Time for county home rule

Time for county home rule

July 27th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's decision to schedule an informal town hall discussion on home rule for county government - at 3 p.m. Thursday at City Hall - apparently doesn't sit well with county government officials.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry and County Mayor Jim Coppinger both snubbed the idea on the same - but wrong - grounds. Both essentially said the city's mayor has no business meddling in the county's business. Coppinger went further: He said he wouldn't even attend the meeting.

They have the wrong attitude. Though county officials generally seem to forget it, the city's 170,000 residents constitute fully half of the county's 340,000 population. With the lion's share of commercial property, moreover, the city accounts for nearly 80 percent of county government's tax base.

If the city mayor wants to initiate discussion about the possibility of county government acquiring a charter for home rule to build a more forward looking community, he - and any other county resident - has every right and reason to do so. The county as a whole would benefit from such discussion. We clearly need a more modern government to keep up with the county's urban needs in a period of increasingly rapid development.

The problem with county officials is that they have studiously neglected the need for an urban-appropriate county government with its own charter powers for far too long. The last attempt at gaining a county charter, in 1990, was sabotaged by a small minority of citizens led by then state Sen. Ray Albright, who deliberately confused it with an attempt at metro government.

That was not true then, and it isn't now. Memphis' Shelby County and Knox County both adopted a home rule charter to gain the power to write county ordinances, but their charters expressly prohibited adoption of metro government, leaving Nashville as the state's only metro government.

The 1990 vote sadly discouraged a forward looking county government here. But with a pending wave of unprecedented economic and population growth now likely over the next decade, Hamilton County needs a more able county government more than ever. Current county officials are simply wrong to ignore this need.

Without a home rule charter, county government here remains essentially a limited arm of state government. As such, it cannot create the sort of municipal ordinances that help improve all of the county's 10 municipalities. It would need a specific grant of power from the Legislature, for example, to establish a municipal style garbage service for the unincorporated areas of the county; to create rules to control animals, or abandoned property and weed-choked lots; or to condemn hazardous, dilapidated buildings

It is not empowered to establish ordinances to promote public health and safety, or to regulate environmental pollution, signs or disorderly gatherings. It can't even install traffic lights without state approval. In a growing county where 30 percent of the population lives in unincorporated areas, this simply isn't good enough.

Under state law, there are four ways to create a charter commission for county home rule. It may be initiated by a majority of the County Commission's members, by proclamation by the county mayor, by a petition of registered voters equal to 10 percent of the county voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election, or by a private act of the Legislature.

If county officials won't initiate a charter commission, county residents from any or all of the county's municipalities and its unincorporated areas can do it on their own. And they should. If a charter referendum for county home rule requires a jump start from Littlefield, so be it. County officials have neglected the idea too long.