An option laid out by Mayor Ron Littlefield to install Sheriff Jim Hammond as head of Chattanooga's police department if a contract for current Chief Freeman Cooper is not ratified could backfire, the council's chairman said Monday.
"I think he had the votes when he said he had the votes," council Chairman Jack Benson said. "I don't think he has the votes now."
Mr. Benson said Monday he has not heard one person in support of installing the sheriff as the police chief. He said he initially thought there might be some support for it because it would be a move toward consolidation.
"I've found absolutely no support for this except from the mayor's office," Mr. Benson said.
Mr. Littlefield said last week that if a contract for Chief Cooper is not ratified by the council that he would initiate a contract with Hamilton County Sheriff Hammond to take the job as Chattanooga's top law enforcement officer for $1 a year. The council will vote on Chief Cooper's contract tonight, the day before he is set to retire.
Mr. Littlefield on Monday brushed off the comments by Mr. Benson.
The City Council will vote tonight on offering a three-year contract to police Chief Freeman Cooper. The contract calls for Chief Cooper to receive his present salary of $116,822 a year. He also would be able to collect a one-time $240,000 lump sum retirement benefit and a pension of about $80,000 a year.
"We'll see," he said. "The fact remains we need to be moving toward consolidated government."
Sheriff Hammond said Monday he was shocked to hear mention of a contract. He said the mayor did not discuss those details with him last week.
"No contract was ever discussed," he said.
He said Mr. Littlefield talked to him about consolidation and the possibility of the sheriff taking over the department. During an interview with the Times Free Press last week, Sheriff Hammond said he would be "more than happy with a contract." Sheriff Hammond said Monday those were his words and not the mayor's.
He said that as the constitutional officer for the county he would have to step in and talk if asked. But he said he doubted that would mean doing the job for $1 a year.
"I'm obligated to talk to them," he said. "I'm not obligated to do it."
Mr. Littlefield said they did talk about contracts the sheriff's department has with Walden and Lakesite. He said he did not recollect if he ever mentioned a "contract" between the county and city.
"We talked about consolidation and whether the county could take over," he said. "It's a conceivable thing to have a contract or interlocal agreement."
Mr. Littlefield said last week the council has two options: vote to accept his police chief or not vote on him and vote on a contract for the sheriff. When asked if the council voted for neither, Mr. Littlefield said he doubted that would happen. He did not give any other options if both votes failed.
"Then they'll just be in a state of limbo," he said. "I'm going to lay out the two options for them. They can make their choice."
City Attorney Mike McMahan said Monday the charter could allow the mayor to place the sheriff in as chief of police. But he would want to see more done legally.
"As I see it, it takes an interlocal agreement," he said. "It's going to take agreement from a lot of folks to get it done."
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said if an interlocal agreement were the method used to place the sheriff in as head of the Chattanooga Police Department then approval by the County Commission would be necessary.
Controversy has stemmed from Mr. Littlefield announcing he would like to give a contract to Chief Cooper. The council deadlocked 4-4 last week on that contract. Under it, Chief Cooper would get his salary and also be eligible to receive an $80,000-a-year pension, along with a one-time lump sum of $240,000.
POLICE UNION RESPONSE
Sgt. Craig Joel, vice president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, wrote a stinging letter to council members Monday concerning the mayor's proposal to install the sheriff as Chattanooga's top cop if the vote does not approve Chief Cooper.
Sgt. Joel said Monday he was speaking as a private citizen and not for the FOP. He said "the ultimatum could backfire" against the mayor.
He said he certainly took the mayor's proposal as a "slap in the face."
Detective Phil Grubb, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said his organization had no problems with Sheriff Hammond or consolidation. The problem he and other officers have is how the consolidation proposal was presented without any consideration from the department or the public, he said.
"It doesn't really surprise me (Mr. Littlefield) would come up with something like that, because he's shown time and time again he doesn't care about the police department," Detective Grubb said.
Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said that is "just not true."
"It's not that he doesn't care about the police department," Mr. Beeland said. "It's that he cares about the continuity of the police department and moving it forward through consolidation."
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Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...