A new day in East Ridge?

A new day in East Ridge?

December 15th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Former East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson.

Photo by Alyson Wright/Times Free Press.

Elections matter. The East Ridge City Council wasted no time in proving that fact on Thursday.

Barely 72 hours after new Councilman Marc Gravitt was sworn in to give the East Ridge City Council -- along with returning council members Jim Bethune and Denny Manning -- a new majority of officials committed to cleaning up the East Ridge government, the council voted to oust embattled City Attorney John Anderson.

While a full-time city attorney in a town the size of East Ridge often earns less than $100,000 a year in Tennessee, East Ridge paid Anderson $158,000 in 2011 for working only part-time. The year before, Anderson snagged $132,000 from East Ridge taxpayers.

After Anderson's sweetheart part-time gig with city -- which paid him $250 an hour on top of a $90,000 annual retainer -- was brought to light in March 2011, Manning and Bethune attempted to fire the attorney. They, however, were outvoted by a majority led by Mayor Brent Lambert and Councilman Larry Sewell, who apparently thought it was appropriate to waste tax dollars so carelessly.

On Thursday, Lambert and Sewell -- who are now the only good 'ol boy, business-as-usual officials left on the council that were responsible for many of the bad decisions that helped turn East Ridge from a thriving bedroom community into a bastion of economic stagnation over the last few years -- fought in vein to keep Anderson. Thankfully, their attempt was defeated.

Unfortunately, just because East Ridge finally got rid of Anderson -- the city's one-man pork project -- doesn't mean all is right with the city.

The city council voted unanimously to lower a requirement that mandated a seven-day notice to add items to the council's agenda to only two days. By allowing less time for East Ridge residents to learn about what issues the council is considering, this shady decision makes it easier for council members to sneak bad ideas into law and harder for residents to know what their city leaders are up to.

Making matters worse, this evening, in a hastily-called session, the East Ridge City Council is expected to name Cris Helton, a former East Ridge city attorney, to return to the post left vacant by Anderson's ouster.

Helton is not without his own flaws. In 2008, he was publicly censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court for mishandling an estate in probate and improperly paying himself from the estate's funds. While serving as East Ridge city attorney, the IRS and state department of revenue also went after Helton for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.

Rather than rushing Helton back into the city attorney post, the council would be wise to open the position to applicants and allow time for other quality candidates to emerge.

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Beyond East Ridge's convoluted city attorney situation, city leaders have another issue on their hands in the form of East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble.

At the same time East Ridge officials were giving Anderson his well-deserved pink slip, Gobble was busy wreaking havoc. And wreaking havoc is what Gobble does best.

In recent months, Gobble has become both a menace and a laughingstock to East Ridgers. Gobble consumes thousands of dollars of his salary writing Facebook posts -- some of which are legitimate government announcements, but many of which are a series of self-centered diatribes in which he defends himself and attacks his many critics. The city manager was also recently blamed for tainting a court case involving his daughter.

On Thursday, the members of the city council gave Gobble a tongue-lashing for promoting his 19-year-old administrative assistant to city communications manager. The new communications manager, who has only four months of experience, happens to be a family friend of Gobble's. That fact goes a long way in explaining why Gobble hired him over the more than 70 other applicants -- many of whom had bachelor's and even master's degrees, and years of experience.

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By firing Anderson, the new-look city council took an important first step in cleaning up the government in the beleaguered Hamilton County city. But there is much more to be done.

First, the East Ridge City Council must now turn their focus on filling the vacant city attorney post with someone who will provide East Ridge with both outstanding legal expertise and an unassailable character, rather than shoehorning Helton back into the post. They should then reconsider their highly questionable decision to reduce the amount of public notice required to place something on the agenda. Finally, the council should think long and hard about whether it is worthwhile to keep Gobble in the position of city manager, given his proclivity to make poor decisions and inability to stay out of hot water.

Despite the long to-do list facing city leaders, the good news is that the new composition of the East Ridge City Council means that better days are ahead for the city.