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Jay Greeson

It's fair to wonder if our elected officials ever listen to the public.

Sure, from D.C. to Soddy-Daisy, everyone wrangling for a vote at one point or another claims to be thinking of their constituents.

It's part of the politics 101 playbook.

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But thinking and listening are seldom the same thing, no matter how frequently those phrases are substituted.

Wednesday morning at the Hamilton County Courthouse, your message was heard, fellow taxpayers.

You may recall the controversy over the "discretionary accounts" of Hamilton County commissioners. Heck, I know a guy who dubbed the core group that overturned county Mayor Jim Coppinger's attempt to remove them from the 2015 fiscal budget the "Sneaky Six."

Wednesday, as they debated the merits of divvying up almost $750,000 of unallocated bond money among any commissioners who wanted it, there was a real change in view.

Greg Beck proposed a resolution to split the money — a late addition to the agenda, which gave off a little of the old-school sneaky feel, to be honest — among as many as eight commissioners. (Jim Fields already got $150,000 to help resurface the Red Bank High School track.)

Then something good happened.

The commissioners debated. They listened. They discussed.

Greg Martin, a relative commission newcomer who was not there for the discretionary discourse two years ago, asked about and made a motion to give all the funds — $747,536 — to the school board for capital projects.

That motion was a year-old raisin in the view of the commission, dying on the vine without a second.

The discussion continued though, with some voicing support and talking about the good that money could do, and others voicing concern about the backlash and appearance of going back to the discretionary model.

Then the mayor spoke.

If commissioners want to give more money to schools, he said, that should happen during the budget process. He was quick to say no one has claimed improper use of the discretionary funds in previous budgets; rather, just the inappropriate nature of the funds as an option.

Coppinger reminded them that during the budget discussions, they agreed the $900,000 should be used for a big project or two of general need, or for the occasional emergency.

"This is contrary to what we agreed on," Coppinger told the group. "This money was never intended to be discretionary."

When the vote came, commissioners Jim Fields, Graham, Martin, Sabrina Smedley and Chairman Chester Bankston said no, while Tim Boyd, Warren Mackey and Beck supported the resolution. Randy Fairbanks passed, and the measure was defeated 5-3.

In the end, the group that took its direction two years ago from the then-called Sneaky Six was saved by the Formidable Five on Wednesday. Or even the Fiscal Five, if that suits.

That's listening. And more than that, it's hearing and doing better.

It should give all of us an expectation for better dealings as the calendar for the commission gets fuller and more fiscally oriented.

This could serve as a springboard for making the best decision not only for the pet projects of their districts but the important, overarching projects for all of us.

The school needs. The looming decision about the jail. The potential of a tax increase.

These are all big issues for a budget that will be closer to $750 million than the $750,000 that was discussed Wednesday.

Now, we should be a little more confident in the folks making those fiscal calls.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6343.

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