During his first public remarks Thursday as Hamilton County mayor, Weston Wamp told a crowd at the Chattanooga Convention Center that elected leaders have the choice to follow one of two paths.
"One is the path that's most often taken," he said. "It's a path motivated by fear. Fear of not being popular, the fear of making mistakes, the fear of disappointing those who helped you get elected (and), ultimately, the fear of not getting re-elected."
The other path, he said, is one of civic courage, which is motivated by love.
"Fortunately, all of us in this room and all of us in this community have many guiding examples throughout the history of Hamilton County if we want to pursue civic courage," he said.
Daniel Trewhitt was a former state representative in the mid-19th century, Wamp said, who supported emancipation, opposed Tennessee's secession during the Civil War and ended up fighting for the Union. Another figure from Hamilton County's past, O.C. Kirkman, was a Quaker educator who badgered the then city school superintendent, Wamp said, to open a school in Chattanooga focused on technical education, which ultimately transformed the lives of thousands of people across the community.
"So now it's our turn to go forth and lead," Wamp said, "and may I ask of all of you in this room, but certainly those with me on the stage, to come alongside me and that we would find it in ourselves to pursue the path less traveled in elected office, and that's the path of civic courage."
Wamp's speech came at the end of an approximately hour-long swearing-in ceremony Thursday morning, where new and returning Hamilton County elected officials took their oath of office. That included Wamp as mayor and his sister, Coty Wamp, as district attorney general.
Hamilton County also swore in members of the County Commission, which has grown from nine to 11 members as a result of a redistricting process after the 2020 census.
Additionally, a new sheriff, Austin Garrett; the county's constitutional officers; school board members; and Chancery, Circuit, Criminal and Sessions court judges recited their oaths of office.
Wamp revealed core members of his mayoral staff in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday. The staff will include two deputy mayors focused on education and workforce issues as well as economic and community development. Wamp said the team he's assembled is going to bring a new attitude to county government that is laser-focused on people, which will include a concentration on customer service.
"That may sound over-generalized, but so often elected officials get into the day-to-day and they worry about this political issue or this perception problem instead of coming into the office every day (and asking), 'Are we making people's lives better?'" he said after Thursday's event.
Garrett served as chief deputy under his predecessor, former Sheriff Jim Hammond, and told the Times Free Press in an interview Thursday that his first priority will be hiring additional personnel. His office is short 123 positions out of a total of 538, he said.
"We've had to shift to do more with less to address certain things in the community, so my biggest challenge right now with this agency is people, getting people in the door," he said. "There's been things happening for the last two or three years where law enforcement hasn't been the most attractive profession that it historically was."
The office has beefed up its recruiting efforts and revamped its human resources process to speed up the onboarding of employees, he said.
"It's starting to work," Garrett said. "We're starting to see more applications come online with some of the things we're doing with our marketing ... but we're 70 positions short at the jail. So it's critical."
The Hamilton County Commission has four returning incumbents: David Sharpe, D-Red Bank; Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain; Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah; and Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista. The rest are a mixture of new and familiar faces.
Commissioner Greg Beck, D-North Brainerd, served on the panel for 13 years before he was unseated in 2018 by former Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, D-Ridgeside, who opted not to run for re-election in 2022. Beck told the Times Free Press that he's back to complete some unfinished work in his district.
"We're kind of stagnant, and we need to move forward in some very critical areas, especially crime, senior outreach, community development, those types of things," he said.
Over the long term, he wants to see officials widen Bonny Oaks Drive, which suffers from congestion, and establish a park memorializing victims of homicide. Additionally, he's looking forward to the completion of Tyner Middle High Academy and hopes to see funding made available for a 40-month initiative designed to take 40 14-year-olds and nurture them into productive citizens.
"Hopefully, that will be a catalyst for other commissioners, other churches or other groups, because we've got to do something about the crime problem," Beck said. "We can't do anything about the people who already committed crime. We've got to lock them up, keep them locked up. I believe in that."
But, he hopes to see officials come up with ways to intervene early before teenagers turn to a life of crime.
Commissioner Joe Graham, R-Lookout Valley, is another veteran of the County Commission. After two terms on the panel, he was ousted by Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, in 2018. Graham returns to represent the newly created District 11, which includes Alton Park, Lookout Valley, St. Elmo and other areas.
School safety and infrastructure are at the top of his list of priorities.
"There's a lot of opportunity for growth, but we don't have the infrastructure in place," he said. "(Former) Mayor (Jim) Coppinger and our predecessors have done an excellent job, but we just need to take the baton and carry it to the next step."
Commissioner Jeff Eversole, R-Ooltewah, also represents a new district and was sworn in Thursday on the childhood Bible belonging to his son, Joshua, who died in a car accident in July at 33.
Eversole said he hopes to see county government become more proactive.
"I think we spend a lot of time reacting," he said, "and my whole goal is bringing some experience to the commission to where we're always thinking ahead in the direction that we're going, whether it be planning for growth, planning for infrastructure."