Mike Carter

Russell E. Collins

Jim Coppinger

Edward Ector Jr.

Pam Hurst

Richard Rankin

Harry "Buddy" Rogers

Denise Russell-Ford

Guy M. Satterfield

Source: County Commission office

The lack of any public input in the process of choosing a new county mayor is disturbing some of Hamilton County's political leaders.

Though a Republican majority on the County Commission will choose the replacement for Republican Claude Ramsey, even the local GOP chairwoman says the process is flawed.

Chairwoman Delores Vinson said not having public hearings for candidates makes some in the party uncomfortable.

"They're disillusioned with this process," Vinson said last week. "The perception is, once again, the people of the county are being left out and at the very least it would be easy enough to have one public forum, maybe two."

Chattanooga City Council Chairman Manny Rico, a Republican who represents District 7, said he prefers an open election to the commission appointing a new mayor.

"It's just not fair for the county [commission] to take it upon themselves to select a county mayor," Rico said. "I think we're being disenfranchised."

State law requires the commission to choose a replacement mayor. It does not address whether candidate interviews should be public or private.

Nine people have applied to replace Ramsey, who is leaving Jan. 11 to join Gov.-elect Bill Haslam's administration. They include County Commissioner Jim Coppinger, Register of Deeds Pam Hurst and Mike Carter, former General Sessions judge and now special assistant to Ramsey.

Commissioner Larry Henry was in the race but dropped out Friday.

Chairman Fred Skillern said he does not plan to have public interviews for any of the candidates, although Coppinger and Henry both said they were leery of private interviews after county attorney Rheubin Taylor gave conflicting opinions about whether they were legal.

Commissioners plan to make a decision Dec. 27. The new mayor will serve until the next countywide election in 2012.

Skillern dismissed Vinson's criticism.

"That's fine," he said. "She's got an opinion. We got an opinion."

Commissioner Chester Bankston, also a Republican, agreed with Skillern.

"The commission has already set an order of business," Bankston said, adding later, "In 17 months, the people can have their say."

Other Republicans last week either supported the commission's decision to limit public input in the selection process or deferred to the commissioners.

Newly elected U.S. Rep.-elect Chuck Fleischmann of the 3rd District said he's not taking a position. Neither is his predecessor, Rep. Zach Wamp, who was mentioned as a candidate but endorsed Carter.

State Sen. Bo Watson, who also has been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, said commissioners "should adhere to whatever the law requires."

Republican Party member Luanne DeWitt, who attended Monday's GOP Pachyderm Club meeting, said holding public interviews would be "opening up a can of worms." When asked about the prospect of deals being made behind the scenes without public oversight, DeWitt laughed.

"So what's politics?" she said.

But another Pachyderm member, Esther Taj, said she would prefer an open interview process.

"It makes you feel as though the decision has already been made," she said.

That's how Commissioner Warren Mackey, a Democrat, feels, too.

"You know, I wonder how many commissioners have already made up their own minds," Mackey said.

Chattanooga City Councilman Andraé McGary blasted the County Commission last week for not holding public interviews for mayor candidates. He said he challenged listeners of his local radio show to apply and to insist they want a public interview.

He said the whole process needs to be transparent.

"That's what bothers me," he said. "It's the silence that seems like something's underfoot."

Some job applicants also said they don't want private interviews.

Russell Collins, 41, applied last week and said he contacted the commission office to insist he wants his interview to be public. So did Denise D. Russell-Ford, 47, who called the commission's actions and attitudes toward the selection "strange." Guy Satterfield, 55, said he also wants a public interview.

Some leaders of a failed recall effort for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield also think the effort to appoint Ramsey's successor lacks transparency.

"It seems like it's sort of a rushed process," said Jim Folkner, one of the leaders of the recall effort. "We need more input from more people."

Chris Brooks, founder of Chattanooga Organized for Action, said he believes commissioners are intent on conducting the process in secret and said commissioners have an "overall animosity" toward democracy.

"I think there's a lot of harm in setting precedent for invisible government," Brooks said. "The entire purpose of having a democracy is the citizens can self-govern."

Richard Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said commissioners probably are running few political risks by conducting the process in secret.

Their election is four years away, he said, though the cumulative effect of making multiple decisions with no input could be harmful to their political futures.

He said there is an expectation that even though voters do not get to cast ballots now, the process should be open.

"The reason the County Commission should have a more open process is that they are appointing a top official when there's no opportunity for an election and that's why the people feel they should have more transparency," Wilson said.

Staff writer Cliff Hightower contributed to this story.

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