The Chattanooga City Council authorized its audit committee to review whether a department administrator and another employee violated city laws and policies by using work time to market their business.
"It's not a full-blown criminal investigation," Councilwoman Carol Berz said. "It's about if policy was followed."
Department of Education, Arts & Culture Administrator Missy Crutchfield conceded last week she and department spokeswoman Melissa Turner had worked on their for-profit publication, Be Magazine, during business hours. The pair also cross-promoted the website on city newsletters and in advertising to local, private publications, a Times Free Press investigation found.
According to city code, any questions raised about ethics violations of city employees are to be investigated by the city attorney. But City Attorney Mike McMahan recused himself from that conversation Tuesday.
The city's Code of Ethics has specific provisions spelled out against employees using municipal time and facilities. The city's code states:
* An official or employee shall not use or authorize the use of municipal time, facilities, equipment or supplies for private gain or advantage to himself.
* An official or employee shall not use or authorize the use of municipal time, facilities, equipment, or supplies for private gain or advantage to any private person or entity, except as authorized by legitimate contract or lease that is determined by the governing body to be in the best interests of the municipality.
Source: Chattanooga City Charter
"This is something I should not be investigating," he said. "I'm too close to the situation."
Council members debated for about 20 minutes about whether to send the matter to the audit committee or ask Crutchfield to come before the body's Education, Arts & Culture Committee first to give her side of the story.
Councilman Andraé McGary, chairman of that committee, said it would be better to hear from Crutchfield.
"It's my desire to have Missy come before us and hear the whole story," he said.
Berz said having the administrator come before the council before an investigation could taint the process.
"I think it's cleaner if you let it go to the audit committee," she said.
Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the council's decision to refer the issue to the audit committee is an "excellent idea."
"We want to make sure everyone's questions are answered," he said.
City officials said the audit committee will do a preliminary investigation to see if policies were followed. If not, the committee could ask city auditor Stan Sewell or an independent auditor to conduct a full-blown audit of the city department.
The council's actions came after a Times Free Press investigation showed Crutchfield and Turner had been operating Be Magazine, under the parent company, Be Communications LLC, on city time.
Council Chairman Manny Rico said he wants to make sure the city is being transparent.
"There has been a problem here, and we know it," he said.
Contact Cliff Hightower at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6480. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CliffHightower.