Coppinger deserves county mayor re-election

Coppinger deserves county mayor re-election

April 12th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks in this file photo.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Little short of an act of God will keep Jim Coppinger from being re-elected Hamilton County mayor.

He only must dispatch perennial candidate Basil Marceaux in the May 6 Republican primary and independent Richard Ford in the August general election.

While this page endorses Coppinger's election in the primary, we wish he had serious opposition, if only to force him to be more specific about how he wants to move the county forward and provide more leadership as the county's top official.

His campaign themes, echoed on the hustings and in a meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board, include economic development, job creation, public education, workforce development and quality of life.

What's not to like?

Coppinger said under his watch 80 businesses have been created or expanded, 7,000 jobs have been created and more than $100 million in buildings or additions have been started.

Further, he pointed out that STEM School Chattanooga opened on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College under the Hamilton County Department of Education in 2012, and that a coalition of state, county and education partners will roll out Pathways to Prosperity, which will provide students with rigorous academic/career pathways linked to economic and labor market needs and trends, in August.

The county mayor, who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Claude Ramsey when he was made deputy governor by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2011 and elected to fill the remaining two years of Ramsey's term in 2012, also noted the county has a AAA bond rating from all three major rating agencies and is the only city in Tennessee so rated.

And, he said, "we're not in a situation where we need to [raise taxes]."

Just last month, though, Coppinger recommended that county commissioners spend $48 million to build a new school at Ganns Middle Valley Elementary (which would absorb Falling Water Elementary) and additions at Sale Creek Middle-High and Wolftever and Nolan elementary schools.

The process of how the decision came to be made is one situation where we believe the county mayor could have used his influence to smooth the waters.

Fred Skillern, chairman of the County Commission, said, for instance, the school system previously "told us exactly what their needs were" but provided them only "very vaguely" this year in a six-item list of projects. School Board member David Testerman, however, said the board couldn't prioritize its list of needed projects because Coppinger didn't list how much money was available for projects until after he revealed his recommendations.

When the county mayor first planned to publicly reveal his recommendations, Skillern asked him to hold off and share those revelations in private, later telling Times Free Press editors the mayor and commissioners would have been embarrassed over the lack of information available.

Then, when the projects were finally announced and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts was left out after being on a waiting list for 15 years, no assurances were given it would be next on the list.

The man in the middle of all this is Coppinger, who early in the process should have worked more closely behind the scenes -- not on policy-making with the two bodies that might violate the Sunshine Law but on getting the School Board and the Commission on the same page to move forward together.

That's what leaders do.

Indeed, the lack of communications within county bodies generally and between the Commission and the School Board specifically was lamented time and again by County Commission incumbents and challengers in recent Times Free Press editorial board meetings ahead of the May primaries.

Marceaux, who is running for both county mayor and governor this year, ran for the state House and county mayor in 2012, and for governor, the U.S. House and county mayor in 2010.

He's opposing Coppinger, he said, because county mayors all across Tennessee "don't listen to higher-court decisions, then become tyrants, and there's no way to remove them."

Marceaux has several other complaints, including what he believes are some illegal traffic stops in which he's been involved, emission testing centers and mandatory car insurance, but none of those actually concern the county mayor.