Chattanooga City Councilman Larry Grohn, a candidate vying for the mayor's seat, has called for a special independent investigation and audit of the city's Youth and Family Development department.
Mayor Andy Berke's administration suspended YFD Administrator Lurone Jennings for one week after last week's revelation he misused nearly $27,500 in funding from nonprofit Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. Jennings lost the authority to make financial decisions or enter into contractual decisions for the department and has to take additional ethical training.
Jennings gave $18,500 of the money — intended for educational services for high school students, work scholarships and temporary jobs — to his daughter's nonprofit group, which provides a summer camp for disabled children, according to a memo issued by city auditor Stan Sewell. Except for $1,500, the rest of the money went toward storage space rental, basketball hoops, mediation training and summer camp scholarships.
"Mr. Jennings' punishment in this matter is a farce perpetrated upon the people of Chattanooga," Grohn said in released statement. "His willful violation of the city code of ethics calls into question every disbursement of funds by the entire Department of Youth and Family Development."
Grohn characterized the handling of the matter as a "sign of unethical leadership and a lack of integrity."
Not so, says the Berke mayoral campaign.
"When Mayor Berke and city staff received the audit, they took immediate action," campaign manager Tyler Yount said in an email. "Mayor Berke believes that these steps send a clear message that this behavior is unacceptable in his administration."
Grohn alleged the handling of YFD's nonprofit funds "only scratches the surfaces of improprieties within this administration," also calling into question the mayor's admission to previously using the encrypted text messaging smartphone application Whatsapp to communicate government business. Berke has not explained why he or his staff used encrypted messaging to conduct business or why he quit using it, but has said the practice did not conflict with record retention requirements.
"From day one, Mayor Berke has made a commitment to an ethical government that is accountable to the taxpayers," Yount said.
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@times freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.