Running for office may get easier for Chattanooga city workers

photo Chris Anderson

It may get easier for Chattanooga's city employees to decide whether to run for one of the 31 partisan races up for grabs in Hamilton County this year if Councilman Chris Anderson's ordinance passes.

Now, any city employee who runs for public office has to take a leave of absence after he or she begins to campaign or qualifies to run.

Anderson's proposal would reverse Chattanooga's city code to allow city employees to continue to work while running for office. The ordinance also would expand the current rules that allow an employee to keep their job if they win, as long as the new responsibilities don't conflict with the city duties. If an administrator felt like the employee's public office interfered with the city job, the employee could appeal to the city's chief operating officer.

These changes, Anderson said, are in line with other local governments such as Hamilton County and the city of Memphis.

"I don't think our employees should be treated any differently than anyone else," he said.

The proposed ordinance change comes five years after a local court ruled in favor of a city employee calling the current city ordinance likely unconstitutional.

In April 2008, Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth ruled that City Court Officer Greg Beck, who is also a Hamilton County commissioner, should be able to keep his city job while he was running for sheriff.

"That section not only restricts what the employee does on city time, but effectively controls what the employee does, in a political sense, on his or her own time," Hollingsworth wrote. "There is a likelihood that [the section] is unconstitutionally overbroad."

Beck was then able to keep his job, but the previous City Council didn't change the ordinance.

With the heaviest county ballot in recent history coming up in May, Anderson said he wanted to propose this ordinance in case anyone wanted to run for office. The qualifying deadline is Feb. 20. But Anderson said he didn't have any candidate in mind when he decided to introduce the bill.

The City Council will vote on the ordinance's first reading tonight when it meets for the first time in three weeks. The council also will vote on the final reading of an ordinance that will scale back officials' authority to approve city purchases.

The administration originally requested the council give the city more leeway to approve purchases up to $25,000 without City Council approval. But the mayor's office withdrew that request when they asked the council to update numerous purchasing requirements.

Councilman Moses Freeman requested the purchases be included in the changes, upping the approval limit from $10,000 to $25,000, at the Dec. 17 meeting.

At first four council members opposed the ordinance, but because Councilman Chip Henderson was absent the vote failed for lack of a fifth person present to vote. Then Councilman Jerry Mitchell and Councilwoman Carol Berz changed their votes and helped pass the first reading of the change by a 6-2 vote.

Also, the transportation department will ask the council for approval to go after three state grants totaling $900,000 to build sidewalks in the subdivisions connecting to Lakeside Academy School, Big Ridge Elementary School and Woodmore Elementary School.

The City Council also will be asked to approve more than $165,000 in purchases for new computers and iPads for the city's recreation centers.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at [email protected] or 423-757-6659.