A group of conservative Hamilton County citizens are fighting to restore what they consider responsible government on a local level.
The Good Government Coalition and PAC were formed during the fiscal year 2020 budget season to combat efforts by some members of the Hamilton County Commission and school board to impose a 34-cent property tax rate increase to benefit public schools. The efforts of local education advocacy nonprofit UnifiEd in favor of the increase compelled the group to form to defend their differing values.
"We started realizing that since 2016 and 2018, this group has worked very strongly to elect members to the school board and the county commission that would in fact change the nature of our government," Tom Decosimo, local businessman and co-founder of the coalition, said. "This [group] manifested itself this summer when the school board, with a 7-2 vote, came out with a $34 million tax increase. — We didn't feel that the $34 million was going to the root of the problems that face our school, and we decided we needed to defend what we believe in."
The group is led by Decosimo, head of Decosimo Corporate Finance; Tina Benkiser, an attorney and lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; Mike McGauley, a broker at Fidelity Trust Company; and Ken Meyer, a former state representative and well-known local conservative who identifies himself as a "concerned citizen who likes to hang out with the cool kids."
While the group organized in response to the proposed tax increase, its objective to ensure good government in Hamilton County will translate into the PAC advocating for candidates who embody its ideals of limited and responsible government in upcoming local elections.
"There are going to be 29 [local] seats up for election in the next three years: 2020 will be the school board, 2021 you've got the city council and city mayor, and 2022 we've got county commission and county mayor," Decosimo said. "Elections matter, and we found that out this past year. It matters who governs. We are an independent group — we're not Republicans or Democrats. We are a group of people that think Hamilton County has got to continue to live by its conservative and traditional values. We're going to help elect leaders who share those values."
After a few community meetings and less than a year since its inception, the group says potential candidates for 2020 and 2021 elections have already sought its endorsement, but that it is not ready to name any candidates.
"We don't know enough about who's running now. We don't even know which incumbents will run," McGauley said. "You don't know which seats are open, let alone which people are going to actually end up running, so we're not at that stage yet."
While the group has not made endorsements, Decosimo named a few current elected officials who embody the kind of governance the group is seeking.
"The five commissioners who voted 'no' on the tax increase, we are very happy with. They stiffened their backbones and really held to their principles," Decosimo said, specifically praising District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd. "Tim Boyd, I think, did an absolutely fantastic job of analyzing the budget and calling it what it was: an attempt to turn schools into social service centers."
Decosimo also praised District 7 school board member Rhonda Thurman, who he said "endured all kinds of ridicule" for opposing the tax increase.
"It's people like [them] that really take their jobs seriously and dig into the numbers and do the work," He concluded.
Overall, Benkiser said, any candidate or elected officials who want the group's support will have to follow a simple approach to decision making.
"I have some very simple questions that I ask elected leaders to ask themselves as they are making policy. Does this strengthen family? Does this promote personal responsibility? Is this something government should be doing, and if it is, are we doing it effectively and efficiently? If it's not, then why are we doing it?" Benkiser said. "You can ask yourself some very simple questions like that and it will go a long way into developing good public policy."