The city manager said he has no plans to further investigate the Police Department.
Watson said Akagi, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Oklahoma, was chosen in May 2011 after a “strong nationwide search” conducted under the “eye of the community” and with public hearings.
Gooch said it’s the responsibility of the city manager and police chief to work out the issues. If they are not resolved to the satisfaction of residents, then Council could take them up, he said.
“In the meantime, we need to focus on promoting Oak Ridge and the issues that I mentioned previously,” Gooch said.
The mayor said crime rates are down, response times have improved, and the people that he’s talked to don’t seem concerned with Police Department operations.
“This issue about the Police Department is not what people are talking to me about,” Gooch said.
Watson said there is likely a story behind every employee who leaves the Police Department. Some may not meet qualifications, some may retire, some may take other jobs, and some may have spouses who don’t want the stress of not knowing whether their law enforcement husband or wife will return home after each shift, he said.
“That turnover isn’t just all Donald Trump: ‘You’re fired,’” Watson said.
On Friday, Baughn said she has been inundated with phone calls and emails, both anonymous and not, that are sharing more and more information that people want to see addressed. Some of those contacting her are former officers and some are citizens, Baughn said.
“It’s all over the board,” she said.
Baughn, who has previously triggered heated debates on Oak Ridge Schools and the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, said she had hoped the city manager would confirm that he is investigating the concerns that have been raised about the Police Department, including alleged policy violations by the police chief. Among the claims are allegations by Bayless that he caught Akagi on radar driving 88 mph in a 55 mph zone on South Illinois Avenue without his emergency lights on and that he saw the police chief pull his pistol on a compliant unarmed man “over a simple failure to appear warrant.”
“Those things need to be addressed,” Baughn said.
Told that the city manager doesn’t plan further investigation, Baughn responded: “That’s very disappointing. I have even less confidence in the city manager at this point.”
Update: Read Akagi’s response to Beams’ letter here.
Copyright 2015 Oak Ridge Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.