Back-room meetings? Maybe it's time to let Skillern, Coppinger in on a secret

Back-room meetings? Maybe it's time to let Skillern, Coppinger in on a secret

March 14th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Proposed projects

Here are the six top construction projects for Hamilton County schools:

• An addition at Wolftever Creek Elementary

• A new building to replace Falling Water Elementary and Ganns Middle Valley Elementary

• An addition at Nolan Elementary

• An addition at Sale Creek Middle-High

• A new building to replace and expand Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts

• A new middle school for the East Hamilton area

County voters need to get together in secret meetings to plot how to recall, vote out - whatever it takes - to end the back-room reign of Fred "Boss" Skillern, Jim "King" Coppinger and any other county official who even contemplates meeting secretly to decide what new schools are built and how.

Hamilton County has enough money to complete three of six proposed new school projects, but County Mayor Coppinger won't say how much the county has to work with or what three schools should be built. Instead, at the request of commission Chairman Skillern, Coppinger will meet with commissioners privately to discuss the projects -- outside of public view.

This is our tax money. These are our schools. They will be where our children spend most of their waking hours to learn and to grow.

Coppinger -- and especially Skillern -- should be ashamed of themselves. And if they persist in this, we should shame them right out of office if they even hint again at these private meetings. Remember, this is an election year for five Board of Education members and all nine Hamilton County commissioners. While some do not have opposition at the moment, the qualifying deadline for independents is April 3.

Let's back up a few weeks for some context: In January, school officials whittled their priority facility needs to six schools on a $136 million to-do list. Coppinger said the county would not give the schools a lump sum for the needs, and he wouldn't say how much money is available. He did say the county won't have enough to pay for all $136 million in priorities right away.

School board members -- armed with that non-committal "commitment" -- didn't whittle their list further. Instead, they dropped the emotionally charged specter of community winners and losers into the laps of county commissioners and the county mayor. School Superintendent Rick Smith officially presented the list of priority construction needs to commissioners on Wednesday.

But that was about as much discussion as the public got to hear. Coppinger said he was prepared to share the three projects he recommended, but Skillern told him to meet with the commissioners individually in private. Skillern later said, "I didn't want to sit there all day. ... Why have discussion without figures?"

At least one other commissioner, Tim Boyd, said bring on the public debate: "Why does it need to be private? ... Everybody in this community needs to be a part of this discussion."

He also criticized the lack of budgeting information from Coppinger: "Here we are talking about funding schools and the only information we've got is what's been written in the paper," Boyd said.

He is absolutely right on both counts. Put all the cards and bargaining chips on the commission table for everyone to consider. That's called representative government, and it's why we elect you folks.

Technically, the suggested secret meetings are not illegal, but they clearly slap at the spirit of the law -- and transparency.

The state's Sunshine Law prohibits two or more members of the commission from meeting privately to discuss policy or money. Coppinger, while county mayor, is not a member of the commission. But how does this look and smell? Here is Coppinger, who leads the county, and Skillern, who chairs the commission, planning a series of one-on-one meetings between Coppinger and each of the other commissioners to talk about the money available and the projects preferred.

As for any commissioners who agree to meet in secret with Coppinger -- per Commissioner Skillern's plan -- just remember the robocop-camera outrage that your vote without debate created a few weeks ago. You guys had to reverse that decision in the blink of an eye.

Meet in secret a few times and let the public down again, this time over new schools and our money. The next barrage on your social media pages will probably crash the county's server -- and maybe your elected future.