A push by the Hamilton County Commission to loosen rules restricting commissioner salaries has raised transparency issues with a state senator and could affect the pay of other county and city elected officials.
The commission voted 6-3 on Wednesday to present a resolution to members of the local legislative delegation asking to unlink commission salaries from those of other county employees after pressure from a state senator to discuss the matter publicly.
In an email to commissioners on Feb. 1, obtained by the Times Free Press, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor asks commissioners to sign a document urging the delegation to remove the section of Tennessee code that limits the commissioners to receiving raises only when the county mayor does.
Taylor said that he had "been advised that there are now six (6) commissioners who are willing to sign-on to the attached proposed legislation for presentation to the Hamilton County Legislative delegation."
He noted that some commissioners had already signed the document and encouraged the others who support it to "please telephone [an administrative employee] (who I am told has a signature stamp for each of you), and authorize [her] to place your signature stamp on the attached (which she is likewise being given a copy of)."
With these signatures, commissioners would be asking the delegation to remove the subsection of state law, specific to Hamilton County, which requires "the compensation for members of the county legislative body shall be adjusted to reflect the same percentage increase the county executive of such county is to receive."
In his 10-year tenure, County Mayor Jim Coppinger has received cost-of-living pay increases, in step with those given to general county employees. By decoupling themselves from Coppinger's salary, the commission could pass their own pay increases or decreases.
"My constituents, and I'm sure yours too, they don't look for you from 8 to 4. They're on you 24/7, and every place you go," Commissioner Warren Mackey said during Wednesday's Zoom meeting, offering himself as the "lightning rod" willing to take heat from the community for supporting a pay increase.
"I've heard people say they don't want to raise pay because they're afraid that if they make an attractive salary, it may invite others to run against them."
Other commissioners said they wanted the rule change to potentially decline pay increases.
"The last time we had the pay raise for all county employees, I remember having to specifically make a point that I was not going to accept that pay raise," said Commissioner David Sharpe, who donated his 2.5% pay increase to a Hamilton County Schools scholarship in 2019.
Whatever the rationale, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said there are two issues with what the commission is doing. The first, he said, is in their approach to making the changes.
According to Gardenhire, he first became aware of the new push to change the pay rules when someone told him that the county attorney was circulating a letter via email.
"And I remembered also that two or three years ago, several of the county commissioners laid a letter on the back of a table back in the closed room, and those that wanted the pay increase signed it. And I brought it to their attention at that time that that kind of activity was not appropriate under the sunshine law," Gardenhire told the Times Free Press on Wednesday, referencing the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, which states that "the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret."
Now, the commission has similarly skirted open meeting requirements, Gardenhire said.
"I thought they had learned their lesson. And this time they got the county attorney to pass around a letter, which is no different from laying it on the table," Gardenhire said. "I'm surprised as a county attorney that [Taylor] would do that. He should know better. These kind of things ought to be out of the open discussed by everybody. And then voted on the merits of an open discussion. Not, not a secret letter passed around."
Taylor told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that the letter-signing method was standard for the county when proposing items to the delegation.
"It came up when a commissioner asked that it be circulated, to see if there was any support for it. I, in turn, typed up the same thing I did back in 2015 and circulated among the commissioners to see if there was enough support for it," Taylor said. "When I got enough support for it, then we sent it over to Nashville to the legislative delegation This is the process that has been used for the last several years, I know, on different issues that have been presented to the legislative delegation by the commission."
Taylor said the process is meant to ensure commission support in case they have to ratify the state decision and does not violate state law since, he said, it is not the commission taking a vote or deliberating on business outside of a public meeting.
Gardenhire said Wednesday that he has begun to work on legislation that would prohibit that kind of behind-the-scenes voting, in response to Taylor and the commission. Specifics of the bill have not been written, but a temporary caption bill has been submitted to meet the Senate deadline in order to introduce the full bill this session.
The second problem, Gardenhire said, is in the actual impact of the commission separating itself from the other local elected officials in the current pay structure.
"It's not that easy to uncouple them, because tied to them is the school board, and the city council, and I believe the mayor of Chattanooga's salary," Gardenhire said. "So, it's not as simple as just uncoupling the county commission. We have to uncouple the city council and city mayor and the school board from that."
Currently, the county mayor's salary dictates nearly every elected official in Hamilton County's pay rate.
In the county, commissioner raises are set in step with the mayor, and school board members make half of whatever commissioners earn.
In Chattanooga, the city mayor makes the same salary as the county mayor, and city council members make 15% of that, per the city's charter.
Chattanooga mayor: $172,558
Hamilton County mayor: $172,558
County commissioners: $24,417 (plus an additional $5,000 for the chair and $2,500 for the chair pro-tem)
City council members: $25,883 (plus an additional $5,000 for the chair and $2,500 for the vice chair)
Hamilton County Board of Education members: $12,208
To make the commission's requested change, Gardenhire said he will carry the proposal in the Senate, with two major caveats.
"We will uncouple your pay, but everybody else has to be uncoupled. And so everybody else down the line has to either vote themselves a pay increase or not. And that will put everybody on notice," he said. "And second, if the county commission votes a percentage increase or dollar-amount that works out to be a percentage increase, then they have to raise the property tax by the same percentage."
Noting the political unpopularity of self-voted pay increases, Gardenhire quoted Rep. Mike Carter.
"Last time they asked for a raise, his quote was 'if you want to drink the poison, we'll mix it.'"
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylo