published Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Suit claims East Ridge mayor went too far with PR deal

by Elizabeth Ryan
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Mike Steele

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Charles Wright

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R. Dee Hobbs

The latest allegation by petitioners in the ouster suit against East Ridge Mayor Mike Steele is that he misused his powers by contracting with a public relations company without the consent of the City Council.

Mr. Steele’s attorney calls the charge “legally indefensible.”

“These individuals are complaining that the mayor has exceeded his authority and has contracted and bound the city of East Ridge when that is not the case,” attorney R. Dee Hobbs said. “When they produce a contract that Mr. Steele signed and the city (council) didn’t approve, then we have a different scenario.”

At a special meeting in January, Albert Waterhouse and his public relations firm presented their ideas for rebranding East Ridge in an effort to attract new residents, businesses and tourists. The research and preparation costs for the pitch, Mr. Waterhouse said at the time, were shouldered by his firm, not East Ridge.

The City Council budgeted about $130,000 for a public relations campaign this year, Mr. Steele said in January, but no money has been spent yet.

East Ridge City Manager William Whitson confirmed Monday that no contract had been signed with Mr. Waterhouse’s firm.

Mr. Waterhouse and his company’s records have been subpoenaed in the case, but he declined to comment on the matter.

A hearing on the ouster suit is set for Hamilton County Criminal Court for March 31. One of the questions Judge Don Poole must decide is the definition of “work,” according to Charles Wright Jr., attorney for the East Ridge citizens group who filed the suit. If work involves more than just money changing hands, then Mr. Steele might have acted inappropriately, he said.

“If he (Mr. Waterhouse) was doing work for the city of East Ridge prior to presentation to the City Council of that process and going through the correct process to bid those contract services, then I would say he violated (the law),” Mr. Wright said. “If the definition of ‘work’ is the exchange of money for that work, then that hasn’t come to light.”

Mr. Wright said another issue in the case is Mr. Steele’s relationship with Mr. Waterhouse; both men are members of the Southeast Tennessee Political Action Committee. The petitioners say Mr. Steele should have disclosed the nature of his connection to the City Council.

East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson also belongs to the group.

Mr. Hobbs, however, said the claim was unreasonable.

“What are we supposed to do, honestly? Do you need to fill out a disclosure for every relationship your city might have?” he said.

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