Two more Oak Ridge City Council members last week expressed regret about the process that was used by fellow Council member Trina Baughn to raise concerns about the Police Department and its chief.
Council members Kelly Callison and Chuck Hope said that Baughn could have first brought the issues regarding the Police Department and Police Chief Jim Akagi to the City Council in a work session or special meeting. That would have allowed all seven Council members to hear the information and work together to determine any next steps, they said.
But instead, Callison said, the issue was sent in parallel to City Council and the media, which bothers him.
“I feel that the process that she’s using is wrong,” Hope said. “It’s kind of circumvented the process. It’s all out there, across the press and across the social media.”
Now, he said, if Council doesn’t do an investigation, as Baughn has requested, then there will be a certain percentage of people upset on social media. But if they approve an investigation of the police chief, then they start down the path that Baughn started—and he doesn’t agree with that process, Hope said.
He said that professional integrities have already been questioned, “which is automatically going to put people into a defensive posture.”
Callison pointed out that four members of the City Council, a majority of them, are new. They were elected in November.
“We have not been proven unworthy yet of investigating issues,” Callison said. “To be fair, the Council needs to get an issue.”
Hope said Baughn’s information has been presented to the public without a sense of the Council’s position. Any Council position would require an approval by four members.
“If there is a significant need for something to be looked at…then we (as a Council) should be able to say that, within the City Charter limitations, what do we need to do to look into this?” Hope said.
Under the City Charter, Council members can’t get involved in personnel matters, although they can funnel their concerns through the city manager. But Council does have the authority to investigate a city department, as Baughn has requested. It’s not clear if that’s ever been done before.
Hope said that if a majority of Council wants more information, they could send the matter to the city manager. He’s their employee and the administrator of the day-to-day municipal operations. If the manager is part of the situation, then Council could look for independent help, Hope said.
Hope cited a variety of positive changes in the past few years. The crime rate is down, the police response time is quicker than it’s ever been, neighborhood drug activity is not the problem it once was, and the relationship with the schools is better than it’s ever been, he said. Also, the Police Department has better equipment than it’s had in 20-30 years, and the 911 call center is up to date, Hope said.
“He has performed in a number of areas favorably,” the Council member said of the police chief.
Hope said Akagi’s management style might not appeal to all, and there could be room for improvement. But we could all could find room for improvement ourselves, Hope said.
Hope said he would second either resolution for discussion if asked on Monday night. The first is Baughn’s resolution asking for an investigation that focuses on the police chief. The other is a resolution by Council member Charlie Hensley, who wants the Council to reprimand Baughn and remove her from all committee assignments.
“I think both resolutions need to be put on the floor,” Hope said. To ignore them would perpetuate the situation, he said, although he said would have to discuss any move to reprimand or censure Baughn.
Hope said he would like Baughn to exhaust all avenues in the City Council before she strikes out on her own, tackling issues by herself. He said she’s not using proper Council procedures, which makes it harder for her to get responses from Council when she wants other members to consider her points of view or research.
“We should all seven bring information together,” Hope said. A lot of times, Council members won’t agree, but if there is majority agreement, Council can give a directive to the city manager, Hope said.
Callison said it is the duty of City Council members to investigate issues of concern.
“It’s our duty to look into allegations like this,” he said. “It’s just the method of doing it.”
Like some others in the business community, Callison worried about the potential impact on economic development.
“We are on the cusp of a lot of great things, or falling backwards,” Callison said.
If a big business were considering Oak Ridge and another site, and they saw these issues played out in the press, how would that affect their location decision? Callison asked.
He said he won’t support either of the resolutions offered by Baughn or Hensley. Instead, Callison said last week, he might have his own alternative.
Hensley had earlier taken issue with Baughn’s process. He said one Council member (Baughn) was setting the agenda for the city, using what is essentially negative information.
Hensley said he doesn’t think the investigation that Baughn has requested is warranted. But some of the complaints from officers and former officers are credible, so he would like the city manager to look into them.
Like Callison and Hope, Hensley said Council’s involvement could have started with a work session, rather than by having headlines blast out “who’s guilty and who’s not.”
“I don’t think having an investigation that starts out with a bunch of negatively skewed information is the right way to start it,” he said. “The well’s already been poisoned and skewed by negative half-truths.”
He echoed a few other Council members who said residents tell him they see more of a police presence under Akagi, and response times are quicker. Council should only get involved in personnel matters if there is a serious problem, and they are getting many letters, Hensley said.
In response to Hensley, Baughn said she has broken no laws and has not committed any of the infractions earlier alleged by Hensley.
“I am simply doing what is rightfully afforded to me under the City Charter and under the Constitution of the United States of America,” Baughn said. “More importantly, I am doing what I was elected to do. I campaigned on a platform of accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, and a promise to give those who lacked representation a voice on City Council.
“With regard to process, I concur that council members should make every effort to resolve issues directly with and through the city manager whenever possible. I maintain that I have done this and more within the confines of the Sunshine Law.”
Baughn said she first learned of potential issues within the police department when she started helping the family of former Oak Ridge Schools employee Alex Heitman. She outlined several steps she’s taken since then, including meeting with City Manager Mark Watson a few times and meeting in an executive session of the City Council in May 2014, when the majority of council “refused to take any action.”
“Since that time, I have received sporadic reports of problems that I could not independently verify through official channels,” Baughn said.
“With that said, I have no doubt that both the present and previous council were informed about the problems with ORPD leadership before they were escalated into the media,” Baughn said. “All council members had the option to take action, but, to my knowledge, none did.”
Baughn suggested she does not intend to change course.
“Our problems did not develop overnight nor will they be resolved overnight, but avoidance is no longer an option,” she said. “We must begin to address these issues, and we must begin to do so now. Censure me or censor me, I will not cease giving a voice to those who need it. And I will never prioritize positivity over the welfare of our officers and our community.”
The City Council meeting starts at 7 p.m. Monday, February 9, in the Oak Ridge Municipal Building Courtroom. You can see the agenda here.
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