Mayor Ron Littlefield said Friday that Hamilton County could establish home rule and create its own charter, paving the way for the city and county to merge.
"Maybe it's time we revisit it," Littlefield said Friday during a speech to the Civitan Club at the Bessie Smith Hall.
One reason the city and county cannot merge at this time is because the county does not have home rule, so therefore does not have power to adopt some of its own rules and regulations, he said. But with its own charter, the county would have more autonomy and the city could join in.
County Mayor Claude Ramsey, however, said Friday that he and Littlefield have talked about the idea but "not in any detail." He said the item is not on the county's agenda.
"Any discussion would have been in general, like you talk about the weather," Ramsey said. "But there's not been much more than that."
Littlefield has been proposing consolidation of city and county government since his second term began in April 2009. He has said repeatedly that he wants consolidation to be the crown of his achievements during his administration.
He said he was watching election returns Thursday night and saw that Knox County had home rule. If that government body could do it, so could Hamilton County, he said.
Joseph Jarret, Knox County law director, confirmed the county does have home rule.
"We are one of two counties in Tennessee that have a charter," he said.
WHAT IS HOME RULE
In most states, home rule gives cities and counties the ability to levy any local tax. In Tennessee, however, home rule doesn't grant that ability, but gives cities and counties more power to pass other laws without having to get approval from the state Legislature.
Source: The University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service
RULES FOR HOME RULE
Establishing home rule and a charter for a county first takes a referendum asking voters the question: "Do you want home rule?" If the referendum is passed, a seven-member charter commission is created by the Tennessee General Assembly. Anyone who wants to be on the commission must run for the seat and be picked by voters during an election. The commission would be required to draft a charter and, once presented, voters would have to approve it within 60 days.
Source: Tennessee state law
He said Knox County residents voted on the charter in 1988 and it took effect in 1990.
But there is some confusion from officials on how it can be done. Littlefield admitted he did not know the process and said it could possibly take a referendum. Ramsey said he did not know the process either and had not researched it.
According to state law, it would take a referendum to vote in home rule, a seven-member charter commission to make up the charter and a second referendum approving the charter.
For unification to take place, the city would have to dissolve its charter, officials said. Littlefield said he would be open to the possibility, "according to what the county charter would look like."
Assistant City Attorney Phil Noblett said dissolving Chattanooga's charter is a complicated process within itself.
He said it would take a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters and there would have to be a special election called to dissolve charter. Even at that point, he said, he was unclear whether it would take 50 percent or two-thirds approval to dissolve the city's charter.
Council Chairman Manny Rico said he would support such an idea.
"I wouldn't have any problem with that," he said. "If it saves the taxpayers money, I'm for it."
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