published Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Dalton Roberts: Honesty, courage, vision


by Dalton Roberts

Unless some excellent historian like the late James Livingood sets his mind and hand to it, few will fully appreciate the work of the first Hamilton County Commission. I say without hesitation, it was the grandest legislative body in local history.

When I retired from my role as county executive, I said, "If I still had my original commission to work with, I would never want to leave this job. They were dreamers but hard-nosed dreamers. They had a vision of doing things for the people. They were honest, and they had courage."

I do not believe in living in the past, but when we fail to acknowledge our debt to those who make our present and future better, we will cease to have a better present and future.

We were all elected in 1978 under a new form of government. The first black commissioners in county history -- Paul McDaniel and Rheubin Taylor -- were elected. A woman commissioner -- Brenda Bailey -- was elected. There were nine commissioners elected from nine districts.

Things were rough in the area. Chattanooga had been the ninth-strongest manufacturing town in America based upon the percentage of the population working in manufacturing, but we had lost 15,000 manufacturing jobs as technology and the outsourcing of jobs began. Both inflation and unemployment were in double digits. Downtown looked like an old western ghost town at night.

We printed bumper stickers saying, "Hamilton County means business" and set out to prove it. We built six industrial parks, a riverport and appointed the Moccasin Bend Task Force that came up with waterfront projects.

Floyd "Flop" Fuller was the first chairman of the commission. He spent so much time on the job, it was like he was a member of our executive staff. He lost his insurance agency because of the hours he spent on county work. What a great job he did in those early years.

McDaniel quickly earned the respect of the whole commission and was elected chairman several times. He stood strong for civil rights but he also had a vision for the growth of the county. His intellectual gifts and character set a tone for county government.

Bailey was a self-assured young lady at the time and always studied the issues and contributed to solutions.

Taylor liked to address legal problems and gained enough respect to later be named county attorney.

Veteran county politician Jack Mayfield was bold and respected for his wisdom. His courage made some projects succeed.

Attorney Sam Robinson had an attorney's thoroughness and quit after one term, but his contributions were significant. A staff member once said, "When you answer all of Sam's questions, you know the project is ready to go."

Another veteran county politician, Bob Long, had a solid record of working for progress. He was a man of his word.

Howard Sompayrac, who once ran for Congress, especially worked for better sports facilities and programs. He opposed my plan to contract out the county penal farm but earned our respect for doing his research well. He was fundamentally a progressive man.

Claude Ramsey was the only Republican on that first commission but he served so well that it helped him defeat a popular Democrat for assessor of property. His commission seat was filled by former sheriff Frank Newell.

There was a fusion of wills among this group that sometimes felt like magic.

Contact Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.

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