As we wait for the dust to settle on Chattanooga's post-election news, let's review the myriad ways our local and state governing bodies can confuse themselves and confound their constituents.
* The Hamilton County Commission last month voted 6-3 to present a resolution to members of the local legislative delegation asking them to unlink commission salaries from the pay of other county employees and local elected leaders — but only after a state senator pressured commissioners to discuss the matter publicly.
Yes, it's called transparency. Something that would seem rather important since it is we constituents who pay the salaries of commissioners' part-time jobs — $24,417 each, plus an additional $5,000 for the chairperson and $2,500 for the chair pro-tem.
The newest sneak plan to get a raise came to light in an email from County Attorney Rheubin Taylor to commissioners on Feb. 1, obtained by the Times Free Press. Taylor wrote that he had "been advised that there are now six (6) commissioners who are willing to sign-on to the attached proposed legislation for presentation to the Hamilton County Legislative delegation," and he asked all the commissioners to sign a document urging the lawmakers to remove the section of Tennessee code that limits our commissioners to receiving raises only when the county mayor does.
With that decoupling, commissioners could pass their own pay increases or decreases.
To quote District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey, who favors a raise, constituents don't just look for them from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. "They're on you 24/7, and every place you go."
Other commissioners told the newspaper they wanted the rule change to potentially decline pay increases: Commissioner David Sharpe, District 6, donated his most recent 2.5% pay increase to a Hamilton County Schools scholarship in 2019.
This is not the first time county commissioners sought to quietly petition state legislators on this matter without talking about it in front of us 24/7 constituents. They also tried it in 2015 when a letter of support appeared in a commission back room for members to sign with no public discussion.
Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire says he'll carry the decoupling proposal — with two caveats.
The uncoupling will not just involve commissioners, but also school board members, Chattanooga city council members and the Chattanooga mayor, "so everybody else down the line has to either vote themselves a pay increase or not."
That's never a popular choice, as elected officials usually prefer to blame some law when voters wonder why they got a pay raise.
And second, county commissioners must "raise the property tax by the same percentage [as their raise]."
Whew — talk about unpopular.
* The Hamilton County Board of Education found about $3.8 million in revenue it didn't expect this year (couch money?), and combined that with $1.8 million in one-time money from the state to give employees a 1% raise that will not be a one-time cost. What's more, at least one board member has now claimed she didn't know what she was voting for.
"At the school board meeting on Feb. 18, I did something I have not done since I was elected to the board in 2004," board member Rhonda Thurman said in a weekend internet post. "I voted for an across-the-board raise with one-time money. It may sound crazy, but I did not know I voted for it until the meeting was over."
Thurman in that statement was more transparent than the handling of the raise proposal, which was tucked into a budget amendment "consent agenda" packet rather than set out as a line item for discussion, as it had been earlier in the week during an agenda-setting meeting. In that earlier meeting, several board members, including Thurman, pointedly said they wanted to have more discussion about it.
Instead, there was no more discussion about a teacher raise to be funded from $1.8 million in one-time pandemic funds from the state (via the federal government) and $3.8 million from expected increased local sales tax revenue. It's a bad precedent.
* The Red Bank City Commission spent the beginning of the year in a tizzy about prayer at the beginning of meetings. Not the city budget or the tax rate or even potholes — but prayers. More specifically, prayers vs. a moment of silence.
The root of this conundrum seems to lie more in culture change than in faith, since most of us understand that we are free to pray in any circumstance whether we are asked to bow our heads or simply have a moment of quiet.
In November, change in the form of two women in their 30s, swept into Red Bank government with the resounding victories of Hollie Berry and Stefanie Dalton. On Dec. 2, the commission elected them mayor and vice mayor.
Berry, in her first full meeting as mayor, hoped to foster inclusion in Red Bank and its changing populace by replacing prayer with a minute of silence at the opening commission meetings. That move, however, almost instantly pitted new leadership against the town's old guard.
Weeks later, there was compromise. The commission voted unanimously on Feb. 16 to invite Red Bank faith leaders to lead the invocation. If no one steps up, the commission will recognize a moment of silence.
Compromise, like transparency, makes good government.