Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond is defending his choice to make an endorsement in the county mayor's race despite his office's policy prohibiting employees from doing so.
Hammond last month announced he had endorsed mayor candidate Matt Hullander of Chattanooga in the Republican primary on May 3.
While it is largely against the office's code of conduct for employees to endorse political candidates, Hammond said in a Tuesday phone interview that he is exempt from that standard.
"I'm a constitutional officer as sheriff, so I'm not an employee that is covered under civil service," Hammond said, adding that it's an important distinction because if voters take issue with an official's endorsement, they can simply not vote for that official.
The department's code of conduct and appearance states that "no employee of the sheriff's office shall make any public endorsement of any candidate in any campaign for elected office; provided that, if an employee or deputy sheriff is running for an elected office, then such restriction shall not apply to that employee or deputy sheriff's own campaign."
But as an elected official whose position is laid out in the state constitution, that rule doesn't apply to him, Hammond said.
Other positions that are exempt include the chief deputy, administrative assistant and chief of staff. In addition, the cook is also exempt, which is because it was once tradition for the cook to be the sheriff's wife, he said.
Only those hired through the civil service process, which the sheriff's office is only one of few in the state to use, are subject to the rule against endorsements, which is also prohibited by state law.
Mayor candidate Weston Wamp, R-Chattanooga, declined to comment on whether it was right for Hammond to make the endorsement.
However, Wamp said it was his understanding it was a favor to Hullander's father, Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander.
"I was not surprised when the sheriff endorsed the son of one of his longtime colleagues in county government," Wamp said in a Tuesday phone interview. "That's politics."
Mayor Jim Coppinger, who is not seeking re-election, declined to comment. Hullander and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Hammond, who is not running for re-election, said he spoke with all three mayoral candidates and simply determined Hullander was the right individual for the job. In his endorsement, he praised the Republican for his "hard work, integrity and commitment to others."
When asked if it was appropriate to endorse a candidate running for a position outside his own office, Hammond said he has the right to express his opinion for who is best for the job.
"It's what politics is all about," Hammond said, adding the sheriff is one of the most powerful individuals in county government.
Hamilton County Commission chair Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltwah, the third mayoral candidate in the GOP primary race, said she'd leave it to voters when asked about the office's policy and the idea of a constitutional officer making an endorsement.
"That's very interesting, but I'll leave that question to you, the sheriff, and Mr. Hullander to sort out," Smedley said in a Monday statement. "Obviously, it's a free country, and people should be able to support whomever they want, but ultimately, it's up to the voters to assess possible conflicts of interest with the aid of investigative journalism by local media."
Although employees in the sheriff's office are to be dismissed if they break the code of conduct, the policy does not completely bar them from engaging in political activities.
For example, some violations, such as actively participating in a political campaign, only apply if the officer is on duty.
In addition, employees are permitted to be a member of a political club or organization as long as they're not on duty.
Tennessee state law regarding sheriff’s civil service employees and political activity:— No person holding a position in the classified service shall take an active part in any political campaign while on duty.— No employee of the sheriff’s department shall solicit money for political campaigns; provided, that such restriction shall not prohibit an employee, including a deputy sheriff, who is running for an elected office from soliciting and accepting campaign contributions for such person’s own election campaign if the person is not on duty or in uniform when such activities occur.— No employee of the sheriff’s office shall make any public endorsement of any candidate in any campaign for elected office; provided that, if an employee or deputy sheriff is running for an elected office then such restriction shall not apply to that employee or deputy sheriff’s own campaign.— A deputy sheriff shall not use such position to reflect the deputy sheriff’s personal political feelings as those of the sheriff’s department or to exert any pressure on anyone to influence that person’s political views.— No employee while on duty, nor any officer while in uniform, shall display any political advertising or paraphernalia on such person’s body or automobile.— However, nothing in this part shall be construed to prohibit or prevent any such employee from becoming or continuing to be a member of a political club or organization and enjoying all the rights and privileges of such membership or from attending any political meetings, while not on duty. Such employee shall not be denied freedom in the casting of a vote.— Any person violating this section shall be dismissed from the service of the office of the sheriff.Source: Tennessee Code 8-8-419