Sneaky Six in Chattanooga carry on troubling tradition of Hamilton County Commission

Is it open, transparent government when six Hamilton County commissioners, after weeks of public meetings where they and the public heard detailed budget requests, vote to give themselves $100,000 each out of the county’s rainy-day fund with no public discussion or explanation?

No.

Times Free Press columnist Jay Greeson called them the Sneaky Six in a Sunday column, and it’s a moniker that deserves to stick.

The Hamilton County Commission has skated the edges of the Open Meetings Act and its principles before. These are the same county commissioners who keep phones at their dais and make private calls to each other during the meeting — covering their mouths so their microphones don’t pick up what they are saying to each other. News reporter Louie Brogdon wrote about that in December.

It’s the same county commission that got together privately and sent a secret letter to local lawmakers requesting a change in the law so they can get bigger pay raises. (The lawmakers filed bills).

It’s the same county commission whose members have criticized the state’s Open Meetings Act. Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck was direct: “The Sunshine Law stinks.”

Yes, this county commission as a whole appears to be chafing at the principles in the Sunshine Law that declares that “the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

It is becoming no secret, however, their intentions of how they want to operate. The $100,000 they voted to give themselves so they could hand out individually in their district has little oversight. The payments don’t go through the normal budget process, and some county commissioners pointed out that there were other requests that didn’t get funded. Mayor Jim Coppinger told the Times Free Press that the budget amendment was “fiscally irresponsible” and said the commission circumvented months of work by financial experts.

“The commission acted unilaterally to go into the rainy day fund without consulting our financial staff or our financial advisers who we hired,” Coppinger said. “Sometimes I think people lose sight of the fact that it’s Hamilton County taxpayer dollars.”

Unlike others who had to explain their reasoning in public for asking for budget funds, like the school district superintendent, the county commissioners surprised the community in a slick, swift move with no public discussion. Sneaky Six, indeed.

Below is a reprint of Greeson’s column:

Call them the Sneaky Six.

Say hello to Hamilton County Commissioners Chester Bankston, Tim Boyd, Randy Fairbanks, Warren Mackey, Sabrena Smedley and Jim Fields.

As reported Wednesday at timesfreepress.com and in today’s print edition by reporter Louie Brogdon, those six county commissioners decided that they had to have their $100,000-per-commissioner discretionary fund in next year’s budget. Had to. Simply needed it like you and I need sleep.

Those six decided that their needs were more important than the process, which rightly and smartly eliminated commissioners’ discretionary funds from the budget on the cusp of final approval. They made the command decision that the wants of a half dozen counted for more than the wishes of the people. Sure, they will try to claim these six-figure accounts are for their districts.

Whatever. Forget the rhetoric that this is about constituent needs.

This is about stashing political capital in a slush fund to be tapped at the commissioners’ discretion. We are the only county in the state that allows commissioners independently to direct spending of more than $5,000. Those funds could be described in more cynical circles as a legal way to buy votes and/or public approval.

So, despite the clear message that County Mayor Jim Coppinger thinks the commissioners’ six-figure ATMs need to go, our slippery six seatholders voted Wednesday to put those funds back into the county budget.

They want the money drawn from the county’s rainy-day fund.

We heard throughout this budgeting process — and from several of the six — about whether this year’s specific budget requests were for one-time expenses or ongoing costs. We have listened weekly to insistence that the county’s swollen reserves help preserve stellar credit ratings, which saves the county millions in interest expense.

And we all weighed in on whether there needed to be a tax increase to boost funding for schools. It was a brave pitch made over and over by schools Superintendent Rick Smith at various times throughout the county.

Whether you supported Smith’s pitch or not, no one could say Smith was ever anything but completely upfront and clear with his request.

The Sneaky Six? They are as transparent as the water at the Moccasin Bend treatment facility.

If only these commissioners had a similar chance or platform as Smith to make their case for the money.

If only they had had chances to disclose their rationales for keeping the discretionary money. If only there was a time when our county servants had to stand up and account for their budget requests.

Oh, right, there was — in each case. And if you wonder why most politicians have an approval rating somewhere between a root canal and an insurance seminar, it’s because of whispers and wink-filled situations like this.

They waited until the 11th hour, with little to no mention of their intent. Plus, since there was little to no discussion about it Wednesday morning, you can’t help but wonder how many behind-the-scenes discussions were held about an issue each commissioner would have to know would be controversial.

Maybe someone accidentally left a letter on the table in the break room, you know, like that petition for the commissioners to get a raise from the Legislature earlier this year?

So now the budget has an added $900,000 line item for the whims and wants of your county commissioners, courtesy of the Sneaky Six.

They won’t be the first or the last politicians to try to slide one by the public. Nope, they’re just the latest, just like they are the newest group with a number-tied nickname.

Be they the Seven Dwarfs or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, maybe there is strength in numbers-based monikers.

As for our Sneaky Six, well, we do know they are twice as silly as the Three Stooges.

Read Jay Greeson’s online column the “5-at-10” Monday through Friday at timesfreepress.com after 10 a.m. Contact him at jgree son@timesfreepress.com and follow him on Twitter at @jgreesontfp.

 

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