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If the law is as stated, then surely ... it's incumbent upon the Legislature to follow the law."
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Greg Beck

At this point, Hamilton County commissioners have no clue what they should be paid. And the decision will likely be up to the state's top attorney.

Commissioner Greg Beck says he wants State Attorney General Herbert Slatery to say whether the commission should be getting paid under the same part of the law it has used for 37 years, or under another, little known, part of the law that says they have been underpaid that whole time.

"If the law is as stated, then surely ... it's incumbent upon the Legislature to follow the law," Beck said.

Confusion over commission pay started in February. Commissioners quietly asked to remove a 1991 amendment to state law that tied the commission's pay to the Hamilton County mayor's pay, thus giving commissioners raises only when the mayor gets one.

Only Commissioner Joe Graham declined to sign the letter.

But some commissioners last week asked lawmakers to pull that legislation because General Assembly staff found another, 1975 law that said commissioners in Hamilton County and three other counties should be getting paid $25,000 a year -- about $4,000 more than they do now.

It's unclear now whether the county should be using the same law it always has, or the 1975 law state staff cited.

Beck is not the only person who wants an answer. But he is the only one asking for back pay. With 11 years of service, he is the longest-serving commissioner.

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Herbert Slatery speaks about his appointment as attorney general in the Tennessee Supreme Court chamber in Nashville on Sept. 15.

"I'm preparing to see where I should stand with back pay. Ignorance of the law doesn't excuse people from following it," Beck said.

Commissioner Warren Mackey -- who joined the board a year after Beck -- said he wants the matter settled. If that means commissioners get a pay raise, the law is the law, he says.

"Everybody wants to be legalistic and go by what is in the law," Mackey said. "I would push for the law to be followed."

But other commissioners say they never wanted a raise, they just wanted commissioners to have to vote publicly to get one.

"It bothered me that when we gave the employees a raise, that 3 percent [last year], I didn't realize we had given ourselves one too. All I wanted to do was separate from the mayor's pay," said Commissioner Chester Bankston, who joined the commission in 2010.

Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, elected this past November, was on the same page.

"My interest was to be more transparent, not less transparent. And it's almost ironic that this was uncovered in the process," Smedley said.

Hamilton County isn't the only county affected. Commissioners in Davidson, Knox and Sullivan counties should apparently be paid under the same 1975 law -- but they aren't.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he'd be happy to pass the question up to the attorney general, the commission just needs to formally ask.

"We are going to leave it up to them to make that decision, and I would suggest they would need to get an opinion on it from an expert," Gardenhire said. "If they want to write it up, I'll be happy to ask the question. I'm sure the other counties would want to know, too."

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

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