TBI takes up phony East Ridge ordinance

TBI takes up phony East Ridge ordinance

February 27th, 2014 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

PUBLIC MEETING

The East Ridge City Council will meet at City Hall tonight at 6:30. The investigation is not on the agenda.

If you want to know how East Ridge officials regulate tow trucks, you can look at the city's ordinance. Just make sure you're looking at the real thing, not the phony one.

A version of the official law -- Ordinance No. 787 -- is available at City Hall. But there's also an imposter floating around town, one that contradicts the real deal. If believed, this fake ordinance could influence the City Council's decisions about which local companies get to partner with the city for wrecker business and wrecker business revenue.

On Tuesday, East Ridge City Attorney Hal North met with District Attorney General Bill Cox to show him the fake ordinance. Cox then asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to handle the case.

City Councilman Larry Sewell said TBI investigators met with City Manager Andrew Hyatt on Wednesday to discuss the case. Mayor Brent Lambert, Vice Mayor Jim Bethune and Councilman Denny Manning did not return calls Wednesday, and Councilman Marc Gravitt declined to comment.

When a car breaks down in East Ridge, the driver will sometimes call 911 to request a tow truck, and police will then assign the incident to a local wrecker company. Depending on the type of vehicle, how it broke down and when it happened, a wrecker company can charge between $125 for standard cars and $1,800 per hour for semi trucks.

But which wrecker companies get these calls from the East Ridge police? According to an ordinance passed in 2007, only three companies can partner with the city, and each of them must be operated by different owners.

The three wrecker companies are on a rotation. On week one, Company One gets all the towing action. On week two, the action shifts to Company Two. On week three, Company Three takes over. Then, the next week, Company One gets the wrecker calls again. And so on.

However, despite the restriction about one owner for each company, Grover Broome operates two wrecker companies on the rotation: Broome's Wrecker Service and East Ridge Auto Electric. In other words, for two out of every three weeks, Broome's companies receive all of the city's towing calls.

Several times over the past six months, an East Ridge resident has protested this set-up. Butch Bryson said he wants to open a wrecker company in town but won't do so unless he can join the wrecker rotation. He has told the council that Broome is in violation of the city ordinance, and he asked to replace one of Broome's two companies.

Last year, Sewell and Councilman Denny Manning said the ordinance on file is not correct. They are the only active councilmen who were in city government in 2007 when the wrecker ordinance passed, and they believe companies that have been around for a long time like Broome's were "grandfathered in" and exempt from this "one owner" rule.

"Apparently, a page got left out," Sewell said Wednesday, referring to the ordinance on file at City Hall. "It wasn't what we agreed to. It's been a mess ever since."

In a Chattanooga Times Free Press article in October, Broome said he had a copy of the ordinance that also had a "grandfather clause." At the time, then-City Manager Freida Wheeler said she had seen this ordinance, which was not on file. Wheeler said the city was investigating.

Broome was out of town Wednesday, and one of his employees said he would pass along a Times Free Press reporter's phone number. Broome had not contacted the newspaper as of late Wednesday.

The fake ordinance under investigation does not specifically include a "grandfather clause" that would exempt Broome's companies from the rules, but some of the ordinance's language could be interpreted as treating older companies differently from new ones.

In particular, the ordinance says that the rules will apply "as of effective date or later," which to some may mean that the ordinance's "one owner" rule does not apply to companies that have been around before December 2007.

On Wednesday, Sewell said Broome should be allowed to receive two-thirds of the wrecker rotation action because both of his companies have been in town since 1980. He said the controversy has only come up because Bryson wants to cut into Broome's business.

"They've been in the wrecker business, heck, since I was in high school," Sewell said of Broome's companies. "And [Bryson] wanted to take their business from them. ... That's not right."

Bryson and his son Jeremy said Wednesday that they didn't alert North about the fake ordinance. If they knew about this, both said, they would have blown the whistle sooner than this week.

"It doesn't surprise me that this happened in East Ridge," Jeremy Bryson said. "It doesn't surprise me at all."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.