Be careful what you ask for: Sponsorship uncertain for Hamilton County commission pay bill

The Hamilton County Commission meets in June 2015 in the Hamilton County Courthouse.

A state lawmaker who says he might - might - sponsor a private act allowing Hamilton County commissioners to set their own pay predicts getting what they want won't make them as happy as they hope.

Commissioners voted Dec. 16 to ask lawmakers to repeal a section of state law that ties their pay increases to those given to the county mayor. That vote came after one of the commission's backroom letters gathered six signatures in favor of the change.

Their public stance is advancing transparency: If they want a raise, they would have to hold a public vote. Some, though, have also made clear they feel underpaid in their part-time jobs.

"My reason for doing it is, the first time I got a raise I didn't know I was getting one," said Chairman Chester Bankston, who signed the letter. "The best way to do it is to be transparent."

But state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, remembers back to 1999, when the commission got that private act passed after not having had a raise for 12 years.

"This was concocted to be a way to keep up with inflation and I think that's what it's done," Carter said. But he's not sure commissioners appreciate public resistance to them voting to raise their own pay.

"I told one commissioner this is a big mistake - 'You all will never get another pay raise. I'm just saying, if you all want to take the poison, I'll mix the brew.'"

photo Mike Carter

He said if commissioners really want to end their automatic raises, "I'm willing to sponsor that [in the House]. It's the most bold move by politicians I've seen in a hundred years, politicians willing to stand up and face the voters."

Commissioner Joe Graham, who didn't sign the letter, thinks his colleagues should leave well enough alone.

The 1999 change, he said, "set out a way for commissioners to get a raise that was fair to commissioners but also fair to employees and the public. It was brilliant, and here we are trying to reverse brilliance."

He also opposed the procedure - the letter left on a table in commission chambers for signatures. He thinks that's a violation of the state's open meetings law, which says the public's business must be done out where the public can see it.

"The first person that signs it, the other eight know how [that person] is going to vote. By the time it gets to six votes, everybody knows it's going to pass. How does that not violate the Sunshine Law?" Graham asked.

That's a concern for state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, too.

The Chattanooga Republican said Thursday he has asked for a state attorney general's opinion whether, if commissioners broke the Sunshine Law, accepting their letter would taint the Legislature, as well.

He also emailed County Attorney Rheubin Taylor to ask if uncoupling commission pay would have any ripple effects in other local governments. The Chattanooga mayor's pay is tied to that of the county mayor, and the City Council's pay is a percentage of their mayor's salary.

In his letter, he noted commissioners' stated desire not to be a "burden on the taxpayers" and wrote, "If that is the case when the Bill is drafted, let's just put a cap on their pay (salaries) where it is now."

Gardenhire said he hasn't talked to any of the Commissioners, and he pointed out neither the commission's letter nor its vote was unanimous: Along with Bankston, commissioners Greg Beck, Tim Boyd, Randy Fairbanks, Warren Mackey and Sabrena Turner-Smedley signed the letter and voted to ask for the change. Graham, Jim Fields and Joe Graham didn't sign; Fields and Graham voted against asking for the change and Haynes abstained.

The delegation's other senator, Republican Bo Watson, said he's waiting for Gardenhire's questions to be answered.

"Then we'll get together and decide how we want to move forward, keeping in mind this was not a unanimous resolution," Watson said. "Since it would be a private act, there would have to be agreement between the two senators who represent Hamilton County to move it."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.