Tag Archives: hamilton county

Dalton Roberts dies, aged 82

Dalton Roberts, Hamilton County’s first county executive and leader in a pushed to modernize the largely rural county, died Wednesday at age 82, reports the Times-Free Press.

Roberts will be remembered as “a smart, diligent, committed individual for the development of our county,” said the Rev. Paul McDaniel, who was elected to the Hamilton County Commission in 1978, at the same time Roberts became the first county executive.

Former Chattanooga mayor Ron Littlefield worked and sparred with Roberts for years as a city planner and elected official.

“Even though as city and county officials we had differences, we worked together on the important things: the riverpark, the network of greenways and walkways the younger generations take for granted,” Littlefield said.

“He was a great guy to work with, and, occasionally, he was a lot of fun to be on the other side of the issue from. He was frequently controversial and always interesting.”

The self-proclaimed country boy who waxed poetic over “‘mater sandwiches” each summer in his longtime Times Free Press column was a forward thinker whose chosen task was moving the county ahead in education and economic development.

Roberts never called himself a politician, even though he won four elections for county executive — the last one unopposed — and openly hoped to be the first mayor of a countywide charter government.

“I don’t fit into anybody’s definition of what a politician is,” said Roberts, who in his country music alternate persona had a minor hit with a little ditty called “Dirty Old Men Need Lovin’ Too.”

Push for county cigarette tax referendum goes up in smoke

An effort to let Hamilton County voters decide whether to approve a 20 cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund arts projects appears to have gone up in smoke, reports the Times-Free Press.

On Tuesday, Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chester Bankston said supporters didn’t get enough signatures from fellow commissioners to ask state lawmakers to push the issue in the Tennessee Legislature.

“It’s gone,” said Bankston, noting the letter needed a two-thirds majority — six signatures on the nine-member commission — to move forward. “It didn’t get enough signatures so I removed it. There just wasn’t enough support for it. There wasn’t enough support from [local legislators] and there wasn’t enough support here.”

Earlier Tuesday, Commissioner Marty Haynes, who opposed the issue, said the last time he looked at the letter request, he saw only five signatures.

The tax request was made in October by officials from ArtsBuild, a nonprofit organization that helps fund arts in Hamilton County. The group brought a draft resolution to commissioners’ public agenda session and a poll saying 63 percent of 503 county residents, given a chance, would support the proposed cigarette tax.

It was intended to fund programs ranging from arts festivals and choir performances to storytelling, poetry and dance throughout the county. Estimates said it would have generated $3 million to $4 million in new revenue annually.

Lee Davis, a local attorney and chairman of the ArtsBuild board, said Tuesday night the survey showed nearly two-thirds of those polled “were in favor of a cigarette tax to support arts, culture and education.”

“We’re asking the County Commission for permission to put it up on the ballot in August for an up or down vote by the county,” Davis said. “We felt it was a fair question to ask whether or not the county supported arts, culture” for education and economic development “which we’ve seen is an important issue.”

Gay former judge sues Hamilton County for discrimination

A former magistrate judge has filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Hamilton County and key members of Juvenile Court, claiming two high-ranking coworkers discriminated against her because she is gay, reports the Times-Free Press.

The lawsuit alleges that, on a number of occasions, Judge Rob Philyaw and administrator Sam Mairs created a hostile work environment for Elizabeth Gentzler by making homophobic jokes, avoiding her ideas and suggestions, and transferring her to a different assignment without explanation, all of which ended in her September 2014 termination.

…County officials offered no statement but denied the allegations.

No trial date has been set, said Stuart James, one of Gentzler’s attorneys. The defense is waiting on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to wrap up its investigation and release a report, James said. The lawsuit, originally filed in Hamilton County to preserve its state claims, since has been moved to federal court, he added.

From August 2011 onward, Gentzler reported to Judge Suzanne Bailey, who retired April 30, 2013. Gentzler said her problems began around the time Philyaw took her place in spring 2013.

After the Hamilton County Commission appointed Philyaw in April, he asked each magistrate to type up something about themselves, to get to know them better, the lawsuit says.

Gentzler, who is openly gay and has a partner, included that information in the letter to Philyaw.

Later that month, before he was sworn in as judge, Philyaw invited all the magistrates to a Leadership Prayer Breakfast at the Chattanooga Convention Center — all the magistrates except Gentzler, the lawsuit alleges.

State pays $185K to settle special education lawsuit

The state Department of Education has agreed to pay $185,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the parents of Luka Hyde, a 12-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, reports the Times-Free Press.

Deborah and Greg Hyde filed a lawsuit against the Hamilton County Department of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education last year after being told their son would be removed from his class at Normal Park Museum Magnet and placed in a special education class at Red Bank Elementary.

On Tuesday, a settlement for $185,000 between the Hydes and the state was approved by Magistrate Judge Susan K. Lee. It is expected to be formally approved by the court in the next couple of weeks.

If approved, the Hydes plan to set aside a large portion of the money for Luka’s college fund. They want their son to have every opportunity, and they plan to make it possible for him to receive a postsecondary education at Vanderbilt University’s Next Steps program for students with disabilities.

“We knew if he was segregated [in a special ed class] what would happen,” Deborah Hyde said. “He’d get farther behind and age out of the [school system] and be completely dependent. We want more for him.”

The state’s decision to settle does not impact the lawsuit still pending against Hamilton County, a separate defendant in the case. The state’s settlement follows a previous ruling that found the state did not have an adequate administrative complaint process for parents, which is required by federal law.

Hamilton County Schools attorney Scott Bennett said the state settled because it recognized its own administrative complaint process did not meet the court’s standards.

“The state’s decision to settle has nothing to do with the plaintiff’s claims against Hamilton County,” Bennett said.

AG deflates county commissioner pay raise hopes

An attorney general’s opinion has thrown cold water on arguments that Hamilton County commissioners – and perhaps commissioners elsewhere – have been paid too little for years.

The opinion basically explains commissioner compensation law in four counties – Davidson, Knox, Hamilton, Sullivan.

At issue was a state law generally setting salaries for commissioners in those counties at $25,000 and a contention that Hamilton County, at least, had been mistakenly applying another statute that has commissioners paid about $4,000 less. Some argued that commissioners should get the higher salary, plus back pay for years.

The attorney general’s office concludes that the cited $25,000 statute never applied to Davidson, Hamilton or Sullivan counties because of what amounts to a printing error. As approved by the Legislature in 1975, the law specifically applied only in “counties having a county commission form of government” – but the quoted phrase was dropped when state statute books were printed or “codified,” to use the proper legal term.

Davidson, Hamilton and Sullivan counties do not have a ‘county commission form of government,” as that phrase is legally defined, and so are not covered, the opinion says. It says Knox County was covered at one point, but not after 1980.

(Note: The full opinion is HERE – and provides something of a history lesson on county government matters along with the legal reasoning.)

The Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports that not all commissioners are convinced by the opinion.

Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck says and other commissioners deserve more money… (and) he plans to seek another opinion.

“It’s like going to the doctor. You don’t just get one opinion,” Beck said. “You don’t take one opinion on anything unless it is God.”

…Commissioner Joe Graham has said for months that commissioners should not be concerned with cushioning their salaries, and he said Wednesday that he appreciates the attorney general’s clarity on the matter.

“It is time for everyone to move on,” Graham said.

But Beck disagrees, and he said the commission will find another option to increase its annual pay.

Hamilton County Commission overrides mayor’s budget veto

Hamilton County commissioners on Wednesday voted 6-3 to overturn a budget veto by Mayor Jim Coppinger, reports the Times-Free Press.

That means the budget, which starts on July 1, will include $900,000 in discretionary spending for the nine commissioners. Coppinger had left the money out of his proposed budget, saying there was no revenue to support it. Commissioners voted to pull the nearly $1 million from the county’s savings to reinstate the fund. Coppinger vetoed that move Monday.

The commissioners will each get $100,000 this year to spend on special projects. Whatever they don’t use will roll over to next year.

Conservative groups and government watchdogs have criticized the discretionary spending program as veiled political pork.

Commissioner Randy Fairbanks on Wednesday defended his vote to reinstate the funds, saying the public wasn’t getting the whole story.

“It seemed like to everyone I talked to, when we explained the situation that’s going on with the discretionary funds, they totally had a different perception of it,” Fairbanks said.

For instance, he plans to use discretionary funds to help paint a senior center in Bakewell.

“If I tell those people the head of a think tank in Nashville doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me to spend money in Bakewell they don’t care about a think tank in Nashville,” he said.

Instead, media should ask people who get the money if the funds are helping the community, Fairbanks said.

“I’d like them to go to Daisy Elementary to ask the principal ‘What’s the benefit from the $100,000 discretionary funds?'” he said.

Fairbanks’ predecessor, before leaving office, used discretionary funds to build a road out of Daisy Elementary, reportedly to improve traffic safety there.

“That has never been done, and by my estimation would never be done without discretionary funds,” Fairbanks said.

Newspaper breaks down Hamilton County public agency lobbying costs

Public agencies in Hamilton County are paying 10 lobbyists a combined $304,700 a year to represent local interests to state officials who were elected to represent local interests, reports the
Times-Free Press.

The city of Chattanooga has four lobbyists in Nashville, city-owned EPB has four, and Erlanger Health System and Hamilton County each have one.

Chattanooga contracts with the law firm of Frost, Brown and Todd, but it also gets a lobbyist through its membership with the Tennessee Municipal League, according to city spokeswoman Lacie Stone.

The contract with Frost, Brown and Todd costs $6,000 a month while the General Assembly is in session, Stone said. For that sum, the city gets the services of Thomas Lee, Debra Maggart and Mirna Tunjic, according to Tennessee Ethics Commission records. Last session, Stone said, the administration did not pay any lobbyists.

There’s no direct salary tied to the city’s other lobbyist, Jane Alvis, Stone said. But the city pays $37,100 to be a TML member.

“For the Tennessee Municipal League, we pay membership dues for several things. Part of that goes to Jane Alvis, [who] represents the Big Four cities,” Stone said.

Continue reading

Judge rules Hamilton County Commission prayers OK

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Hamilton County may continue asking local clergy to deliver prayers before commission meetings.

In a Wednesday ruling, U.S. District Judge Sandy Mattice cited U.S. Supreme Court decisions that prayers offered before the meetings of legislative bodies are constitutional.

He quoted a 2014 Supreme Court decision that reads, in part, “legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.”

Two Chattanooga men had claimed that the prayers given before Hamilton County Commission meetings improperly promote Christianity. Mattice rejected those claims. In his order, he noted that Jewish and Unitarian Universalist clergy have been among those chosen to give invocations.

Hamilton County selects invocation speakers from a list of all the religious congregations represented in the local Yellow Pages. Institutions not on the list, may request inclusion. The commission does not review the invocations in advance and only asks that the prayers neither proselytize nor denigrate the religious faith or non-religious views of others, according to court documents.

As part of the lawsuit, plaintiff Thomas Coleman complained that his request to deliver an invocation before the commission was rejected after he declared that he did not represent any religious assembly or congregation. Mattice ruled that the county is under no obligation to allow every individual who asks to deliver a prayer.

Mattice said the courts have established that legislative prayers cannot be used as a pretext to promote one faith over another, but they may favor religion over non-religion.
Continue reading

AG opinion sought on county commissioners’ salary snafu

Victor Ashe, who as a state senator sponsored a 1975 law on county commission salaries, says the measure should have been repealed after an amendment to the state constitution that was approved two years later. But it’s still on the books and now may mean salary increases — and thousands of dollars in back pay – for county commissioners in Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties.

So reports the Times-Free Press:

Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said he’s writing state lawmakers to ask Attorney General Herbert Slatery III to settle a question about what part of state law set the commission’s salaries here. The answer could mean a $4,000-a-year difference to current commissioners plus, possibly, a chunk of change in back pay.

The law in use now in Hamilton County dates back to 1978. It sets salaries at $3,600 a year, with discretion for increases. After 37 years, and several legislative actions, rank-and-file commissioners now are paid $21,902 annually.

A recently discovered 1975 law says they — along with Knox and Sullivan counties — should have been making $25,000 the whole time.

A salary of $25,000 in 1975 had the same buying power as about $109,071 in today’s terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the man who wrote that law said Wednesday it was meant for three commissioners who were running an entire county government, and was never intended for perpetuity.

Victor Ashe, former Knoxville mayor, Tennessee senator and U.S. ambassador, said the 1975 law was only meant for three special commissioners in Knox County, and should have gone away in 1978.

“We had a hyphenated government. We had a county judge and a quarterly court that set the tax rates, and a three-member commission that ran day-to-day government. There was a roads commissioner, a welfare commissioner and a finance commissioner,” Ashe said Wednesday.

The legislation, which he sponsored as a state senator along with then-Rep. Sandra Clark, was tailored for Knox County, the only one at the time with “county commissioners.” Davidson County had already formed a metropolitan government with Nashville, and the others had county councils or quarterly courts.

And according to Ashe, the 1975 law should have gone away when county governments across the state were revamped by a constitutional convention. But that didn’t happen.

“It would seem to be an inapplicable law that needs to be repealed. It’s irrelevant in today’s Tennessee,” he said.

Historic mistake leaves county commissioners underpaid for 37 years?

Excerpt from a Times-Free Press story:
Hamilton County commissioners this week scrambled to avoid giving themselves $4,000 raises. But it turns out they’ve been underpaying themselves for 37 years.

At commissioners’ wishes, state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, withdrew a bill Thursday that would have removed a 1991 amendment to state law that tied commission pay to the county mayor’s salary.

But in fact, the commission not only amended the wrong law in 1991, they’ve been using the same wrong law to set their salaries since the commission was founded in 1978. And they are not the only ones.

The House Fiscal Review Committee determined that if the amendment in Tennessee Code Annotated 5-5-107 were removed, Hamilton County commissioners would be paid under a 1975 law, T.C.A. 8-24-115.

That law says salaries for commissioners in counties with 100,000 to 600,000 residents must be $25,000 or more. That group would include Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties. Shelby County’s population exceeded the limit in 1970.

Currently, Hamilton County commissioners are paid $21,368 a year.

Eddie Weeks, legislative librarian for the Tennessee General Assembly, said the 1975 law has never been changed.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who was on that first County Commission in 1978, said commissioners set their pay at the first meeting at $3,600 a year.

He wasn’t aware of the 1975 law until this week — and neither were officials in the other three affected counties.

“The statue, it clearly says that, but nobody knew about it. And nobody’s following it,” Taylor said.

In fact, commissioners in Knox, Sullivan and Davidson counties all make less than Hamilton County commissioners, Taylor said.

“That’s all I know about it. And nobody knows why nobody knew about it. It’s in a different section of the code than all the other county items, maybe that has something to do with it,” Taylor said.

Note: Previous post HERE.