Hamilton County Mayor: Civil service leads to ‘entrenched bureaucracy’

Staff photo by David Floyd / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp speaks during a lunchtime meeting of the Pachyderm Club on Monday at the Chattanooga Masonic Center.
Staff photo by David Floyd / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp speaks during a lunchtime meeting of the Pachyderm Club on Monday at the Chattanooga Masonic Center.


Speaking to a local Republican organization Monday, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp reiterated his concerns about plans for general government to switch to a civil service system, stating that he hopes the decision will be revisited.

Wamp said Monday that civil service was first introduced in Tennessee in 1939 and is a relic of the progressive era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"In modern America, conservative leaders have fought tooth and nail to roll back, if not eliminate altogether, civil service," he told members of the Pachyderm Club during a lunchtime meeting at the Chattanooga Masonic Center.

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam made it among his first priorities, Wamp said, and former President Donald Trump also railed against the "entrenched bureaucracy" in Washington, D.C., and has proposed significant reforms since leaving office.

"It -- like a lot of government solutions -- was well-intentioned," Wamp said. "What it has realistically led to is propelled, entrenched, strengthened bureaucracy, and I can certainly say as the chief executive of county government, it sent chills up the spine of our administrators, who go to work every day trying their best to serve this county in a very difficult job market."

The change to civil service was one of five resolutions that county commissioners unanimously approved following a closed meeting Wednesday. Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, introduced the change, noting he had heard concerns about a "hostile" work environment at the county.

Commissioners also Wednesday reaffirmed the contract of longtime County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, after Wamp attempted to fire him on Oct 14. Taylor continues to work with the support of county commissioners.

According to the resolution, Taylor, administrators and employees in the mayor's office would not fall under the civil service system, which applies to directors and below.

Chris Acuff, an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week that civil service employees often have greater job protections than political appointees and can only be fired or demoted for cause based on some form of wrongdoing. They're often allowed a hearing in front of a civil service commission or board.

Employees hired in a civil service system often undergo some kind of examination or must meet certain merit-based hiring criteria.

"Generally, civil service systems were instituted in the United States in the late 19th century to insulate public servants from termination, demotion or retribution based on political allegiances or a change in executive leadership," Acuff said in an email.

On Monday, Wamp's office also announced that he's asking the county's public records commission to change its policy for retention of county emails, which the mayor said is part of an effort to maintain transparent practices.

The County Technical Assistance Service recommends governments hold on to correspondence for five years. In Hamilton County, Wamp said, officials have "operated in a loophole and far-fetched interpretation of the law" to hold on to emails for only 10 days before deleting them.

"And then they're gone forever," he said. "And that of course makes it very difficult to hold elected officials accountable when the record disappears within 10 days. Accountability is not fun, but it's important. It's core to conservatism."

In a news release, his office said county government has been operating since 2004 under the assumption that all deleted emails are defined as "working documents" according to state law, making them obsolete once deleted.

Wamp told local news outlets Monday that he heard about the ongoing policy from one of his administrators. New leadership in county government presents an opportunity to update those practices, he said.

"It's the same concept (as) two years ago, three years ago, when the revelation was made that the county attorney's office had been systematically destroying public records requests," he said. "We feel like this probably has similar roots, right? The county has been doing a lot of things for a long time because it could cover its tracks. It's not the right way to go."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

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