Year in review: City-county politics marked by division

Year in review: City-county politics marked by division

December 28th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower and Ansley Haman in News

For the first time in history, both the city and county may face mayoral elections in August 2012.

Those potential changes come after a year of political turmoil, perceived division and upheaval.

Hamilton County saw a new man rise to county mayor, while Chattanooga looked on as its mayor confronted recall supporters seeking to oust him from office.

For much of 2011, money dominated the conversation after a 45-year-old sales tax agreement ended between the city and county. The agreement spelled out how the city and the county broke down their financial responsibilities for agencies jointly funded by the pair. The end of the agreement forced the county to carve about $13 million from its budget, prompting layoffs.

Chattanooga and Hamilton County appeared divided as the tax agreement expired -- the city wanted to negotiate on a new agreement, the county wanted to continue as is -- and talks of combining the city and county governments fell flat about the same time.

But Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said he thinks that, with the death of the sales tax agreement, each government's responsibility is more defined.


As 2011 inches toward the history book, Times Free Press reporters recap the highlights and low points of the year.

• Tuesday: Costly weather disasters vex residents, emergency responders

• Wednesday: City, county elected leaders face challenges, change

• Thursday: VW, Amazon openings soften economic blows

• Friday: Reform dominates public education

• Saturday: Top stories of 2011

"I think we've made a lot of progress on understanding the city's and county's roles," he said.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he was never unclear about the governments' roles, which are defined by statute.

"We've always clearly known what we were responsible for in county government," Coppinger said.


The year kicked off with former County Mayor Claude Ramsey's departure after 16 years on the job to become deputy governor for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

Ramsey's announcement prompted a contest over who would become county mayor with nine people throwing their names in to the mix.

County commissioners declined to hold public interviews of potential candidates, and the field ultimately boiled down to two -- County Commissioner Jim Coppinger or Ramsey's special assistant, Mike Carter. After four deadlocked 4-4 votes, the commission began to move toward a resolution on Jan. 7, when Commissioner Warren Mackey said he'd be switching his support from Carter to Coppinger.

The next day, and before another commission vote, Carter withdrew his name. Commission support then swung to Coppinger, who was approved Jan. 10 and sworn in Jan. 11.

Former County Executive Dalton Roberts questioned at the time whether commissioners' actions during that period violated the state's Sunshine Law.

Nonetheless, commissioners labored on. Commissioner Larry Henry was chosen as chairman of the body. On Jan. 27, the commission voted to appoint Middle Valley Church of God pastor Mitch McClure to Coppinger's vacant District 3 seat. Commissioners then "united behind the administration," Henry said.

"We came together," he said. "It's a period of adjustment we've had to go through."

Coppinger began immediate work to prepare the county for major budget problems heading its way.

"I actually set out from Day One with a goal to present a balanced budget with no tax increase," he said.

Unforeseen events such as a January snowstorm and April tornadoes didn't make that any easier, he said.


The sales tax agreement was established in 1966 as a way to fund social services and nonprofit agencies that the city and county decided they couldn't allow to go under.

But that agreement ended in May. The county proposed to extend the agreement, but the city declined, asking the county to negotiate a new deal. The city and county could not reach a new agreement.

When the agreement lapsed, more than $10.5 million in sales tax was moved into the city coffers, leaving a hole in the county budget. At the time, the county said the loss of the money would create a substantial hole in its budget, but the city said it would fund the agencies on a needed basis with the new money it would have in hand.

The county's effort to cut $13 million from its budget eventually led to layoffs of 36 county employees and more than 50 unfilled positions. The county later rehired 10 of those laid-off workers to other positions.

"I would have liked to have seen the sales tax agreement extended," Henry said. "I think it was vital that we funded some of those agencies."

At the tail end of the monthslong struggle, Littlefield began to push for consolidated government, an effort he vowed to work toward in past years. He has said he wants to leave office being known as the "last mayor of Chattanooga."

In July, he held a town meeting to encourage residents to join committees to study the establishment of a metropolitan form of government. But Littlefield backtracked on that last week, saying he would pursue metro government only if the county also was interested.

"If we ever get a willing partner," he said. "You have to have a willing partner in the county."

Coppinger said the county's position is that any effort to consolidate government should originate with the people, not government. He said he is amenable to consolidating services where doing so would be cost neutral to the governments involved.


By the end of the year, the focus shifted to whether Littlefield will continue to serve as the city's mayor.

The recall effort started during the summer of 2010 when three groups -- Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, Chattanooga Organized for Action and the Chattanooga Tea Party -- banded together and started getting signatures for petitions.

The groups gathered more than 15,000 signatures and the Hamilton County Election Commission ratified more than 9,000 of them. But Littlefield sued to stop a recall election from occurring.

Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth ruled in favor of Littlefield, saying the groups did not gather enough signatures under state law. The groups appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, saying they gathered enough under the City Charter.

The appeals court ruled in favor of the recall groups in October. The election commission certified the petitions in November and set an election for August 2012.

Now Littlefield has sued once again, wanting an injunction issued to stop the election. A hearing before a new Circuit Court judge could occur within weeks. At least nine people have said they are considering a possible mayoral bid.

Littlefield said he would continue to push his agenda even with a recall effort hanging over his head.

"It's been an annoyance," Littlefield said. "The effect on me, though, is not the important point. The important point is how it is discouraging good people wanting to run for office."


In Chattanooga, Littlefield faces the sunset of his two-term administration whether it is cut short by a recall election or not. In 15 months, a new mayoral election will be held and a new administration will take office.

He said last week there are a few items still on his list for upcoming year. He wants to modernize The Public Library with new technology and also wants to see a new public utility created with the water and sewer companies under one board, using the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Facility as the epicenter.

He also wants to keep talking about the expansion of the city's urban growth boundaries, which dictate how far municipalities can annex.

Littlefield called for the gathering of an urban growth boundary coordinating committee, made up of representatives from the county and its municipalities, to address a 20-year agreement inked in 2001. When the committee met, the mayor's staff presented no amendment to the urban growth plan.

"They didn't even have a proposed amendment to put forward," Henry said. "I think that was poorly calculated."

Littlefield later said he plans to call another meeting of the body.

defining roles

Littlefield said that, for him, the year can be summed up with clearer definitions of each government's role -- the city provides urban services while the county provides state-mandated services.

The issues of 2011 have helped give each body more of a sense of that direction, he said.

"The problem occurs when the county wants to be the city outside the city," he said.

Henry said he thinks relations between the city and county have been damaged, but he hopes to see improvement as a result of next year's potential electoral changes.

He acknowledged there is a perception the relations between the city and county are strained.

"At the end of the day, I certainly understand it," he said.

Coppinger said he wants the two governments to overcome any appearance of disagreement because bickering hampers efforts to recruit and retain businesses.