Note: This story was last updated at 9:58 a.m. May 22.
The Oak Ridge City Council on Thursday approved a review of turnover and morale in the Oak Ridge Police Department that could cost close to $23,000 and not be complete until October.
The review by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee could include interviews with about 125 people, including roughly 76 current ORPD employees as well as several dozen former workers who have left in the roughly four years since Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi started.
The review, which will also study administrative policies, was initially expected to be free, last 30 days, and use interviews with a random pool of workers. But the City Council expanded the scope of the inquiry during a special meeting in April, and MTAS said it would now have to charge $50 per hour for the work.
Each of the MTAS interviews could take about one hour, city officials said during a special Oak Ridge City Council meeting on Thursday.
Council members approved the proposed new agreement with MTAS in a 4-3 vote. Voting for it were Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Smith, and Council members Kelly Callison and Charlie Hensley. Voting against it were Council members Trina Baughn, Rick Chinn, and Chuck Hope.
Chinn said he thought the city ought to solicit requests for proposals, or RFPs, from firms or individuals willing to conduct the review or investigation. Chinn said the city had received one proposal for $6,000, and he thinks the city ought to be able to finish the inquiry before October.
Baughn continued to insist that MTAS has a conflict of interest. She said that MTAS is a subsidiary of the Tennessee Municipal League and is not qualified, although Gooch disputed her claim that MTAS is a subsidiary of TML.
Smith said she had serious reservations about the agreement approved by Council on Thursday, but she suggested that putting out an RFP might not proceed any quicker than the MTAS review.
“We’d be lucky to get done by October,” Smith said. “If we can’t expedite this, I don’t think we should be doing this at all.”
MTAS will still have to agree to the new proposal approved by City Council on Thursday.
The previous agreement for a more limited review using a random pool of interviews with current workers expired May 9, and MTAS said it has spent about 60 hours on the project so far.
Before voting on the proposed new agreement, Council agreed to designate Oak Ridge Personnel Director Penny Sissom as the point of contact for MTAS and have her schedule interviews based on the availability of MTAS consultants. That amendment, proposed by Gooch, passed 5-2, with Baughn and Chinn voting “no.” The move, which would not ask MTAS to set up the interviews, is expected to save about $3,500, knocking down the cost of the work from an estimated $26,200 to $22,700.
Council also approved a second amendment that would have MTAS start the interviews using a random pool of 20 current and former employees before moving on to the remaining current and former workers. MTAS has said it prefers to use a random pool. That motion, also proposed by Gooch, passed 4-3, with Gooch, Smith, Callison, and Hensley voting “yes,” and Baughn, Chinn, and Hope voting “no.”
Council rejected a proposal to have MTAS give an interim report after the random interviews.
Smith, who requested that report, said it wasn’t fair to the city staff, the community, and others to “leave this hanging” until October. She said she would like to see some information before Halloween.
“We’ve kind of left our city manager and our police chief in limbo,” Smith said.
Baughn objected to the proposed preliminary report, saying that seeing it would be “kind of like cheating on a test.” Council could be setting itself up to “feed into the propaganda machine that’s already been set up,” Baughn said.
The interim report was rejected 3-4, with Callison, Hensley, and Smith voting “yes,” and the other four voting “no.” That means City Council might not hear anything until the review is complete, possibly this fall.
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said the money for the review will have to come from the mayor and City Council’s budget in the current fiscal year, although there’s currently no money available. But he said city officials will accommodate the unanticipated expense.
Some continued to object to the inquiry, which started after Baughn in late January raised concerns over what she suggested is a high turnover rate in the ORPD and expressed concern about the allegations and claims included in a personnel grievance filed by former officer Chris Bayless, among other issues. Baughn said the chief had retaliated against Bayless, although the city manager rescinded the punishment.
Baughn has called for an investigation of the police chief on a range of issues, including his hiring in Oak Ridge four years ago, claims that he is vindictive, and a question about whether he violated a temporary order of protection issued in Blount County at the request of Akagi’s ex-wife in April 2012 and dismissed in June 2013. But the City Council has rejected her proposals, which have also been based on letters to the editor by former Police Chief David Beams and Lieutenant Jack Mansfield, and an email writer using the pseudonym “Bobby Hill.”
There continues to be debate about whether the current turnover rate is higher than it has been historically, and some residents have proposed that City Council drop the inquiry and move on to other “more important business.” Among the other projects in the works are Main Street Oak Ridge (the redevelopment of the former Oak Ridge Mall) and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Oak Ridge developer and businessman Len Hart, who said there has been a great improvement in the Police Department in the past three to four years, said he objected to spending taxpayer money on a “witch hunt” because of a few disgruntled Police Department employees. Hart said he was disappointed in the Council’s actions and the allegations that are “dragging the city down.”
He said Oak Ridge is on the verge of a big turnaround and suggested that some of the ORPD complaints came from “deadbeats” and those who are jealous because they didn’t get offered promotions.
“There are some folks who don’t like change,” Hart said. “That’s just the way it is.”
But Baughn said some significant issues have been raised.
“We’ve had many, many serious concerns shared with us,” she said.
Oak Ridge resident Myra Mansfield objected to the idea that officers have been critical of the police chief because they hadn’t received promotions. Her husband, former Lieutenant Jack Mansfield, who retired in October 2011, has been among the chief’s critics.
Resident Mike Mahathy objected to Baughn’s citing of anonymous emails in her calls for an investigation of the police chief. Anyone can send an anonymous email, Mahathy said. Much time and money has been spent on the inquiry and reputations are “down the drain,” all over anonymous emails, he said.
But Baughn said the inquiry didn’t start with anonymous emails. Instead, she said, it started with Bayless’ grievance. She cited the 34 officers who have left in the past four years or so, including two in the past two weeks.
It’s not clear if Bayless agrees with Baughn’s use of his grievance in her calls for an investigation. A few current officers have said the former ORPD officer is keeping a low profile because he now works for another government agency.
Among those supporting Baughn’s call for an investigation are former City Council member Anne Garcia Garland. Supporters have said a review is more benign than an investigation.
Hensley asked how much municipal staff time has been spent on the Police Department review during the past few months responding to legal questions and open records requests, among other duties.
“I shudder to think how much money has been spent by our city staff,” Hensley said.
Watson didn’t have a specific number of hours spent, but he said the staff time spent on the inquiry has grown and the review hasn’t even started yet.
More information will be added as it becomes available.