By RACHAEL LONG
*Editor’s note: This article was updated at 3:15 p.m. on May 15 to include comments from Regina Smithson.
The seven-member Brentwood Board of Commissioners failed to secure a majority of votes necessary to elect a mayor at Monday night’s City Commission meeting. After seven rounds of voting, it was clear that most of the commissioners’ votes would not budge, with only Commissioner Anne Dunn ever making a change to her vote.
Mark Gorman, Rhea Little and Regina Smithson put their names on the ballot for mayor. On Monday night, all three commissioners voted consistently for themselves for the position of mayor. Andrews voted all seven times for Little, and Dunn voted for Smithson in five of the seven rounds.
Besides himself, two commissioners who voted consistently for Gorman to be mayor were Susannah MacMillan and Ken Travis. Both have received campaign contributions from Gorman.
In MacMillan’s first quarter campaign finance disclosure, an entry from Feb. 20, 2019 shows that she received a donation in the amount of $1,000 from Gorman.
MacMillan said Wednesday that the contribution she took from Gorman had nothing to do with her support of him for Mayor.
“The contribution was a matter of [the fact that] he saw early on that I was committed, going to [city] meetings long before any other candidate was and that I was fully committed and engaged and knowledgeable,” MacMillan said. “I think he saw that I was a frontrunner and I was a hard worker, and he wanted to support that.”
MacMillan said she supported Gorman because he has “paid his dues” as vice mayor and he was the only commissioner on the ballot for mayor without a full-time job. She believes he has the necessary time to devote to the role.
“There are a lot of extra responsibilities that [mayors] have, a lot of ribbon cuttings and face time, and all that stuff, so I think it’s important that we pick somebody who has the time,” MacMillan said. “That is my determining factor.”
In a Wednesday afternoon phone call to Home Page, Regina Smithson — who has served on the City Commission since 1993 — corrected the implication that Gorman is the only candidate for mayor without a full-time job. Smithson said she does not work a full-time job, but she would be glad to give 40 hours to the job of city commissioner or mayor should she be called upon to do so.
MacMillan said her ideas about city issues have often aligned with Gorman’s, but when it comes time to vote on city matters, she’s only interested in the facts.
“I’m not beholden to anyone,” MacMillan said. “I’m my own person, and I make every decision based on the facts and what I think is best for the citizens.”
When asked if she thought it was problematic for sitting commissioners to donate to a candidate’s campaign, MacMillan responded in the negative.
“No, because I also think that they understand better than anyone what it takes to run a campaign and to kind of put yourself out there,” MacMillan said. “[They understand what it means] to have the support of other commissioners encouraging you, saying, ‘This is hard’ and ‘Good for you for sticking your neck out there.’”
Travis’s campaign finance disclosure shows that he did not receive a donation from Gorman during his 2019 campaign. However, Gorman’s campaign finance disclosure from his 2017 campaign shows a contribution from Travis in the amount of $1,000, dated Feb. 28, 2017.
During his own 2015 campaign for City Commission, Travis received a donation from Gorman in the amount of $1,000, dated Feb. 1, 2015.
When asked whether the past financial contributions between himself and Gorman played a part in Travis’s voting Monday night, Travis, too, responded that the contributions were unrelated.
“It had nothing to do at all [with the voting that took place last night],” Travis said Tuesday. “He’s a personal friend, I’ve known him for a while, I’ve known him through business. I’ve known him socially, I’ve found him to be of the utmost character. He and I have very similar thoughts, we haven’t always voted together, but I feel like he’s a dedicated person to the citizens of Brentwood.”
When asked whether he thought it was problematic for sitting commissioners to donate to a candidate’s campaign, the new vice mayor said he did not think it was a problem.
“If [they’re] a citizen of Brentwood…they have a right to donate to anybody’s campaign,” Travis said. “So, I don’t think that’s a problem.”
Audit Director of the Tennessee Ethics Commission Jay Moeck says on a state level, it’s fairly common for sitting officials to contribute to a candidate’s campaign. He doesn’t see many reports from local elections for auditing purposes.
“I would guess it’s fairly common [at the local level],” Moeck said, noting that he would have to look at a local audit to know for certain.
Williamson County Election Administrator Chad Gray says he has seen candidates give money to one another, and he’s seen county candidates give to municipal candidates or vice-versa. But Gray says he has not encountered as often contributions to candidates from those serving on the same elected board.
When it comes to who can give campaign contributions, Moeck said there are relatively few restrictions.
“Any individual in the state can give a candidate contributions,” Moeck said. “Really the only kind of restrictions on people who can’t give a contribution is lobbyists.”
So can candidates and commissioners give contributions amongst themselves? According to state laws, Moeck says the answer is yes. As far as transparency for each candidate goes, he said any candidate who has collected more than $1,000 in one reporting period is required to disclose the information of all contributors who gave more than $100.
Neither Nelson Andrews nor Anne Dunn — the two other recently elected commissioners — took money from a sitting commissioner during the 2019 election, according to their first quarter campaign finance disclosures.
Campaign financial disclosures for all candidates and commissioners can be found here.