Private business run on city time

Private business run on city time

September 25th, 2010 by Cliff Hightower in News

Two city employees - one a highly paid administrator with the Department of Education, Arts and Culture - are running an online magazine on city time and using city resources, the Times Free Press has learned.

Missy Crutchfield, who earns $103,442 as an administrator, conceded in an interview Wednesday that she and department spokeswoman Melissa Turner spend part of their work days marketing Be Magazine.

Turner, who earns $35,911 a year, was present at the interview but did not speak.

The Be Magazine website is registered with the state as a for-profit, limited liability company under the brand name Be Communications LLC. While some limited liability companies can be nonprofit, Be's registration specifies that the website is a for-profit venture.

Crutchfield called the online site - bemagazine.org - a "communications partner" for the Education, Arts and Culture department, but she didn't say what such a partnership entails. She said the magazine does not make a profit or receive city money but is used as a marketing tool for the department.

"It's just a great way to celebrate wonderful people," she said. "It's my hobby."

On Saturday, Crutchfield and Turner posted a message on their site saying they had "come under scrutiny" for using a "powerful communications tool to enhance our marketing and communications for our day jobs."

They said they used their own time and money on the project and none of the cost fell on the city.

In an e-mail exchange earlier last week, Crutchfield said she got permission from the city to launch the private venture. A city official denied Crutchfield's assertion.

"Be Magazine was cleared for partnership with [the department] before being added on the [web]sites/newsletter, etc.," Crutchfield said.

She said she talked to Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, and Information Officer Mark Keil, who handles the city's information technology. Her direct supervisor is the mayor.

Crutchfield said she was never told she could not put up the website.

"I assumed everyone was fine with it," she said.

Beeland said she did not report to him or Keil and that they didn't know she was forming a private company.

"We didn't give her permission," he said.

Beeland said there is a policy against working on personal projects during business time.

"You're not allowed to work on other things," he said. "That's frowned upon."

He said he did not know if the administration would look further into Crutchfield's and Turner's use of public time and resources to pursue a private business.

"It was not a wise decision," he said. "But it was done, as far as we know, as a marketing tool."

Littlefield was in Washington, D.C., last week. On Friday evening, he responded to a cell phone message seeking comment by referring the call to Beeland. The spokesman called the Chattanooga Times Free Press to say the mayor had no further comment.

facing blowback

Though Crutchfield called the venture a partnership with the city, City Attorney Mike McMahan said Thursday such a relationship would require a contract. City records show no contract, and state law forbids city employees from having financial relationships with their employers.

McMahan said the relationship might be acceptable because the city was not supporting the magazine financially. When told Crutchfield and Turner used city newsletters to advertise the magazine and that they included Be Magazine in advertising for their department, he said he did not realize the extent of the relationship.

"I haven't been asked by the city to research the matter," he said. "That's all I can give to you."

Responding to the newspaper's queries, a city councilman Friday called for an in-depth look at the venture.

"I think the council needs to conduct an investigation, and I'm going to ask the Audit Committee to look at this further," said Councilman Peter Murphy, who heads the council's Legal and Legislative Committee.

Murphy said he has several concerns.

"They can have a magazine and it can be profitable, but they better not be doing it on city time," he said.

April Eidson, spokeswoman for Hire Here, which lobbies the city to hire local workers and contractors, said she found it unbelievable that Crutchfield and Turner can use city support to promote their own agenda, especially without a council-approved contract.

"They are advertising an LLC on the city's newsletters, the city's website and using the city's resources," she said. "They are using city resources and being shameless about it."

HOW IT WORKS

Crutchfield, the daughter of former state Sen. Ward Crutchfield, a Chattanooga Democrat who pleaded guilty in 2007 to bribery charges, met Turner at an Education, Arts and Culture conference in 2005 and launched the magazine on Nov. 11, 2009. Crutchfield said she made it an LLC on the advice of attorney friends.

The lines between the Department of Education, Arts and Culture and Be Magazine have been consistently blurry, records show. A series of recent department advertisements in Enigma magazine to promote "Legally Blonde: The Musical" includes a small ad for Be Magazine.

Enigma Publisher Dave Weinthal said this week he donated the space for the musical's advertisement, but never signed off on advertising Be Magazine.

A March 2010 copy of the Education, Arts and Culture newsletter, Connect the Dots, has an advertisement for Be Magazine and includes its Web address.

The newsletter thanks the department's partners, including Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga, AT&T, McKee Foods and the United Way, along with Be Communications LLC.

Be Magazine's Facebook page, along with Crutchfield's and Turner's Facebook pages, shows a series of items about Be Magazine that were posted during normal working hours. A Be Magazine Twitter feed also includes magazine promotional messages sent during business hours.

Crutchfield said that because she and Turner are salaried employees, the line between when they work and don't work is fuzzy.

"Some [work on the magazine] is during work time; some is not," she said.

Crutchfield maintains she never intended to make money off the venture and that she has no departmental marketing budget. She said she found the website to be a cheap way to get the message out about good things going on in Chattanooga.

On Friday, the Be Magazine website carried some local items, such as a story about the mayor possibly having a Kid's Day, one about Councilman Russell Gilbert's son and one about Crutchfield's radio program. The website also includes contributions from "Be Bloggers," who voice some opinions not related to Chattanooga.

Crutchfield said some people build model airplanes as a hobby. She likes to communicate.

"It was fun for us at the end of the day," she said.


ONLINE MAGAZINE

Check out Be Magazine at www.bemagazine.org.


STATE LAW

"No officer or employee of the city shall have any financial interest other than the common public interest in the profits of any contract, service or other performed for the city; or personally profit directly or indirectly from any from any contract, purchases, sale or service between the city and any person or company."

Source: Tennessee Code Annotated