published Friday, February 11th, 2011

Coppinger pushes reform for filling mayor vacancy


by Dan Whisenhunt

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Thursday followed through on his promise to seek reform of the process for choosing the county mayor in the event of a vacancy.

Coppinger, who was appointed mayor by the Hamilton County Commission in January, gave commissioners a draft of a law that would allow them to hold a special election to fill a vacancy. The current process only provides for commissioners to appoint a mayor.

"In the event we have a situation where a county mayor leaves, we'll have some options," Coppinger said.

The law would not apply to vacant commission seats, which would continue to be filled by appointment.

Coppinger said state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, has agreed to sponsor the legislation in the General Assembly. McCormick did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

The deadline for filing legislation is Feb. 17.

Commissioners appointed Coppinger after Claude Ramsey left in January to join the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said the act handed out by Coppinger is written to apply only to Hamilton County, which Coppinger thinks will give the legislation a better shot at passing.

Under the proposal, if the vacancy occurs more than 180 days before the next general election, the commission could schedule a special election within 120 days. The winner would serve out the remainder of the predecessor's term.

The current process allows the appointee to serve until the next county general election, which in Coppinger's case is 2012.

The Hamilton County Election Commission estimates a special election would cost $100,000. But commissioners agreed Thursday they should at least have the option.

"I know the constituents in my district would've paid me a dollar if they'd have got to vote," Commissioner Tim Boyd said of the current process.

The county may have to correct the language of the legislation before it is sent to Nashville, however.

The draft says the law will apply to any county of no less than 285,535 people and no more than 285,540 people as of the 2000 census. However, the U.S. Census website shows the county's population was 307,896 in 2000; it was 285,536 in 1990.

When a Times Free Press reporter pointed this out to Taylor, he said the population figures would be corrected before the bill is introduced.

"We're going to have it accurate by the time we hand it over," Taylor said.

In other business, Coppinger announced he is keeping most of the staff left to him by Ramsey, but he still must fill three key vacancies: directors of human resources and equal employment opportunity and administrator of human services.

Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisenhunt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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Stewwie said...

[The Hamilton County Election Commission estimates a special election would cost $100,000. But commissioners agreed Thursday they should at least have the option.]

Instead of wasting taxpayers' dollars, just keep the process the same as now, but hold the special election during the next even-numbered election year. That way, a costly, separate election doesn't have to take place. Plus, the appointed mayor wouldn't be in office for very long (less than two years for sure) before having to run.

Also, if a candidate for appointed mayor is also a councilman (as Mr. Coppinger was), let the man vote for himself! Why take away his privilege to vote as a councilman? This 4-4 deadlock between Coppinger and Carter was ridiculous. Coppinger should have been allowed to vote for himself. If we're going to change any laws, let's use some common sense.

February 11, 2011 at 11:07 p.m.
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