When Hamilton County’s nine commissioners were seated at the dais on Wednesday morning, you could clearly see nine people who would have loved to be chosen as the group’s next chairman. What you couldn’t see was the political finagling, back-stabbing, favor-asking game that has played out for the past several weeks. And in the view of this amused observer, it is high time Hamilton County and its count seat – Chattanooga – took the proper steps to get better.
The Hamilton County commission is not nine people who work independently but instead three or four ‘cliques,’ if you will, that make decisions in what used to be called ‘cahoots.’ Believe me, major decisions aren’t made in public meetings by the County Commission; that’s just where they are announced. That’s right; between the weekly meetings there is more jockeying than at a horse track.
This is to say Randy Fairbanks, the new chairman, and Sabrena Smedley, the new vice chair, never fail to vote together. Greg Beck and Malcolm Mackey do the same thing. Joe Graham and Jim Fields were hopeful they could sway Tim Boyd yesterday while Fairbanks and Smedley were confident they had Greg Martin and outgoing chair, Chester Bankston.
After Fairbanks and Fields were nominated for chairman, as predicted the day before, a voice vote was called and Boyd and Mackey both answered “pass” rather that show their hand. That meant Fairbanks would just get four votes and Fields would get three. Don’t you see, without five votes there can be no decision. The resulting “pregnant pause” was simply delicious and the stifled laughter from longtime observers fit the scene well.
It was then decided Robert’s Rules of Order permitted those who abstained to “re-vote.” Boyd and Mackey gave Fairbanks the nod, which gave Sabrena the impetus to oust Fields for the position of pro tem. Sure, it was simply child’s play but on decisions where the stakes matter, a more modern-day panel would eliminate such ‘cliques’ and cronyism, much to the betterment of every taxpayer.
If you’ll look around the state and the country, you will find “home rule” government is today’s norm. I know if we would combine city and county services under one “metro” board of governance, we could save millions of dollars in duplicate services. Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis have proven it is far more efficient and makes better sense in every way.
The reason past attempts in in Chattanooga/Hamilton County towards metro government have failed is because the black citizens would suddenly be a far-greater minority if you combine the city and county population. I contend that every citizen would be much better off and that could be proven easily. How? Take one-day trips to Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis. This is a no-brainer but this is also why our politicians are so vehement in protecting their serfdoms.
The logical solution failing, the alternate solution is to divide each of the county’s nine district in half based on an equal number of the population in each. Then elect a county commissioner from each half. In short, each district would have two commissioners instead of one to watch over the citizens in the half they would represent.
Ideally, the two commissioners in each district would run for four years in office but with this distinction – one or the other would be elected every two. By overlapping each district’s representatives in the way our school board functions, we would be assured of continuity and a flawless supply of what I would hope to be twice the judgement in each district. The county has grown, new neighborhoods – some markedly diverse -- have developed, and while the cost to pay our county commissioners would double, I strongly believe our representation would be twice-as-good.
Another example: a terse exchange between Mayor Jim Coppinger and Commissioner Tim Boyd never should have been allowed to get unruly at Wednesday’s commission meeting. If we had two representatives from Boyd’s district, which includes East Ridge on one side and East Brainerd on the other, the entire district would not be held in contempt by some other members of the commission who abhor such behavior. East Ridge and East Brainerd are quite different neighborhoods and each deserves direct representation.
Wait, this isn’t to say Tim Boyd doesn’t do a good job representing his district, or that any of the other eight do not do a fine job as well, but it is most definitely to say two representatives would do twice as much for the people of Hamilton County. With the $225 million windfall from the millage being proposed, it is nigh time for county government to change the way it is has been doing business.
Home rule with a metro-style of government is the obvious solution for all of us. Progressive cities across America are testaments to those was dared better government. But when at least 15 years of subpar leadership (!) has marooned us in education, corrections, infrastructure, water treatment, school building and athletic facilities for our young, and just the basic needs the citizens of Hamilton County deserve, it is time for all of us to stare back at the man in the mirror and ask …
What should we do to make us better than this?