Cooper: Joe Smith preferred for county commission

photo Joe Smith is running for the Chattanooga City Commission.

Two men who say they are conservatives, have been pastors at one point in their careers and have servants' hearts are running for one Hamilton County Commission position in November's election.

With those attributes, it's hard to go wrong with either choice.

But of the two, we prefer Joe Smith, director of mission advancement for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, for the District 3 post. If Smith is elected, his opponent, Hamilton County Board of Education member and Realtor Greg Martin, can remain on the school board, where we have admired his independent voice and business sensibilities.

The winner will fill the unexpired seat of Marty Haynes, who was elected Hamilton County assessor of property in August. The district represents Hixson, Middle Valley, Lakesite and Big Ridge.

Smith, 62, has a compelling backstory of regrettable involvement with alcohol and drugs between the ages of 18 and 32, a diligent recovery and a career since of working to help improve the lives of less fortunate children and youth, but that is not reason enough to elect him.

What we like is his concept of a county commissioner who he says must be a cheerleader, a peacemaker, a problem solver, a fair allocator of funds and a fiscal watchdog as part of a larger whole.

"One commissioner is not going to change the system," he told the Times Free Press editorial board. "We have to work together to solve problems."

Smith says his passions have been his family, the children with whom he works and his community, and the fact that - as an independent candidate - he would take no agenda with him to the County Commission.

Martin, 53, similarly says he has "no axe to grind" and "no agenda." He worked earnestly since Haynes announced his bid for assessor to line up Republican Party regulars to support him for the commission seat. Not surprisingly, the Hixson Republican Caucus appointed him as the GOP nominee at its Sept. 8 meeting. And though insiders say Martin has his eye on even higher office, he claims the commission is the right place for him.

"I have government experience," he said, "and it's the right kind of government experience. I know how to make tough decisions."

Martin pointed out that he was the only one on the school board to vote against the board's decision to sue the state for a larger share of Basic Education Program funds (he says it's a mistake for one government to sue another government for more government money), that he made the motion to fire then-Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith last spring (a courageous motion not seconded) and that he supported retired Marine Corps. commander Shaun Sadler (a non-educator) for interim superintendent after Smith retired.

Those decisions, frankly, are why we prefer him to finish his term on the school board, a board whose members had too little business experience and had been less independent of the schools' central office than we liked.

Smith, as a county commissioner, said he would want to improve relations between the commission and the school board and to examine how the dollars allocated to the school board are spent. He knows the commission also will need to determine what to do about the overcrowded county jail, whether to build a new one and what to do about the fact the jail is one of the county's "biggest mental health treatment centers."

Martin, should he be elected, said "taxes are going to be an issue" and that a decision on a jail would require "more information to make an intelligent decision." But, he said, "I'd take schools over a jail any day."

Both men have recognition they can tout (Smith: Chattanooga Bar Association Liberty Bell Award, Martin: Tennessee PTA School Board Member of the Year); civic involvement (Smith: volunteer coach, North River YMCA, Martin: board of directors, Hixson Council, Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce); Republican supporters (Smith: former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, former Hamilton County Mayor and Deputy Governor Claude Ramsey and former state Rep. Richard Floyd, Martin: state Sen. Bo Watson, state Rep./Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond); and a previous claim to fame (Smith: Olympics boxing manager, Martin: school board member, Long Beach, Miss.). Both men also said they would advocate a senior tax freeze if property taxes were raised.

In the final analysis, we believe Smith, with his emphasis on solving problems together, is the better fit for the Hamilton County Commission at this time. We urge a vote for him on Nov. 8.