Source of financial support for political ads in Lenoir City in question

By Hugh G. Willett
A misprinted advertisement may have led to confusion about a whether two nonprofit organizations improperly supported referendums on the Lenoir City ballot earlier this month

Questions have been raised about whether the organizations improperly placed ads in a local newspaper to encourage voter support of the charter changes. Some Lenoir City residents are also concerned that public money may have been used to fund the ads.

The charter amendments included changing the city recorder/treasurer position to an appointed post instead of elected. The initiative failed in the Aug. 2 election. The other proposal, which passed, extended the mayor's term from two years to four years.

Several advertisements endorsing the charter amendments ran between July 4 and the election. The ads said the amendments were endorsed by the Lenoir City Chamber of Commerce and the Committee of 100, a businessman's organization.

The ads said they were paid for by the Committee of 100. Both the Chamber and the Committee of 100 are nonprofit organizations.

"I don't think nonprofits are supposed to be getting involved in local elections," said Loudon County activist Pat Hunter. Hunter said she has been trying to find out if those who paid for the ad registered as political action committees.

"I have searched but I haven't found any PAC registered as the Committee of 100," she said.

According to state law, reports are required of any multicandidate political campaign committee, popularly known as a PAC, that participates in any state or local election.

"Multicandidate committee" is defined as a committee that makes expenditures to support or oppose two or more candidates for public office or two or more measures in a referendum election.

The local election commission is responsible for making sure local PACs are registered correctly, according to Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

Loudon County Election Commissioner Susan Harrison said she understood that there was a mistake and the ads should have said they were from a registered political action committee, not the two nonprofit groups. The PAC paperwork was filed, she said.

Committee of 100 Chairman Ron Jordan said the Committee registered as a PAC in order to support the charter amendments. Supporting nonpartisan election issues is an appropriate activity for the nonprofits, he said.

"We felt the two charter changes made sense," he said.

Jordan said the advertisements were paid for by his organization and that the Chamber of Commerce did not provide funding.

"Our treasurer wrote the check," he said.

Becky Watkins, who is currently running for city council in Lenoir City, said she is concerned about the fact that the city provided the Committee of 100 with $5,000 in funding for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Officials in city hall had a vested interest in seeing both the initiatives pass, she said.

"I'm concerned about knowing my dollars are not being spent to support the personal agendas of people in office," she said.

Watkins is trying to get a financial statement from city records. According to state law any nonprofit organization seeking assistance from a municipality shall file with the city clerk a copy of its annual report and a description of how the funding or assistance will be used in a way that serves the residents. Watkins said she has requested these documents but has not been able to obtain them.

Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens declined to discuss the funding of the non profit or the records of the decision. He referred questions to city attorney James Scott. Scott could not be reached Thursday.