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The Hamilton County Commission

Hamilton County commissioners want the authority to set their own pay scale, and they are trying to get it very quietly.

The request isn't anything too out of the ordinary. County commissioners in the state's 94 other counties vote on their own pay. But an open-government group calls Hamilton County's method "a very odd and suspicious way to do it."

Eight of the nine commissioners privately signed a letter sent to the local state delegation last week asking legislators to remove 15-year-old language in state law that set Hamilton County commissioner salaries and tied potential raises to the county mayor's pay.

Acting on the commission's request, state delegates drafted bills -- Senate Bill 707 and House Bill 717 -- with two cryptic lines that would grant that power.

There was no discussion of the commission's request -- public or private -- commissioners say. And the only evidence of their effort is the bills themselves.

The bill language in its entirety:

"Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 5-5-107(b), is amend[ed] by deleting subdivision (2). This act shall take effect June 30, 2015, the public welfare requiring it."

As of fiscal year 2014, the commissioners each made $21,368 and the county mayor made $151,006. The commission chairman made $24,638.

Commissioner Greg Beck said the commission didn't discuss anything because he prepared the letter and left it out in the commission's private chambers for any of his colleagues to sign who wanted to.

"It was just something I drafted. If they read it and felt like it was something they wanted to sign, they could," Beck said.

Every commissioner except Joe Graham in District 6 signed it.

Graham said Friday night that he didn't sign the letter because he thinks the current law is better for employees.

"The way it is now, commissioners don't get a raise unless all the employees get a raise," Graham said.

The letter was sent, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said Friday he wrote SB 707 "as a courtesy" to the commission.

"If we get a request from at least two-thirds of the commission, we will do it as a courtesy," Gardenhire said.

Otherwise, he didn't have an opinion about the bill.

"If that's what these current county commissioners want to do, I won't get involved," Gardenhire said.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, who filed the House bill, said the same thing.

"I've not looked into it. I dropped it in as a courtesy with our deadline [to file bills] approaching," McCormick said.

Commission Chairman Jim Fields said he signed the letter and agrees that commissioner pay shouldn't be tied to the mayor's, citing the importance of separation of powers in government.

"And if commissioners want to increase their pay scale, I think they should have to get out there and tell the public what they are doing instead of just attaching it to the mayor's salary," Fields said.

Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, says the question isn't whether commissioners should be able to set their pay. It's why they didn't do all this in public.

"It sounds like a very odd and suspicious way to do it. In this case, they wanted the delegation to run a bill that impacts their own salary -- something the public would like to know," Fisher said.

"Why not discuss that in an open meeting? By doing it in a back-room chain letter, it looks like you are trying to sneak something by."

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