'07 audit chastised Harriman mayoral hopefuls

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By Cindy Simpson

The past could come back to haunt the candidates in this year’s race for Harriman mayor.

Both incumbent Mayor Chris Mason and opponent Wayne Best were accused of wrongdoing in the 2007 audit prepared by the municipal division of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury.

Best, serving as fire chief at the time, was accused of attempting to use city funds to purchase a toolbox for his private vehicle.

Best has long denied that claim.

“There is no record that the city ever paid for a toolbox, and there is a record showing I did pay for one,” he said. “If they go talk to the city clerk there at the time, she’ll verify that the city never paid for a toolbox.”

State officials preparing the audit stand behind their findings. The audit report said the allegations are based on an invoice signed by Best billing the city on the same day he purchased the toolbox for his truck.

The audit said Best reported that he bought his toolbox with cash and was unwilling or unable to provide any documentation of its purchase.

Best paid the city $200, the value of the toolbox, shortly after the audit findings were made public.

Former Harriman City Clerk Tracey Bolden said shortly after the audit findings that there was nothing showing the city ever made a payment and she could not find an archived copy of the invoice that auditors obtained from the automotive supply store.

Best believes that he may have inadvertently signed the invoice when he put the toolbox on hold before picking it up later that day.

“My problem is I paid for the toolbox twice,” Best said.

He also thinks if might not be his signature on the invoice listed in the audit.

His brother, Shane Best, told auditors he was sure they paid with cash “due to the fact that I counted the money out and that we were given a discount due to the employment of myself as a police officer.”

Mason was a Harriman City Council member when the audit was released. He also operated a cellphone business that provided cellphones to the Harriman Utility Board. The audit deemed such action as a conflict of interest.

Mason said he was told soon after he was elected to council that his company could not do business with HUB. He said the business relationship was stopped immediately.

“I instructed my staff not to sell anything to anyone from the HUB,” Mason said.

He said it didn’t hurt his business because he was giving the utility a large discount.

Mason sold the business in November and now works as a juvenile officer for the Roane County court system.

His biggest issue in the election, however, may be the Princess Theater.

Advocates see potential for education and the draw of an entertainment venue in the theater. Its renovation has been underwritten with $1.7 million in TVA restitution monies given to communities following the Dec. 22, 2008, ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant, and Tennessee Department of Transportation grant money for a welcome center, including the theater lobby and a neighboring building.

Working with Roane State Community College and Roane County Schools, the idea was to utilize local cable access Channel 15 for entertainment to draw people and potential businesses downtown and provide students with education in media and theater production.

Detractors, however, are concerned about it being a public venture that benefits a few private individuals, namely former theater owner Gary Baker.

The city made a deal with Baker to take over the theater and lease it to him, giving him an option to purchase the newly renovated building for up to $100,000.

Baker has said he has no intentions to act on that option, and Mason said they shouldn’t be concerned because plans are to take that possibility away.

“The Princess Foundation has the lease now, and RSCC will assume the lease upon completion of construction,” he said.

“I don’t see a risk,” he said via email. “The money was given from TVA to the Princess Foundation (non profit 501c-3), the city never has and never will spend any money on that building, and we get to reap all of the benefits of revitalizing downtown, expanded education and a place that will give us ‘something to do.’”

Best has said he hopes the theater does well, especially since so much money has been put into it.

“I support it because we spent a lot of money on it,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket.”

It also bothers Best that the city used TVA funds for the theater and then borrowed money for street paving.

Both men have very little to say about each other, preferring to focus on the issues.

“No I don’t care to comment about my opponent,” Mason said. “I am trying to run this race based on what I have done and what I want to do. So far I have, and I don’t want to address the opponent.”

Best said he respects Mason, despite their disagreements.

“We’re both after the same thing, and that is to make the city the best it can be,” he said. “His views are different than mine.  That is the only difference.”