With Chattanooga police Chief Freeman Cooper retiring this week, Mayor Ron Littlefield is set to give the City Council two options: Hand the chief a three-year contract for six-figures each year or hire Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond for $1 annually.
"I'm dead serious about it," said the two-term mayor, who has stated his ultimate goal is to consolidate the city and county law enforcement agencies.
Councilman Russell Gilbert, who voted last week against the contract for Chief Cooper in a 4-4 deadlock, said the mayor might think hiring Sheriff Hammond is an option, but the council likely will disagree.
"I doubt very seriously we would consider that," Mr. Gilbert said Saturday. "Bottom line is, we have to approve it, regardless of what he thinks."
Mr. Littlefield has said having Chief Cooper on board, with his three years' experience as head of the department, would help smooth out a merger of city and county law enforcement agencies. The mayor, who leaves office in 2013 and is prohibited from seeking a third consecutive term, has identified consolidation of city and county government a priority before he leaves office.
The mayor said he talked with Sheriff Hammond, City Attorney Mike McMahan and County Mayor Claude Ramsey about his proposal to hire the sheriff on a contractual basis for $1 a year. Mr. Littlefield said the city attorney signed off on the proposal.
"It's legally possible," Mr. Littlefield said.
Mr. Ramsey said he would not comment on the mayor's proposal.
"That's between him and his administration," he said.
Sheriff Hammond said he talked Thursday with Mr. Littlefield about a contract to oversee the police department should the council not approve one for Chief Cooper.
The sheriff said he told the mayor he would be "happy to consider a contract if that is the will of the mayor and the council."
However, a management contract does not mean he is interested in a metro or consolidated government.
"As the constitutional officer, I am saying that as sheriff I am capable of putting together an organizational plan with the men and women who are already in place in this city," Sheriff Hammond said.
Last week the City Council could not agree on a contract that would allow Chief Cooper to retire but be retained for three years at his current salary of $116,822 a year. The 58-year-old police veteran also would receive a yearly pension of almost $80,000 and a one-time retirement benefit, called a Deferred Retirement Option Plan, of $240,000.
Mr. Littlefield said he thinks he has the votes to approve the chief's contract extension Tuesday night but had heard many times last week that council members wanted options.
Hiring Sheriff Hammond is his option but approving the chief's contract is the most "logical and sensible" step, he said.
"If, for whatever reason that's not possible, we'll look at working with the sheriff's office," Mr. Littlefield said.
Councilwoman Sally Robinson, who was absent from last week's meeting, has not said how she will vote.
"What if we didn't vote yes on either one of them? Then what would happen?" she said.
She said council members are hearing a firestorm of criticism from the public about the financial package the chief could receive in retirement, along with a salary. She said consolidation is not the issue.
"It's all about the money," she said.
"A big can of worms"
Commissioner Fred Skillern said Friday he was surprised by the proposal.
"That's a big can of worms," he said. "I want to talk to our attorney. I want to talk to our sheriff, and I want to talk to our mayor."
Mr. Ramsey said he thought a contract such as the one proposed by Mr. Littlefield probably would have to come before the County Commission.
Commissioner Jim Coppinger said he would need time to "process what that would mean."
"On the surface, I don't know what (Mayor Ron Littlefield) is trying to accomplish," Mr. Coppinger said Saturday. "It would be demoralizing to the Chattanooga Police Department."
Mr. Coppinger said the proposal sounds "almost like an ultimatum" from Mr. Littlefield.
For his part, the sheriff said he would have to meet with the police department's command staff and get everyone working together.
"I would just become the man at the helm to walk us through these troubled waters," he said.
* Councilman Jack Benson: "This is a way departments can merge."
* Councilwoman Carol Berz: "At this point, having the sheriff or someone with the sheriff's department take over is an unwise move."
* Councilwoman Sally Robinson: "What if we didn't vote yes on either one of them? Then what would happen?"
* Councilman Manny Rico: "I think it would be a slap in the face to our police department."
* Councilwoman Pam Ladd: "That is pushing the envelope toward consolidation."
* Councilman Russell Gilbert: "Bottom line, we have to approve it, regardless of what he thinks."
* Councilman Andraé McGary: "I think it's an option. At least we have an option."
* Councilman Peter Murphy: "I would have to research on whether that's even possible."
Sheriff Hammond said a management contract would not entail all of the details of merging the two agencies.
"If you just talked about consolidation, you've got some deep issues about unions and retirement plans and rank structures," he said. "There'd be a lot of thorny issues, which to me you're talking about a couple of years, at minimum, of processing if you did move forward."
"Let's Look at It"
Council members on Saturday expressed mixed reactions about the proposal. Councilwoman Pam Ladd said the mayor's option is "creative" and said she would like to learn about the matter.
"When I say I'm fine with looking at it, let's look at it," she said. "It doesn't mean I'm voting for it."
Councilman Manny Rico said bringing the sheriff in to run the police department would lower morale among police officers.
"I think it would be a slap in the face to our police department," Mr. Rico said. "I don't want to see that."
Mr. Gilbert said a proposal to hire the sheriff shows what the mayor "thinks of the department."
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