East Ridge lost its “watchdog” on Saturday when citizen activist Frances Johnson Mathis Pope passed away at her home.
Pope, 73, battled metastatic lung cancer for 15 months with the kind of dignity and determination and selflessness that is rarely seen in this world.
Pope, all four-foot-11 inches of her, cast a giant shadow on the politics of this city for the better part of two decades. She was a sounding board and sometimes a mouthpiece for city employees, councilmen and mayors. She ran for mayor of this city in 2014, not gaining office, but gaining the respect and gratitude of many residents of East Ridge for the way in which she campaigned: plainspoken, straightforward and issue-driven.
Her mantra, when it came to the actions of city government was very simple: “I just want things done the right way.”
I remember clear as day Frances telling me about how she got involved with politics in East Ridge. It all began when a neighbor asked her what she thought about the city’s proposed budget for the coming year. “I told them that I had no opinion about the budget. I needed to get a copy of it and take a look first.”
When she requested a copy of the budget from city officials, she was told that it was a “draft document,” meaning it wasn’t finalized, and that the City Attorney would have to be consulted to determine if the budget could be made public.
Can you imagine? Yes, there was a time in this city, and not too long ago, that the BUDGET, was not for public consumption! Privately, Pope was outraged. Publicly, she did what became her hallmark … she researched and waited. The woman made the first of many phone calls to state officials. She would eventually be on a first name basis with many staffers, including the head counsel, in the Tennessee Office of Open Records.
Of course, eventually, she got her copy of the budget. Then she did a deep dive into the document and started asking questions. One question led to another. The answers only led to more questions. She was told that government accounting was different than private sector practices, so she schooled herself in the workings of Government Accounting Standards Board, the famous GASB!
The answers were rarely satisfactory and Pope came to a conclusion: “Dick, they are playing at running a city!”
If Frances had a battle cry it was for open, honest and transparent government. In year’s past, she was galled that she could readily obtain documents from Hamilton County or the State of Tennessee but was often-times stonewalled by East Ridge officials.
I recall the debacle with obtaining former City Attorney John Anderson’s billing of East Ridge. After the late County Commissioner Curtis Adams took legal action to force the turnover of the records, Frances, along with the rest of the general public, believed victory was at hand. However, a judge in the case allowed Anderson to make redactions. I was with Frances and a handful of private citizens in the county courthouse when the billing documents were made available. Almost every word of any substance was blacked out leaving only prepositions for her and the rest of the public to ponder.
Frances’ face turned red and she muttered a couple of swear words under her breath. This one incident would have been enough to discourage most people from moving forward with any attempt at accountability, but not Frances.
She soldiered on. Information was her North Star and her moral compass never wavered from its heading.
When city officials finally came to the conclusion that Frances was not going to go away there was more amity and cooperation from City Hall. She had high regard for some of our city managers; not so much for others. But, each one of them knew exactly where they stood with her.
She loved her men and women in fire and police. She came by it honestly, as Frances’ late brother Paul Johnson was a firefighter for Chattanooga and her husband Glen’s career was in law enforcement. It didn’t hurt that East Ridge Fire Chief Mike Williams reminded her of Paul, something she readily admitted.
Frances focused much of her attention in the last few years advocating for a ladder truck for her firefighters. She railed about the truck being in the budget for the last two years but no truck being purchased. The fire department finally got its ladder truck this spring, albeit a gently used one. Frances took satisfaction in that, believing she played some small role.
She was disgusted by the firing of former Police Chief J.R. Reed and didn’t keep it a secret. She thought it was unjustified and the city’s Personnel Review Board agreed with her. But like many things inside East Ridge City Hall it was a waste of time and effort, as the review board’s findings were non-binding. Oddly enough, she was recently appointed to the Personnel Review Board. When she accepted, almost immediately she asked for the board’s by-laws and policy manual.
Though she and her daughter Cindy were fishing fixtures at Camp Jordan’s Jack Dickert pond, she held firm that funding for the park should be secondary to funding for public safety, sanitation and streets. I’m sure she and Stump Martin are carrying on that debate now somewhere behind the pearly gates.