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Two Hamilton County commissioners interested in replacing Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said they won't sit for private job interviews with other commissioners until they know whether the process is legal.

"I would just want to check a little further to see if it's appropriate," Commissioner Jim Coppinger said.

"I want to play by the rules," Commissioner Larry Henry said. "I'm not going to be talking to any commissioner until I find out for sure we can do it."

Ramsey is stepping down in January to become deputy governor and chief of staff to in Gov.-elect Bill Haslam.

As of Wednesday, Coppinger and Henry had not formally applied for the position, according to the commission office, although four others had. On Monday, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor and some commissioners said Elisha Hodge, counsel with the state Office of Open Records, gave the commission permission to privately interview fellow commissioners who might be interested in being mayor. Last week, Taylor had said the opposite, that such conversations would violate the state Sunshine Law.

But late Tuesday evening, Hodge said she did not give an opinion on the issue in Hamilton County and said she does not plan to.

"I have never been asked to address nor have I addressed whether they can privately interview one another concerning their interest in the county mayor's vacancy," she said in an e-mail.

Hodge acknowledged that she did e-mail commissioners a 1986 court of appeals case that she felt dealt with their question.

"I feel confident in what she's recommended and us relying on it," Taylor said Monday.

On Wednesday, he said that Hodge had simply sent him the court ruling.

"Elisha gave us case law," Taylor said. "She can't say anything contrary to what case law said."

Chairman Fred Skillern also said Hodge told commissioners they could conduct private interviews, and Henry was also under the impression Hodge gave commissioners her opinion.

"She gave us the law of the highest court that ruled," Skillern said. "She told me that meant it was final."

Later Wednesday, Hodge said the 1986 case is "where the law currently stands" on private interviews.

The case in question, Jackson v. Hensley, is from Roane County and concerns a vacancy in the county trustee's office. In 1984, the Roane County trustee resigned and appointed an interim trustee. A Roane County commissioner contacted fellow commissioners and asked for their support in appointing him as the new trustee, according to information Hodge provided.

The court found that, because the commissioner accepted the nomination, he ceased to be a voting member of the commission and did not violate the Sunshine Law by contacting other commissioners and asking for their support.

In Hamilton County, Taylor has told commissioners they can privately interview candidates who are not county commissioners.

Commissioners who are mayoral candidates cannot vote for themselves or on other matters related to the replacement.

If the County Commission violates the state Sunshine Law when it selects the new mayor, any subsequent decision it makes can be undone.

At their meeting last week, commissioners said they were frustrated that they could interview some candidates privately but not their fellow commissioners.

Commissioners will not have a formal interview process for the job. The commission will take applications until Friday and will meet Dec. 27 to choose a new mayor.

Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisenhunt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.

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