By Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn
Given that there is some confusion over recent events, I offer the following summary about where we are, how we got here, and where we are headed with regards to the Oak Ridge Police Department investigation.
The ORPD has seen a total turnover rate of 45 percent in the last four years, having lost 34 of our 76 employees. Five of those individuals have departed in the last four months. Since February, all Council members have received communications from at least seven former officers, three current officers, and countless citizens expressing concerns about leadership and a potentially hostile work environment. Others have communicated anonymously citing similar concerns and attributing their anonymity to fears of retaliation.
On February 9, during a five-hour televised meeting, and in front of the largest audience any of us had ever seen, City Council formally committed to investigate the root causes behind the turnover, morale, and policy issues in the Police Department.
The resolution that was ultimately approved was brought forward by Council member Kelly Callison who stated that “We think that’s a broad, a very broad term that allows an investigator, an independent investigator to look at the issues that might be present…” At the end of the meeting, councilmember Chuck Hope stated, “The investigation that we’ve come to an agreement among the seven of us was reached unanimously…there’s enough information that it warrants an investigation…”
During this same meeting, Council committed to ensure that the investigation would allow for the anonymity of all participants and would include both current and past employees. Mr. Callison also suggested that council select Municipal Technical Advisory Service, specifically Rex Barton, to perform the work. Council did not select MTAS at the time, but agreed to hold a special meeting to select an entity to conduct the investigation and define its parameters. Information regarding the other resolutions that Council rejected can be found here.
On March 27, Council held an untelevised special meeting and voted down all proposed parameters; thus none were established. No vote was taken to allow requests for proposals because Council immediately went on to approve the MTAS proposal, which Mr. Callison repeatedly claimed to be free. The MTAS proposal was accepted in a 5-1-1 vote and would allow only for a “limited review” that would include a random sampling of individuals including ambiguous “community leaders.”
On April 15, Rex Barton (the MTAS investigator) emailed the names of all of his intended interviewees directly to the chief of police, disregarding Council’s promise of anonymity for participants. On that same date, Margaret Norris, also of MTAS, declined a former officer’s request to be interviewed. Again, a complete contradiction of what council had committed to in the February 9 meeting.
On April 20, City Manager Mark Watson called for a second special meeting to be held on April 21. Again, the meeting was untelevised, and this time Council formally voted to “include all ORPD employees as well as former officers who had departed since Akagi’s arrival.” The city attorney warned that MTAS is subject to Open Records law and would likely not be able to guarantee anonymity.
In response to the April 21 changes, MTAS informed Mayor Warren Gooch that their investigation/review into the ORPD issues would not be free as originally pitched but would cost up to $26,500. On May 20, Mayor Gooch set the agenda and called for a third special meeting (also untelevised) to be held on May 21.
The first item on the May 21 agenda, after slight modification, was approved 4-3 with Gooch, Charlie Hensley, Ellen Smith, and Callison voting in favor of continuing with MTAS at a cost of $22,700. The remaining two agenda items (one of which was to solicit other proposals) were not allowed to be brought to the floor per Mayor Gooch’s stipulations in his agenda. Should MTAS agree to this new contract, they will embark on a study that will not conclude until October. You can view this meeting in its entirety here, here, and here.
The question of whether or not MTAS is conducting an investigation or a review appears to be answered. Contrary to what the citizenry demanded and what Council promised, MTAS, at a price tag of over $22,700, will simply study our issues for they, by state law, exist “to provide studies and research” (TN Code 49-9-407).
What’s more, MTAS, by that same statute, is an “official agency” of the Tennessee Municipal League (TML) to whom this city awards an annual, no-bid contract of over $1.24 million. TML services, paid for by the taxpayer, include providing the city with insurance and legal defense in cases brought against the city from citizens and employees.
Should MTAS, who states “in cooperation with the TML” at the bottom of all of their letters to the city, find fault on the part of the city, it could result in TML having to pay out large sums of money to plaintiffs. Thus, it is in the best financial interest of both TML and the city to use MTAS to conduct a “review” as opposed to an “investigation.”
MTAS aside, four other agencies will investigate our police department. As was announced last month, the POST commission has requested that the U.S. attorney for East Tennessee, the Anderson County district attorney general, and the Blount County district attorney general investigate whether or not the Oak Ridge police chief “violated federal and state law involving the possession of a firearm while under the authority of an active order of protection.” A serious issue of precedence is at stake as all three offices must essentially answer the question: Are those whom we entrust to serve and protect held to a different standard than the rest of us?
This past week, the Police Benevolent Association confirmed that they, too, will investigate these issues on behalf of their members, citing an inability to trust the city’s investigation to address officer complaints.
Finally, there are a handful of individuals attempting to invalidate these issues by maligning citizens and officers. These same individuals have accused me of authoring emails sent to council under the name Bobby Hill. I attest here, and would do so under oath, that I did not send these emails, nor do I know the identity of the individual who did. I have posted the emails in question to my website, trinabaughn.com, as they are a matter of public record and have already been released in response to an Open Records request.