It's a part-time job with part-time pay that requires, if done right, practically full-time work. We appreciate those who serve and those candidates who are willing to put themselves forward for such an office.
Four of the nine districts have contested elections in the Hamilton County general election on Aug. 2 (and in early voting beginning Friday). In those races, the Chattanooga Free Press editorial page recommends Chip Baker for the open District 2 seat and incumbents Greg Martin in District 3, Warren Mackey in District 4 and Joe Graham in District 6.
Republican County Commissioner Randy Fairbanks in District 1, Democratic primary winner Katherlyn Geter in District 5, and County Commissioners Sabrena Smedley in District 7, Tim Boyd in District 8 and Chester Bankston in District 9 have no general election opponents.
Chip Better Of Two Bakers
Retiring District 2 Commissioner Jim Fields probably has been the commission's most reserved member, but that's not going to be the case for his successor. Whichever Baker, Chip or Elizabeth (no relation), voters choose in the general election is likely to be more outspoken.
Both already have been activists in their own ways, Chip Baker as executive director and organizer of the annual Riverbend Festival and Elizabeth Baker as co-founder of Stay With Hamilton County Department of Education, which urged that Signal Mountain schools not break away and form their own local school district.
Of the two, we prefer Republican Chip Baker because he has 12 years of experience on the Hamilton County Board of Education — the lion's share of county funds go to the school district — and because the bridge-building, relationship-heavy skills he uses daily in his job with Friends of the Festival are the same ones he will need on the county commission.
"Group process — that's my strength, reaching across to anybody in Chattanooga," he told the Times Free Press editorial board. "I try to be the salve."
Baker, 60, has spent 39 years in management, first in health care, having come to the Scenic City in 1992 to lead T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger, and then in festival management, having taken over as director of the Riverbend Festival in 1999.
He said he would enter the commission with "no agenda" but maintains education, workforce development and safety would be areas in which he wants to spend his working capital.
Recommendations from the Budget Working Group, a 70-page document prepared a year ago by a number of Chattanooga business and community leaders, would be his "road map," Baker said.
We also like that the first thing he said he would do on the commission is listen. On all issues, he said, it's important to listen, hear what the issue is, understand why it's an issue, and then figure out a potential solution.
Elizabeth Baker, 44, also stresses her listening skills (she originally was open to the Signal Mountain schools separation), her problem-solving ability (she started a recycling business at age 19 to prevent items from going into a landfill) and her pragmatism (she would not advocate raising property taxes again so soon but would be open to other funding sources).
She would advocate for improved education and more open government and would be a voice for District 3 residents, who she said have told her they do not trust county government.
With all due respect to Democrat Elizabeth Baker, who said she wanted to offer a "choice for voters" in the largely GOP district, we believe Chip Baker is the better choice.
Martin Deserves Full term
Like Chip Baker, District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin preceded his service on the body with more than four years on the school board. Unlike Baker, who did not grow up here, he is serving the community in which he attended high school and in which he has lived for most of his life.
From all indications, the Republican is serving that district well, is available to constituents and knows the intricacies of its schools. For those reasons and because his business background gives him a better understanding of the district's needs, we believe he deserves a first full term on the commission.
Martin, 54, a Realtor, was elected in a special election in November 2016 to fill the unexpired term of Marty Haynes, who ran for assessor of property and won.
The county, he said, is run efficiently, and he points to its top bond rating, infrastructure improvements in his district at Chester Frost Park, the Dallas Bay Volunteer Fire Department's highest-in-Tennessee Insurance Service Office rating, and the district's public schools, of which he said "my [constituents] are not down on public education."
Martin also believes the county's plan of moving the county jail "incrementally" to its Silverdale Detention Center is the right way to go, that the commission's transfer of Silverdale from under Mayor Jim Coppinger to Sheriff Jim Hammond has made things run a little smoother, and that the county's mental health court has kept people out of jail who don't need to be there.
He said he voted for last year's property tax hike because 78 percent of it went to "brick and mortar" (schools, sewage treatment plant, jail plans).
Martin's opponent, Rosabelle Gorman, 35, also a Realtor, said keeping things like they are, not putting forth plans for improvement, not "initiating anything" is "not good enough" for the district.
Beyond last year's tax hike, she said county schools need more guidance counselors, better technology and the insight of a "first-class consultant." She also would like the county to better assist small businesses, offer more workforce development and revisit the city-county sales tax agreement that was not renewed in 2011.
Though a Democrat, she said she is not "a tax-and-spend Democrat."
With admiration for many of Gorman's ideas, we nevertheless believe Martin has the best interests of his district in mind and should be returned to the commission.
Mackey Should Get Four More Years
District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey said in the Times Free Press Voter Guide published Sunday that, while a Democrat, he is a conservative in both social and economic issues. This much we know: On issues involving Republican Mayor Jim Coppinger's budget and plans, he is a reliable vote.
Indeed, he told the Times Free Press editorial board earlier this spring that "Hamilton County is going in such a great direction" and that he wished that we "were more county-minded than focusing on our little corner" of the county.
We believe, in fact, county commissioners have to do both. That said, we endorse Mackey, 68, for another term but wish he had more stringent opposition to make him focus on his "little corner" more. His August general election opponent is independent Chris Dahl, who, like us, thought "[Mackey] had a louder voice" before. However, Dahl, 35, appears to have made little impact in the race.
Mackey proudly said he was behind Coppinger in increasing the millage rate last summer that provided money for schools, jail relocation and a new sewage treatment facility, and added if Coppinger needs to "do something [again] with taxes, I'll do it."
Seeking a fourth full term, he said his focus will be on job-training and strengthening public schools. Specifically, he said there's not enough city-county collaboration on projects, that a better environment needs to be created where families are healthier and that students need year-round schools. His district could use help in each of those areas, and we hope he'll get his hands dirty in advocating for them.
Mackey, a Chattanooga State Community College history professor, also allowed how we can't keep locking people up for problems such as lack of payment of child support. We also support justice reforms, but, again, we hope Mackey will work toward what he wants, not just suggest it in an election year.
Dahl, 35, an independent history investigator, believes sewer and stormwater fees deserve more scrutiny. He'd also like to see a further audit of the school district, strengthen neighborhood groups, push for an updated county website and have the county commission be more accessible.
In general, he wants "the public to know what's going on" and where its money is going.
We agree but still believe Mackey, if he'll work for what he advocates, is the better pick.
Graham Should Be Re-elected
Since Joe Graham was first elected to his District 6 county commission seat in 2010, at least one thing has changed, and at least one thing has stayed the same.
"I've changed as a politician," he said. "I've matured."
Previously, he was a "hothead and a radical," Graham, 52, said. Now, "I'm not a bull in a china shop."
What has not changed is his approach to commission work.
"I go in [to meetings] with an open mind," Graham said, "and I do my homework."
He also works away from home, having attended some 1,900 community meetings since first taking his seat.
It is that diligent approach to his job — and, frankly, a little bit of the "radical" — that has made us admire Graham and now endorse him for a third term.
While he is a "yes" vote for most of the items put forth by Mayor Jim Coppinger, he often floats compromise ideas or "third ways" on issues where commissioners are not in agreement. This, to us, is the mark of a leader and a conciliator.
And though he keeps a wary eye on county spending, he was the first to suggest in June 2017 — it "was worth talking about" but went nowhere — that the county leave its millage rate where it was, essentially raising property taxes and leveraging more money for schools and other county needs. After several studies came in over the next two months, Coppinger embraced the idea, the commission passed it, and the property tax increase wound up leveraging that money.
For schools, he believes every student in every class in every school should have "every tool in the toolbox." Safetywise, he thinks all schools need student resource officers and guidance counselors and that each building must have secure doors.
His opponent, David Sharpe, 41, is stressing improved public education, workforce development and the careful retention of new businesses. He envisions, among other things, a more thoughtful and sustainable growth plan for the county, a split county budget (separate educational and capital needs plans) and a less crowded jail (no bonds for minor offenses).
We like some of the challenger's ideas but believe Graham is the better choice.