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Ahead of the 2021 legislative session, elected officials from across the state, including Hamilton County, met this week to discuss the power of local authorities.

At a virtual roundtable Wednesday, officials including county Commissioner David Sharpe discussed the need for increased local authority including hiring practices, broadband access and other areas, questioning some of the state's intervention on areas that could be regulated locally.

"I care about my community, obviously, and I think the state has a history of preempting local governments on certain issues," Sharpe said Thursday. "But we know in a lot of cases that the local decisions are informed by the community and often better for the community, so we need some changes from the state in order to allow us to do our job the best way possible."

The group was hosted by We Decide TN to address questionable state involvement, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The coalition includes more than a dozen community groups "that focus on protecting Tennessee's working families," including organizations like the Chattanooga Area Labor Council, Tennessee Equality Project, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope and A Better Balance.

"When the COVID-19 crisis hit, local governments needed to have every tool in the toolbox available," Michael Callahan-Kapoor, an organizer for the We Decide TN coalition, said in a news release. "Unfortunately, what we're finding is that they have been hampered by state laws forbidding local municipalities from taking the necessary actions on sick leave, unemployment, expanding broadband access, and more."

"We are hoping that Gov. Bill Lee will make good on his promise that 'local governments know better,' and lift these overly restrictive regulations," Callahan-Kapoor said. "State and local leaders should be working together to address the urgent needs of Tennesseans. But when state leaders fail to act and state interference laws block localities from helping their residents, then we have big problems."

According to Sharpe, who identified wage and hiring practices, as well as broadband restrictions, as primary areas of concern, local authorities have proven their leadership abilities during the pandemic.

"The decisive action of local courts and law enforcement to narrow down inmate populations during the pandemic is a great example of local leaders being able to make good decisions for themselves," Sharpe said. "And there have been things, like the tremendous impact of EPB providing internet to households that would not have otherwise had access to education, that have put our county at a great advantage.

"So why should the state interfere with similar efforts trying to provide access in rural areas?"

The coalition also submitted to the governor a letter asking for more local authority. It was signed by over 30 elected officials including Sharpe, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Councilman Russell Gilbert, a mayoral candidate.

(READ MORE: Berke: State order letting Chattanooga restaurants reopen 'fails' to meet safety standards amid COVID-19)

"The consequences of this unprecedented crisis will last for years to come. As local leaders, we face our own unique challenges, but we are united by the belief that we need greater flexibility and autonomy to make decisions that are best for our communities, during COVID-19 and beyond," the letter reads. "We urge you to consider all possible executive and legislative actions to restore authority to local governments. We look forward to continuing to build a cooperative partnership with the state as we navigate these challenging times together."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor

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