A departing political shot

A departing political shot

January 17th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

When Mayor Ron Littlefield leaves office this spring, his legacy will be thin not because he hasn't had some good ideas, but because his tactics or presumed motives often alienate the people central to achieving his ideas. In other cases, he over-reaches to favor key allies and staff members. And sometimes he makes matters worse with his penchant for inflicting political punishment.

Littlefield's unachieved goals of consolidating key public services of city and county governments, or consolidating the city's and county's myriad water utilities, or improving city-county tax equity, make good examples of his flawed handling of worthy political and policy goals

Then there are his efforts to ram through controversial development projects -- the North Market Street Publix and the Chattanooga Village proposal in Hixson spring to mind -- or to protect or favor his political allies and staff, regardless of inappropriate circumstances.

His attempt in recent days to hastily install his chief administrative deputy, Anita Ebersole, as the City Court Clerk before his term expires, appears to fall into the latter category. Littlefield contends that he sought to place her in that job because it was good place to start a belated initiative to shift city offices to "paperless" offices.

That thin rationale, of course, predictably ignited some dissension by City Court's two judges, Russell Bean and Sherry Paty. At a City Council meeting Tuesday, they questioned why he had waited until the end of his term to crank up such an innovation; and why the City Court Clerk's job, which had been left in the hands of an "interim" appointee for the past four-and-a-half years at a salary less than half Ebersole's $95,000 yearly pay, would now go to Ebersole until she retires.

This wouldn't be the first time, to be sure, that an outgoing elected official has helped install a key staff aide in a safe, well-paid job before a his successor takes office. Yet Littlefield apparently didn't intend to make this a graceful transition. Indeed, he accused the judges of "unprofessional conduct" for questioning his plan.

In fact, it's fair to assume the "paperless office" plan fits a larger pattern of conflict between the mayor and City Court judges. Littlefield began advocating merger of City Court with the county's Sessions Courts after City Court lost constitutional jurisdiction over preliminary hearings for criminal cases in the city in the 1990s. That loss, prompted by a mid-term pay raise given by the city to then City Court Judge Walter Williams in violation of state constitutional rules, left the diminished city court with a reduced docket of code enforcement, environmental compliance and minor traffic offenses and accidents.

Some time later, when the city's new animal shelter was engaged in a legal contest with a pet supply outlet, Paty duly reported a call to her by Littlefield concerning the case when it was before the court. Paty subsequently recused herself and transferred the case to another court to avoid appearance of a conflict of interest.

Following that, an aggravated Littlefield tried to move the court's operation from the County's court's building, where it had security controls, to a vacant building near City Hall, which had none. The judges' successful opposition just further miffed Littlefield, however.

More recently, the mayor got CARTA to assume control of handling parking tickets near the Riverfront. The tickets are being handled by Republic Parking, presumably for a fee. And now City Council members, and the judges, have discovered that the ordinance they mayor got passed would allow CARTA (and Republic Parking) to further extend their ticket-handling jurisdiction.

No wonder Littlefield's attempt to appoint Ebersole as city court clerk -- she wisely declined to take the appointment Tuesday -- appears to continue the mayor's rift with the judges and City Court.

That doesn't explain why City Council chairwoman Pam Ladd refused to let Paty address the council, or why she cut off council member Deborah Scott, who raised the issue of Littlefield trying to "get rid of City Court." But it does illuminate what appears to have become a unending political grudge match, and why it continues so near to the mayor's departure from office.