For better or worse, Darwin Branam is the virtual politician.
The newest member of the East Ridge City Council has spent most of the last two months at a 24th-floor vacation condominium in Daytona Beach Shores, Fla., despite assurances that East Ridge was his “number one residence.”
He said he has spent 48 days in Florida and 16 in East Ridge since he was appointed Jan. 27.
“Wow,” said Ken Meyer, an East Ridge resident and former Republican state representative. “Governing is not a part-time endeavor. You have to be in the community on a day-to-day basis. ... You can’t do it from Florida.”
But in several interviews from Florida, Branam, 74, insisted that a councilman can govern remotely. He said his email address works anywhere with wireless access and calls to his publicly listed phone number connect to his iPhone.
“I’m very accessible to talk about anything,” Branam said. “And when I’m in the city, I do nothing but city business.”
He also said it was widely known before he was appointed that he spends winters in Florida.
That’s where he was when councilmen debated Feb. 28 whether to terminate City Attorney John Anderson and cease paying his already-over-budget legal fees. Branam declined to return, declaring the meeting “wasn’t emergency.”
Branam’s four colleagues, who finished the meeting deadlocked 2-2 on Anderson’s fate, delayed their decision until Branam returned briefly from Florida on March 11. Before that meeting, Branam said only one East Ridge resident emailed him about the attorney.
City records show he actually received five emails, including four supporting the city attorney’s ouster. Branam responded to only one — an email praising him for asking “serious questions.”
“He needs to be here where his job is if he’s going to do it,” Councilman Denny Manning said. “He can’t vote over the phone, and you can’t do it over email.”
East Ridge council members are paid $7,200 a year. Only “bona fide residents and registered voters of the City of East Ridge” can be on the council, according to the city charter. There is no statutory requirement that council members attend meetings.
“THEY ALL KNEW”
Councilmen in January unanimously appointed Branam to fill a seat previously occupied by Brent Lambert, who was elected mayor in November.
Branam did not run for council during November elections, although six others did. The surprise choice of Branam angered some people, including the election’s third-place finisher, Marc Gravitt. His supporters cried foul and said he should have been named to the vacant seat.
Branam was an East Ridge commissioner between 1988 and 1990 when the city had a commission-style government.
He said he told Lambert he would serve “if nobody else would” during a chance encounter at a Cracker Barrel restaurant a few weeks after November’s election.
Branam said the Florida home — and how much time he spends there — never became an issue before he was appointed.
“All the councilmen — they all knew I spend the first three months of the year in Florida,” he said. “The council does oversight ... we don’t run the city.”
Lambert did not return several calls seeking comment, but Vice Mayor Larry Sewell, a Lambert supporter, defended the decision.
“I don’t think it’s an issue,” Sewell said. “To me there’s not much happening on a daily basis like the city [Chattanooga] or the county. He’s here when he needs to be.”
Sewell said the city should look into conference calling so absentee councilmen can participate when a special meeting is convened.
Branam said he would be in town for “when we do the budget” and wouldn’t spend much more time in Florida since spring is here.