Note: This story was last updated at 8:20 p.m.
Despite concerns about the timing, the Oak Ridge City Council later this month will consider steps that could be used to help review or investigate—there has been a dispute over which word to use—the turnover, morale, and administrative policies in the Oak Ridge Police Department.
City Council members Trina Baughn and Rick Chinn requested the special meeting, and they asked that it be held at 6 p.m. Friday, March 27. They said the meeting could be used to discuss and vote on the parameters of an investigation and possibly select an investigator. The two members also want the Council to consider the merits, and possibly vote on, placing Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi on administrative leave while the investigation is ongoing.
Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch expressed concern about having the special meeting that week because officials from the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Energy are expected to be in town. Gooch, who would prefer to discuss the issues in a regular meeting, said he thought it would be a mistake to have a special meeting like this that could interfere with the visit by NPS and DOE officials.
Oak Ridge is part of a new three-site Manhattan Project National Historical Park that was created by Congress last year and signed into law by President Barack Obama. It’s something that Oak Ridge officials and volunteers, among others, have worked on and supported for more than a decade. National Park Service spokesman Bill Reynolds said NPS officials are scheduled to arrive Tuesday, March 24, and could remain through Thursday or Friday that week. The delegation could include officials from the Southeast Office and others from headquarters in Washington, D.C., Reynolds said Tuesday.
But Baughn stuck by her request on Monday, which was to have the special meeting sometime that week. It only takes two Council members to call a special meeting, meaning the full City Council does not have to vote on it. So, after Chinn seconded Baughn’s motion and the two wrote their request, the special meeting was called.
In response, City Council members Charlie Hensley and Ellen Smith added their own request to that special meeting agenda. They want to consider selecting a reviewer to conduct a police review, as opposed to an investigation, during the March 27 meeting.
Monday’s discussion was a follow-up to a resolution that was passed by Council in a 7-0 vote in February. That resolution called for an independent third-party review of the turnover, morale, and administrative policies in the ORPD. At the time, the outcome appeared to generally please all sides. But the unanimity was short-lived.
The review approved last month followed an earlier call by Baughn to open an investigation into the police chief in three areas. But two of Baughn’s proposals were rejected in 2-5 votes last month, and the Oak Ridge City Council unanimously approved the third-party review, which had been proposed by Council member Kelly Callison.
On Friday, a resolution proposed by Callison was added to Monday night’s City Council agenda to consider using Rex Barton of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee to conduct the 30-day review. Baughn and others objected on several fronts, including by raising questions about a possible conflict of interest. With Callison out of town, the resolution was pulled from the Monday night agenda.
Meanwhile, the Knox County chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association has agreed to conduct its own independent investigation of the ORPD leadership.
Chapter President William N. Kain said that investigation will be done through off-site contact with PBA members in the Oak Ridge Police Department, and it could be complete by late March or mid-April.
A few people, in turn, raised a question about whether the PBA might itself have a conflict of interest. Supporters of both the MTAS and PBA inquiries dispute that there would be a conflict of interest.
The calls for an investigation or review started after a late January email by Baughn. She expressed concern about what she suggested is a high turnover rate in the Oak Ridge Police Department and allegations contained in a grievance filed by former ORPD Officer Christopher Bayless as well as those contained in three anonymous emails and what she’s heard from former officers.
That led to letters to the editor by several former Oak Ridge officers, including former Police Chief David Beams.
In early February, Baughn requested a investigation based on the Bayless grievance, letters by Beams and former Lieutenant Jack Mansfield, and the anonymous emails, which were sent by someone writing as “Bobby Hill.”
On Monday, Hensley continued to object to Baughn’s methods. He said much of the information that has been released is “half-true,” including from legal proceedings in Blount County several years ago, and he said the press has been misinformed.
“I do not want to turn this into another ‘Phase II witch hunt,’” Hensley said. “I think the falsehoods that have been put out there are very unfortunate. They border on sickness in fact.”
A few residents also objected, including after Baughn pointed out several steps that she didn’t think were fair, such as suppressing “the voice of the people” and “adding substitute resolutions to ours before a meeting.”
“It’s kind of ironic, Ms. Baughn, that you are calling for fairness,” said resident Tracy Stout-Powers. The Council member is asking to put the chief on administrative leave before a review is even done, Stout-Powers said.
A few of those who support Baughn continued to raise questions about whether there were any violations under a temporary order of protection issued in Blount County at the request of Akagi’s ex-wife about three years ago and dismissed two years ago.
Baughn said the inquiry was not about her, but instead about the Police Department.
“I have not called for anyone’s head on a platter,” she told Stout-Powers.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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