NASHVILLE — A bill ending Tennessee local governments' ability to impose residency requirements when hiring police and other first responders is sounding the alarm for some Chattanooga state legislators.
The concern is that should the measure become state law, it might jeopardize the city of Chattanooga's compliance with a decades-old federal court order from a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit that led to the city's current form of government.
Bill sponsor Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, had pressed for a Senate floor vote last week. But despite Kelsey's initial resistance to a delay, action on the measure was postponed to this Thursday after objections voiced by Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
Gardenhire said he earlier informed Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and other officials about the measure and its possible impact on the 1989 landmark ruling by U.S. District Court Judge R. Allan Edgar and Edgar's subsequent 1990 order in the Brown v. Board of Commissioners case in Chattanooga.
The 1987 case, brought by a group of Black plaintiffs in Chattanooga, charged the city's then-government — consisting of a mayor and commissioners all elected at large — with racist intent to deny Blacks from holding city office, thus violating provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Edgar ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. As a result, the city now has a nine-member council whose members are elected in individual districts.
Gardenhire said while Chattanooga government doesn't have city residency requirements for workers, Edgar's order has a specific provision that city employees live in Tennessee. It excludes residents from states such as nearby Georgia and Alabama.
Kelsey's bill has no such restrictions on hiring police, firefighters, emergency dispatchers and emergency medical personnel from states bordering Tennessee. He brought the bill at the request of Memphis.
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings testified last week the department is nearly 500 officers short. The department can't find enough workers from Shelby County to take the jobs, he said. Thus, Kelsey argued, officials need to go outside the county and even outside Tennessee to recruit first responders from Mississippi and Arkansas.
Kelsey, an attorney with the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center, which touts its "groundbreaking lawsuits [to] stake out Americans' constitutional rights," told Senate State and Local Government Committee members last week that "the rationale again is freedom."
"This is the background issue on everything," Kelsey said. "We give them the freedom to live where they want to. . Let's get the best officers we possibly can get for these jobs."
Gardenhire said during the hearing he had consulted with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke who raised concerns about the bill, as well as with city attorney Phil Noblett. The senator said Noblett told him Edgar's order restricted the pool of potential Chattanooga municipal hires to Tennessee.
During a Senate Republican Caucus meeting last Thursday, Gardenhire asked Kelsey to delay Senate floor action until this week "until we get clarity on this. Or two, let me file a late amendment to exclude Hamilton County from it and take us out of it. I'd like to exclude Hamilton County, then you go on and do what you want to do in the rest of the state."
Kelsey resisted, saying, "I understand you're still very opposed to it, but I would feel more comfortable just going forward today. And if there's some sort of amendment that needs to be drawn up on the House side, there's plenty of time to look at it and do that."
Watson stepped in, raising to Kelsey the issue of traditional "senatorial courtesy" in requesting a bill be delayed and asked the bill be postponed one week. As Kelsey continued to demur, two top legislative leaders stepped in to make clear the bill would not be heard until this week as local lawmakers sought more legal clarity.
City Attorney Noblett said in an interview Monday the provision restricting the city's hires to Tennessee residents going forward "was one of the provisions that was contained in the initial order of Judge Edgar."
Noblett said "at this point in time, to my knowledge, [the order] has expired because we were at least deemed under the Voting Rights" requirements. He said he believes but was not entirely sure that Edgar's order expired in 2010.
But Noblett said that because "this was imposed initially by judicial order as part of the Voting Rights case, we'd have to have some determination of whether that would be or would not be a problem."
That might be done through a judge or possibly a legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, Noblett said.
Gardenhire said, "I don't understand why, because of the circumstances of the court order and what ramifications it might have, there's a rush to do this on Sen. Kelsey's part. And No. 2, why we can't just exclude Hamilton County from this because this is a Memphis bill. This has got nothing to do with Chattanooga or any other city in this state.
"I wish the city of Memphis would realize this has put other towns in an unusual position. Just admit it and ask the sponsor to relieve those who have a reason for coming out of it," Gardenhire added.
As amended, the bill prohibits a local government from dismissing, disciplining, fining or penalizing first responders for not living within the local government's jurisdiction. Local governments, however, could still have a standard requiring out-of-town employees be able to respond to an emergency within a specific time period.
Local governments also could still maintain residency requirements for the chief or head of a department. The bill also impacts any number of towns and cities in Tennessee that have borders with any of eight other states.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.