published Monday, November 4th, 2013

Hamilton County officials take active policy role

Holding the county’s $272 million purse strings gives Hamilton County commissioners a great deal of influence, but commissioners have another seldom-used power that is less about rubber-stamping and more about making policy.

Commissioners can propose resolutions — dictates of county government policy that are not quite law. Generally, resolutions come to commissioners from the mayor’s office, which is responsible for the county’s day-to-day operation. But when commissioners find issues in their districts — or others — they can draft their own rules. Some stand the test of time, others don’t.

Past commissioner-led initiatives include a move in 2001 to post the Ten Commandments in the County Courthouse, which resulted in a federal lawsuit that racked up $80,000 in attorney fees mostly paid by private donors, and a proposal to remove an education tax exemption for big businesses in the area — a measure that’s still around.

Two commissioners recently exercised their administrative skills, with mixed results.

Commissioner Marty Haynes pushed to have the commission’s $900,000-a-year discretionary funds posted online and in print for regular public consumption. The first report was released Wednesday.

Another resolution, put forward by Joe Graham, aimed at giving commissioners more control over what grants constitutional officers sought. It would have required officials to come to the commission before seeking grants that required county matching funds. That measure failed.

Graham and Haynes, two of the most recently elected commissioners, say policymaking is a part of the job that shouldn’t be ignored.

“If you look back and see in my record I’ve [proposed] about twice what everyone else has,” Graham said. “I’m not afraid to put something out there and have a discussion about it. If it passes, great; if not, we’ll move on.”

Aside from the grant resolution, Graham previously drafted a resolution that earmarked money earned from payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreements for future growth.

“After the money started piling up, commissioners saw it and some of the money was released. Now we don’t do that anymore,” he said.

Haynes said he wants to be proactive when it comes to policy, but only for the commission.

“My initial thought is county government is running well, so I’d hate to get in the way of something. I certainly don’t want to legislate how county government is running on a day-to-day basis,” Haynes said. “I don’t want to get into telling the mayor’s office or other departments how they should operate. I’m more focused on how the commission operates.”

He offered an example.

“There are some things down the road. I think we should have online streaming of our meetings one day. … That’s more about the way we conduct our business and not how other portions [of government] do,” Haynes said.

Haynes and Graham are the exception, not the rule.

Commission Chairman Fred Skillern, the longest-serving commissioner currently on the board, said commissioners don’t often propose resolutions unless they are confident they have support.

“It’s not uncommon, but it’s not something that happens every month. More times than not, one … comes from the commission and the mayor or somebody likes it and makes it a regular resolution,” Skillern said.

Resolutions aren’t laws because the county does not have home rule, according to County Attorney Rheubin Taylor. There are no specific consequences to not following commission-made policy. But being on the wrong side of the commission could make budget time tough.

“Bottom line is, a resolution establishes a policy. If somebody violates the policy, especially with the County Commission appropriating money, it’s not wise to bite the hand that feeds you,” Taylor said.

He said there is no record of how many resolutions have come from the commission, because the number isn’t tracked.

Still, the vast majority of resolutions filter through Mayor Jim Coppinger’s office. Ultimately, the executive branch is responsible for making sure the county operates. Coppinger said it’s rare for commissioners to step on the executive branch’s toes.

“There are responsibilities for different branches of government, and we do a good job of staying in the lanes,” he said. “I think what the people expect out of all of us in elected positions is to move government forward.”

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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