But MTAS will have to agree to changes
The review of the Oak Ridge Police Department has been expanded to include interviews with all employees. The review could also include interviews with former employees who have left the Police Department since Police Chief Jim Akagi started almost four years ago.
Initial plans had called for a limited review of the Oak Ridge Police Department and interviews of a random sample or cross-section of employees.
But the Oak Ridge City Council expanded the review during a special meeting on Tuesday. That special meeting was called after concerns were raised about the initial list of randomly selected interviewees being sent to the police chief, city manager, and all Police Department employees, which raised questions about the impartiality and confidentiality of the review.
By one estimate, the expanded review could include interviews with more than 100 people. And it’s not clear if the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee will agree to the expanded review, or if they might charge the city.
The City Council agreed to expand the review during a three-hour special meeting on Tuesday that included criticism of MTAS, accusations of collusion between Council members, and an attempt by Council member Trina Baughn to have resident Joe Lee, one of her chief critics, stop taking pictures during a public comment session.
MTAS, a generally well-regarded agency that has helped the city on other earlier projects, had initially agreed to do a limited 30-day review of the ORPD at no charge to the city. It would have included interviews with a randomly selected group of Police Department employees, other city employees and officers, and possibly community leaders not directly employed by the city.
But since City Council changed the terms of the contract during the special meeting on Tuesday, it will have to be renegotiated. The review, which has been discussed at a half-dozen meetings since February, would still focus on ORPD turnover, morale, and administrative policies.
If MTAS does not agree to the expanded review, the city might have to start over.
Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Smith, one of two Council members who opposed the expanded review, said she has discussed samples and cross-sections with MTAS Police Management Consultant Rex Barton, who would conduct the review.
“The rationale with not talking to the entire department has to do with time and MTAS resources,” Smith said. “They don’t have the resources to interview every member of the department.”
Asking MTAS to possibly interview more than 100 people is a “large burden,” Smith said, pointing out that it would include taking notes and developing a report in addition to interviewing employees and former officers.
But a few City Council members said there had already been a misstep in the review, and the original process “fell apart” when Barton transmitted the names of interviewees to the chief.
“There was just too much confusion about what the random selection meant,” Oak Ridge City Council member Charlie Hensley said. “Then, we end up getting the breach of confidentiality that everyone in the room wanted to maintain.”
After the MTAS “foul-up,” and to be fair, Hensley said, the best thing to do was to interview everyone.
“I’m tired of the city being accused of hiding,” Hensley said.
He made the motion to interview all ORPD officers and employees, and attempt to interview those who have left since Akagi started in 2011. The motion was seconded by Baughn, who had earlier proposed requiring all employees to meet with the investigator, regardless of whether they wanted to say anything.
But Callison proposed some updates this week after the first list of 20 interviews was sent to the police chief for scheduling purposes last week. Among Callison’s proposed changes: Start over with a new random list and determine a point of contact in the Police Department who can help coordinate the schedules of officers participating in the interviews, someone other than the chief.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot on this issue,” Callison said.
Although he ended up voting for the expanded review, Callison defended the use of a smaller cross-section or random sample. He said it’s a scientifically proven method. And he said he thinks MTAS can maintain the anonymity of those who participate in interviews with Barton, a former administrative police captain in Athens, Tennessee, who has done some 50 similar reviews across Tennessee.
“He has assured us that anonymity would be maintained, and you would not be able to determine who was making the comments,” Callison said.
But others continued to have questions about confidentiality and anonymity.
Oak Ridge City Attorney Ken Krushenski said any requests made for records possessed by MTAS would have to go through the UT Office of General Counsel. Tennessee is an “open records state,” and it’s not clear that anonymity or confidentiality could be promised whether MTAS or a private firm does the review, Krushenski said.
“I don’t believe we’re in a position to guarantee anyone confidentiality or anonymity,” he said.
Baughn said MTAS documents will be subject to the state’s Open Records Act.
“The law pretty much says that whatever paperwork they come up with is pretty much open to public scrutiny,” she said.
Some like Callison and Smith defended MTAS, while others were critical, including Baughn. She said it’s very clear that MTAS has a conflict of interest and is not qualified.
“It’s all been tainted,” Baughn said. “It’s all been compromised.”
ORPD Detective John Criswell said MTAS had let down City Council and the Police Department, and like Baughn, he said the review is already tainted.
“Nobody’s ever going to be happy,” he said.
The right thing to do, Criswell told City Council, would be to hire a private investigator.
Later in the meeting, Baughn proposed doing that by terminating the MTAS contract and soliciting bids from investigators. But her motion did not get a second from any other City Council member, so it was not considered.
Voting to expand the MTAS review to include all ORPD officers and employees, and possibly former employees going back about four years, were Baughn, Callison, Hensley, and Council members Rick Chinn and Chuck Hope.
Voting against it were Smith and Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch.
Chinn and Hope both suggested that all employees ought to be given a chance to talk.
“I think all employees ought to have equal time, whether they choose to use it or not,” Hope said.
“This process needs to move forward,” Chinn said. “We need to get on with the city’s business.”
Gooch, who, like a majority of Council members, had objected to the earlier proposal to require all ORPD employees to participate, said he preferred random selection, pointing out that it would help move the process along.
“No one should be compelled to give comments or to testify,” he said.
But he also wanted to help create a process to obtain input from other officers and citizens, possibly through outside counsel.
“I certainly want to allow other people to comment,” Gooch said.
During the meeting, Council also agreed in a 6-1 vote to designate the city’s human resources director as the point of contact for MTAS, allowing her to provide officer information to MTAS. That amendment, proposed by Gooch and seconded by Hensley, would have MTAS contact the officers on duty. Several Council members said officers need to be paid for their time when they are interviewed by Barton, and supervisors will have to know where they are.
Baughn cast the only vote against the motion, saying she was “very uncomfortable” with having HR coordinate.
Also during the meeting, Council agreed to establish a temporary email account that could allow other interested residents to provide input. Some citizens and former officers have said they would like to weigh in. Emails would only be considered from those who provide their name and full address, including city. They would be monitored, reviewed, and assembled by an MTAS affiliate and submitted to Barton for possible inclusion in the MTAS report expected to be issued at the end of the review.
Watson said that decision moves the review out of the technical realm and into the political.
Five Council members voted for it, and two—Baughn and Smith—voted against it.
Smith said the MTAS review is a limited internal review, and she didn’t think the public has “anything significant to offer about the internal workings of the department.” Asking the public to comment on the internal affairs of the Police Department is asking for hearsay, she said.
“I don’t think we need hearsay,” Smith said. “We’ve gotten a lot of that already.”
Baughn said there has been ample public input, and she asked why it is still needed. She agreed with Smith that it’s not clear that citizens can add information about the internal workings of the Police Department.
But Hope said the review has become “too big of an issue,” and the city needs to allow comments, both positive and negative.
Callison added that some people who might want to provide public input haven’t been able to attend the City Council meetings so far.
Questions about collusion, camera use
The meeting featured some tense exchanges between Baughn and other Council members. Baughn raised a question about whether three Council members “colluded” on the MTAS proposal, and she repeated a suggestion that the process used to approve the review might have been misleading. And she tried to prevent Lee from taking pictures, although that request was denied.
Callison defended his MTAS proposal, which Baughn suggested had been rammed through with no solicitation.
“Nobody else brought another solution,” Callison said. “I’m not pushing MTAS. I saw it as a viable, inexpensive solution.”
He pointed out that a majority of Council members voted for the proposal, and it’s a potential solution, helping the city to avoid getting “stuck in quicksand.”
“All of the things I proposed are ways to get it done,” Callison told Baughn. But the city is now “letting a small set of voices drive us,” he said.
Baughn pressed Callison on the question of who he was referring to in a February meeting when he used “we” to describe his discussions with MTAS, seeming to want to know who, if anyone else, might have been involved.
“Who is we?” Baughn asked. “This entire effort appears to be a coordinated effort to mislead the public.”
Callison, a corporate executive, said he uses the corporate “we” all the time. In this case, it was just “me, myself, and I,” Callison said. He said he learned about Barton from Margaret Norris of MTAS.
“No one else was with me when I reached out to MTAS,” he said.
But Baughn suggested that Callison, Chinn, and Smith, who all attended a recent MTAS training session, might have colluded, going to MTAS and talking about what they did.
But Chinn and Smith both said it was a training session attended by other people from across East Tennessee, including Johnson City. They said they first heard about Barton during a City Council meeting on February 9.
“There was no collusion at all in that meeting,” Chinn said, referring to the MTAS session. “That was a training meeting.”
If you look at the Council votes on the ORPD review, Chinn said, you’ll see that there is no chance of collusion.
“This is absolutely not anything involving collusion,” Smith said.
She said Callison did a service for Council, doing research on Barton and MTAS.
“The notion that he was violating the open meetings law by getting information outside a meeting is crazy,” Smith said.
Baughn apologized to Chinn and Smith for her reaction.
“I do not mean to infer that the two of you were part of a coordinated effort,” she told Chinn and Smith. But she did not apologize to Callison, saying she was still trying to get to the bottom of his use of the word “we.”
As Baughn pressed this point, Hensley objected.
“You’re never happy,” Hensley told Baughn. “You always want more and more. You spew negativity like a leaking garden hose.”
At that point, Gooch ruled Hensley out of order.
Baughn objected to Lee taking pictures during one public comment period. She alleged he was taking pictures to intimidate.
But Gooch declined Baughn’s request to stop Lee, pointing out that there was a videocamera in the back of the room. That camera was positioned behind a row of residents who have generally been more supportive of Baughn’s positions.
Hope pointed out that Council meetings are open government meetings.
“Everyone has the right to videotape, to take pictures,” Hope said. “There are several people that have cameras in the audience.”
Review focuses on turnover, morale, policies
The heated debate over the Police Department has roiled the community for weeks and formed a divide between those who support Baughn and her efforts to investigate the department and its chief, and those who think she’s engaged in a “witch hunt.” The debate has continued unabated in several social media groups, with a particular emphasis on 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.
It’s not clear if there has been a review of this type in Oak Ridge before, or if the section of the City Charter used to approve it has ever been used before.
Some residents have started to ask what, specifically, is the primary issue in the ORPD now and whether it’s systemic. City Council has already decided not to investigate some specific allegations, claims, and questions, including about the order of protection, that have been raised by Baughn, former Police Chief David Beams, two anonymous writers, and five former officers in meetings, letters to the editor, emails, and one personnel grievance.
That appears to leave the more general issues of turnover, morale, and administrative policies. Current police officers have said they can’t discuss the specific “nuts and bolts,” but generally speaking, they said, there is an issue with turnover, morale, and how policies are applied.
Callison has said the MTAS review could “tease out” other issues.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Baughn returned to the issue of turnover, saying it had been 40 percent over the past 3.5 years.
“Part of that turnover contacted us and expressed their concerns,” she said. “They’re concerned with getting a fair shake.”
Several Council members said city officials need to find a solution to resolve the issues.
“This community needs for us to move on and talk about other city business,” Smith said, pointing out that the three-hour special meeting on Tuesday was preceded by a work session where all the other city departments had a total of 30 minutes to discuss their work.
“We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can change the future,” Smith said. “We need to move forward. (MTAS) can do the job.”
Baughn suggested she doesn’t necessarily see a “need for speed.”
“This community needs transparency and accountability,” she said. “They don’t need this pushed under the rug.”