ATHENS, Tenn. — City Manager Seth Sumner told his side of the story of the missing Google Nest cameras to the Athens City Council last week in a six-hour session, which ended with the decision to hold another such meeting.
Police Chief Cliff Couch had reported the surveillance cameras missing — and mysteriously returned — in two lengthy letters to the local prosecutor, suggesting Sumner had something to do with it.
District Attorney Steve Crump found no crime to investigate, labeling it an internal issue for Athens City Hall. But the matter has continued to reverberate in city government, with two previous secret meetings before the public forum on Tuesday.
The meeting marked the first time Sumner publicly told his version of events.
"There is no evidence those cameras were ever missing," Sumner told the council. "Those cameras are not missing. This is a property loss report, at best, that turned into something different quite quickly."
According to the police chief's report to the DA, the cameras were noticed missing in November 2020 and then turned up in a supply closet and an officer's laptop case in December and January respectively, with no explanation. One detective remembered the city manager taking possession of the cameras at an unspecified earlier time.
Sumner focused on the timeframe, saying his brief possession of the cameras was unrelated and unremarkable and happened years ago.
"There was no timeline provided or questioned in the entirety of the documentation that has been provided. Never, not once," Sumner said. "There have been allusions to a handful of times, but no basis of a timeline of events that could easily prove or disprove anyone's assumptions or allegations."
Sumner told the council his contact with the cameras went back more than two years.
"It began in October 2018," he said. "We had a druid event that was to take place Oct. 27 at Market Park Pavilion."
Sumner told the council he and Athens police Det. Blake Witt were talking about surveillance cameras and the need to replace an out-of-order camera system at the park.
According to Sumner, Witt and another officer went to Cleveland to purchase the Nest cameras. The city manager praised Witt's investigative skills and knack for technology.
Because Witt has expertise in technology, Sumner said, he also later talked with the detective on Dec. 10, 2018, about cameras he could use at his home. He was planning to get a security system as a Christmas gift for his wife, he said.
"We had decided that I would take a look at the cameras that we bought just two months earlier in October," Sumner said. "Mr. Witt handed me the box of cameras. I did accept that box of cameras. I took that box of cameras here — it was delivered to me here at city hall. I walked across to my office where I opened the box."
Sumner said he looked at the cameras but never even turned them on.
"I did have a busy day that day," he told the council. "We did have a study session that night, some of you might recall ... and that box sat in a chair in my office overnight."
As evidence of his brief encounter with the cameras, Sumner offered a calendar entry for Dec. 10, 2018, which said, "Get Nest cam from PD."
That night, Sumner said, he did further research on security cameras for his home and decided against the Google Nest cameras.
Sumner said he then returned the Nest cameras to Witt's office the next day, Dec. 11, 2018, and that was the last he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of the cameras.
He acknowledged he should have texted Witt or sent him an email saying the cameras were returned or made sure there was a witness to his returning the cameras but that he felt all was well since the cameras never left the building and had been returned.
Sumner said he received a call from Couch on Nov. 19, 2020, asking about the cameras.
"He told me that Detective Witt thought I was the last person who had the cameras, and he asked if I still had the cameras," Sumner said. "I told him, no, I did not have the cameras."
He said the chief's subsequent investigation into the matter, and his letters to the district attorney, were "without authorization" and "circumventing the proper process."
Following Sumner's turn with the council, Couch told council members he'd pursued the missing cameras matter because it appeared something happened to them without his knowledge, that it was a mystery of missing city property that begged for answers.
He said he was correct to contact the district attorney about the matter and that his actions thereafter were in the interest of clearing up the cameras' disappearance.
During his exchange with the council Tuesday, Couch said the city manager's account to the council that he looked at the cameras and returned them in 2018 was the first time he'd heard that description of events and he said he wished he'd known about that account sooner.
Couch said theft by Sumner "was never my concern" but that because city property was missing he had an obligation to go to the district attorney with the information he had.
Still, he said, "There's unanswered questions about this."
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.