Chattanooga City Council grills Youth and Family Development administrator

Lurone Jennings, administrator for Chattanooga's Youth and Family Development, speaks to the Chattanooga City Council.

After a nearly 90-minute question-and-answer session, the new Chattanooga City Council approved the dozen or so officials who make up Mayor Andy Berke's cabinet for his new term in office, as required by the city charter.

Before the council members settled the mayor's leadership positions, they took care of their own, electing councilmen Jerry Mitchell and Ken Smith to serve as the body's chairman and vice-chairman, respectively.

The positions include leaders of various city departments, the city court clerk and the city attorney. Except for Tina Camba, appointed to direct the Human Resources Department, all other officials have held their posts months or even years. Camba has served as her department's interim director for a number of months.

It was Lurone Jennings, administrator of the Youth and Family Development Department, however, who faced some of the most intense scrutiny of the evening.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, one of the council's newest faces, showed relentless energy in getting publicly acquainted with the mayor's leadership team.

She told Jennings his staff had "abandoned" the department's center in Eastdale, in Coonrod's district.

"I don't know if you can change some people, but the computers do not work inside of the center, so I really don't see how it is effective for that community," she said, adding she wanted all communities to have the same opportunities.

Jennings disagreed, replying that facility managers are to report complaints and that the department "responds according to the needs" once Jennings is made aware of the complaint.

Smith took it a step further, asking Jennings to answer "the gorilla in the room" - allegations that the Youth and Family Development director misappropriated donated funds, according to an internal city audit.

According to city records, Jennings failed to follow rules when he gave $18,500 in Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga donations to his daughter's nonprofit agency, which provides summer camps for disabled children. The money was supposed to support the department's educational services for high school students, work scholarships and temporary jobs.

In December, the Berke administration gave him a one-week suspension and stripped him of his authority to make financial and contractual decisions for his department.

"How do you plan to run the next four years with that being on your record?" Smith asked.

Jennings said the council had given him freedom to raise private dollars and to allocate those dollars to help youth programs, he said.

"I did that," Jennings said. "There was no city dollars involved. I had freedom and flexibility, and then it came to my attention that there was some conflict of interest that related to my daughter."

Jennings said he accepted full responsibility for his actions, "as a leader should."

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@times Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.