Aside from the pathetic display of hatemongering by a BOE member’s husband who thought it an appropriate venue for spewing more vitriol at Ms. Paine, last night’s meeting exceeded my expectations in a number of ways.
Originally, my meeting request, as outlined here, was for an executive meeting to discuss taking legal action against the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. However, our city attorney and a state attorney advised that taking legal action would require a special meeting. The city attorney was adamant that council had no basis for legal action even though the Chamber’s attorney clearly misrepresented their intent during this meeting.
The result was a special called meeting for the “purpose of discussing and possibly taking action on the formation of a PAC by the Oak Ridge Chamber following their lawyer’s assurances that no political action other than the traditional candidate forums was intended.” The following were my statements:
This is not about a non-profit organization’s rights to participate in a PAC. This is about four very serious issues.
- First, it is about the deceptive presentation of a negotiated contract involving the use of public land by an organization that is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer
- Second, it is about the conflict of interest of an entity that is subsidized by the taxpayers through direct funds and indirect resources deciding to use the resources of time and public land to form a special interest group
- Third, it is about the individuals who participated in the decision making process.
- Finally, it is about a small group of individuals desperately attempting to influence the outcome of a nonpartisan, local election.
The lines which separate public from private interests are indecipherable in Oak Ridge. Though what these individuals have done may be legal, it is most certainly questionable on both moral and ethical grounds. Rather than live up to the higher standard that Oak Ridgers pride themselves on, if we allow this to go forward without question, we will have lowered our standards.
The Chamber of Commerce (CoC) created Progress PAC and members of the Chamber’s Board of Directors (BoD) are members of this PAC (see below). I spoke at length last night with the PAC’s treasurer (and the chamber’s past chair), David Bradshaw, and he could not tell me precisely which individuals made the decision to create the PAC.
After much discussion in which Councilmember Charlie Hensley and Mayor Tom Beehan admonished my call for the meeting and lavishly praised the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors (many of whom were in the audience), I made a motion to have our city attorney determine what individuals participated in the decision making process that led to the formation of the PAC. Then provide an opinion on whether or not any of following were violated:
Hatch Act – since it applies to local employees who work for agencies that receive federal monies, determine if CoC
BoD members Bruce Borchers (school superintendent) and Mark Watson (city manager) participated in the PAC decision and, if so, did they adhere to the stipulations of this act.
Little Hatch Act – applies to all elections, state employees but specifically prohibits the use of public land for campaign activities. Determine if there is a parallel law that applies to local government like the stipulation of the Hatch Act mentioned above with regards to the PACs activities on city-owned land.
Charter – If Borchers and Watson participated in the PAC decision, determine if they adhered to or violated Article V Section 32 or Article VI Section 11 of the city charter.
City Manager’s Contract – If Watson participated in the PAC decision, determine if he was in compliance with ICMA Code of Ethics – Tenets 3 & 4 which are included in his contract with the City of Oak Ridge
TN Ethics Commission– If CoC BoD member Bob Eby (a BOE member and candidate who is eligible to participate and possibly receive funding from the PAC) participated in the PAC decision, consult with this body to determine if his actions were compliant with the provisions of the applicable laws.
After an hour of discussion, to include comments from citizens, most of whom expressed concerns about potential ethics violations and the fact that the chamber receives taxpayer funds, council’s vote on the motion to direct the city attorney as stated above was as follows:
Yes – Anne Garcia Garland and Trina Baughn
No – Charlie Hensley and Tom Beehan
Abstain – Chuck Hope, David Mosby and Jane Miller
Hope abstained because he is a member of the CoC; Mosby because he is a candidate in the election; and Miller because she is a member of the CoC BoD. I want to publicly thank them for abstaining. I’m not sure if they realize just how important their decision was, but to me, it was a giant step into transparency that we have been sorely lacking in this community.
Hope, Mosby and Miller put great thought into the issue that was truly the elephant in the room – the appearance of conflict of interest. City Council has another special meeting scheduled for Monday at 7:00p.m. to discuss extending the TIF for the proposed mall deal from 20 to 30 years. As you can see below, there is great overlap in the proponents of both the PAC and TIF initiatives.
In fact, if you were to cross-reference many of the highly influential boards in our city, you would find that there are a great number of individuals who occupy seats on multiple boards at any given time and who also rotate off and on these boards from year to year. I am sure that most, if not all, of these individuals are serving out of pure motives. However, these recent events have given light to just how blurred the lines have become. Just as my fellow councilmembers did last night, we all need to step outside of ourselves and try to see how our participation in the decisions that affect our city are viewed by the public when we surrender our individuality to the larger vote of an organized group.
I am hopeful that last night’s meeting foreshadows a great shift in how we conduct the people’s business. That shift is necessary to restore trust which is the foundation from which we can begin to unite. That unity, in turn, provides the springboard towards tangible progress.
Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors (full list found here)
- Chairman is Chris Johnson who is also listed as a member of Progress PAC, is the treasurer of the IDB who approves the mall TIF on Monday (just before it goes to council) which involves a $13M loan from four lending institutions, one of which he is the president of
- Stephen Whitson is also on the CoC BoD, is the former CoC BoD chair and is the current chair of the Progress PAC
- David Bradshaw preceded Whitson as the chair of the CoC BoD, is the Treasurer of the Progress PAC, is the moderator of the newly created PTO Council Candidate Forum and is the president of Capital Mark Bank, one of the four banks participating in the TIF loan; Mr. Bradshaw is also the former Mayor who signed the Chamber’s 34 year lease agreement with the city over 10 years ago (along with Parker Hardy) which enables them to reside on city-owned land for a rate substantially below fair market value. The lease is found here: July 14, 2014 City Council Meeting Agenda Packet (The full chamber lease is also included in the agenda packet) July 14, 2014 City Council Meeting Video Lease discussions with the chamber’s attorney start around hour 4:20
- Bruce Borchers is the Superintendent of Schools and his employers are the Board of Education for which 3 of 5 seats are up for grabs in this election
- Bob Eby is also a member of the BOE and is also a candidate in this year’s election who could benefit from the PAC – he’s also Mr. Borcher’s boss
- John Smith is the former BOE chair and is also listed as a member of Progress PAC
- Mark Watson is the City Manager and is also spearheading the Mall TIF
- Parker Hardy is the Chamber President and CEO and negotiated the 34 year lease agreement renewal with Bradshaw; he has also heavily campaigned for the Mall TIF. He and Mr. Whitson both signed their names to this piece.
- 4 out of 7 employees are also a member of FORS (see links below)
- One team member is also listed as a founding member of FORS