Nine lobbyists represent public agencies in Hamilton County

Nine lobbyists represent public agencies in Hamilton County

April 27th, 2015 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Aerial shows downtown Chattanooga, the Aquarium, Market Street Bridge, Tennessee River and the Bluff View district.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should local governments have paid lobbyists?

ORGANIZATION // LOBBYIST // SALARY

City of Chattanooga // Thomas Lee // $6,000 per month
City of Chattanooga // Debra Maggart // joint contract with Lee
City of Chattanooga // Mirna Tunjic // joint contract with Lee
City of Chattanooga // Jane Alvis* // $37,100
EPB // Catie Laine Bailey // $60,000
EPB // Mark Smith // joint contract with Bailey
EPB // Will Denami // $35,000
EPB // Claude Ramsey // $60,000
Erlanger // Hayes Ledford // $5,800 per month
Hamilton County // Will Denami // $20,000
TOTAL // $304,700
* Alvis represents Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville as part of the Tennessee Municipal League. That contract amount is for league dues.

Public agencies in Hamilton County are paying nine lobbyists a combined $304,700 a year to represent local interests to state officials who were elected to represent local interests.

The city of Chattanooga has four lobbyists in Nashville, city-owned EPB has four, and Erlanger Health System and Hamilton County each have one.

Chattanooga contracts with the law firm of Frost, Brown and Todd, but it also gets a lobbyist through its membership with the Tennessee Municipal League, according to city spokeswoman Lacie Stone.

The contract with Frost, Brown and Todd costs $6,000 a month while the General Assembly is in session, Stone said. For that sum, the city gets the services of Thomas Lee, Debra Maggart and Mirna Tunjic, according to Tennessee Ethics Commission records. Last session, Stone said, the administration did not pay any lobbyists.

There's no direct salary tied to the city's other lobbyist, Jane Alvis, Stone said. But the city pays $37,100 to be a TML member.

"For the Tennessee Municipal League, we pay membership dues for several things. Part of that goes to Jane Alvis, [who] represents the Big Four cities," Stone said.

Before Mayor Andy Berke entered office, the city had an additional full-time lobbying post in the mayor's office that paid $39,392 a year.

Berke, who used to be a state senator, already has connections in Nashville, but Stone said that influence only goes so far.

"It's important to have someone to talk to legislators for us about issues that involve Chattanooga," she said. "It's helpful to have someone there on the ground with working knowledge of things happening on a daily basis."

EPB pays four lobbyists a combined $155,000.

Spokesman John Pless said the board has a $60,000 contract with Miller & Martin law firm for two lobbyists -- Mark Smith and Catie Lane Bailey. It also pays former deputy governor Claude Ramsey, who also used to be mayor of Hamilton County, an additional $60,000. In addition, EPB pays lobbyist Will Denami -- who also contracts with the county -- an annual salary of $35,000, Pless said.

While it is a public agency, the power board does not receive tax dollars. Its revenue comes from ratepayers.

And EPB had plenty to lobby for this year, as the locally owned telephone, cable, Internet and electricity provider pushed for a state law to allow municipal broadband services to expand beyond their current boundaries.

EPB pays lobbyists for a simple reason -- the competition does, too.

Communication companies opposed to the expansion -- Comcast, Charter Communications and the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association -- had six lobbyists combined.

"Changes in state law can easily create millions of dollars of harm or benefit for our customers," Pless said in an email. "Utilizing experts to monitor emerging legislation and represent the best interests of our community is a small price to pay when compared to the potential downside of not participating in the legislative process."

That bill ultimately stalled and will be picked up again next session.

Erlanger Health System, the region's largest public hospital, hires lobbyists for the same reason, spokeswoman Pat Charles said.

"As with any large organization, it is standard business practice to engage a lobbyist to assist with public policy," Charles said.

The health system pays former Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Hayes Ledford, who was also a regional representative for former Gov. Don Sundquist.

Charles said Ledford gets $5,800 monthly for lobbying on the health system's behalf.

The Hamilton County government pays the least for lobbying services.

Mayor Jim Coppinger said county taxpayers pay Denami $20,000 a year.

Denami's job for the county is more about keeping an eye out on legislation passing though the General Assembly that could help or harm local taxpayers, Coppinger said.

"The things that Will's reading through, he calls on a regular basis, particularly on the last month of session. If he sees bills coming through that could affect us that maybe nobody else was looking at, it's helpful," Coppinger said.

The county also stays in close contact with the state delegation, but Coppinger said they can't be everywhere at once.

"There's so much activity up there. There's so much going through. Your delegation is up there assigned to committees and they are working diligently, but Will's looking at everything," he said.

State Rep. Gerald McCormick says it seems odd for local governments to hire people to influence state representatives. But that's just the way it has to work, he said.

"I think you can make the case that with our local state representatives and state senators, that there shouldn't be lobbyists at all, and we should just represent the people. But the reality is that we just have limited time," McCormick said. "If I weren't in the legislature and hadn't seen the other side of it, I would say they weren't needed. But I know how it is."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.


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