Opinion: Bill in state legislature would prevent relatively recent ‘double-dipping’ of government officials

Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd / Commissioner Gene-o Shipley serves both as a Hamilton County commissioner and as a member of the Soddy-Daisy Board of Commissioners.
Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd / Commissioner Gene-o Shipley serves both as a Hamilton County commissioner and as a member of the Soddy-Daisy Board of Commissioners.

With respect to the two people in Hamilton County currently serving on the Hamilton County Commission and on elected boards of local municipalities, we hope a bill currently moving through the Tennessee General Assembly that would prohibit anyone from serving on both county and municipal government boards eventually will become law.

The bill (HB699) would apply only to Tennessee's seven largest counties, which cover areas including Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Clarksville and Murfreesboro.

We have never been a fan of fewer people holding more than one office at a time. We believe the more diverse and larger number of people serving on governmental bodies the better.

It's one of the reasons we did not endorse Chattanooga Councilwoman Jenny Hill in her bid for the council in 2021 or Gene-o Shipley and Mike Chauncey in their primary elections for the Hamilton County Commission in 2022. Hill, at the time, also served on the Hamilton County Board of Education. Shipley currently serves on the Soddy-Daisy Board of Commissioners, and Chauncey, at the time, served on the East Ridge City Council.

It's why we could not be enthusiastic about the candidacy of state Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, when she first ran for state representative in 2018. At the time, she was a member of the East Ridge City Council, and she stood for election again in 2020.

It's almost impossible to imagine, after all, that Haynes-Helton would never be in a position as a state representative that could help the city of East Ridge or that Shipley would never be in a position as county commissioner that could help the city of Soddy-Daisy.

Currently, Shipley and Ken Smith, who serves on both the Chattanooga City Council and Hamilton County Commission, are the two local officials affected by the bill. If the bill advances, we'd like to see an amendment added to it that says anyone currently serving would be allowed to finish their term but could not stand for re-election to one office if they still planned to hold the other.

(Nothing in the bill forbids someone from holding a state and local office as Helton-Haynes currently does.)

If we had our druthers, we'd like to see the bill expanded to state offices and to school boards. Tennessee is one of the few states in which a member of the state legislature can hold another elected office, and some states forbid the same person from holding two government offices in which a salary is offered.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ronnie Glynn, D-Clarksville, already has bipartisan backing. It passed out of the House Cities and Counties Subcommittee last week on a voice vote. Only one Republican vote was recorded voting against it. Subcommittee chair Rep. Jerome Moon, R-Maryville, called it a "common-sense bill."

Glynn said the bill was suggested to him by the Montgomery County Commission, whose members had concerns about overlapping city and county interests.

"The city and county often work in unison where both provide money to support one or the other projects," according to the bill's legislative notes. "This could cause a person who holds both offices to be voting on resolutions that allow giving money from one government to the other on to a project that may directly benefit their district/ward for the other office."

Newspaper archives show holding county and city offices, at least where local office-holders are concerned, to be a relatively new phenomenon.

A 1980 Chattanooga Free Press article described a situation where the Henegar, Alabama, mayor was vying for a school board position, and if he won it, planned to get an attorney general's ruling on the legality of holding both offices.

In 1963, the then-Hamilton County sheriff, James "Bookie" Turner, was elected fire and police commissioner for Chattanooga, and had to resign the first position in order to accept the other.

In 1939, Tom Stewart, an elected district attorney general in Winchester, Tenn., was elected to the U.S. Senate and chose to wait to resign his position until the new governor, Prentice Cooper, was inaugurated.

As far as the two local office-holders are concerned, Smith said early last summer after being appointed to the county commission, if he were reappointed to the commission after state Rep. Greg Martin was re-elected to the position and resigned, he planned to resign his city council seat. But, more recently, he said he wasn't sure when he might resign the seat.

Shipley said he planned to stay on the Soddy-Daisy council until the next election in 2024.

In the meantime, we hope legislators see the importance of having more people, instead of fewer, shepherding local governmental bodies.

The bill next goes to the House Local Government Committee, which was to consider it this week. The Senate referred the bill to its State and Local Government Committee last month.

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