Staff photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Appointed Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger stands by the gavel following an early Monday meeting. Coppinger replaces Claude Ramsey, who will join governor-elect Bill Haslam in Nashville.
Hamilton County commissioners agreed on two things Monday: Chairman Jim Coppinger will be the county's next mayor, and the process for replacing the county's top elected position is flawed.
Coppinger, who will be sworn in at 9 a.m. today, received a unanimous 8-0 show of support from the commission Monday, less than a week after commissioners stalled 4-4 between him and Mike Carter, special assistant to Mayor Claude Ramsey. Carter resigned his post Monday.
Ramsey is leaving today to join the administration of Gov.-elect Bill Haslam.
Carter pulled his name from consideration on Saturday and on Monday, Coppinger pledged to unite the commission and the county and to work with the legislative delegation to reform the selection process.
Commissioners agreed that replacing the mayor should be a special election for voters. Under current law, it is up to the commission to select the replacement.
During the process to replace Ramsey, nine people threw their hats into the ring for the mayor's position. Controversy arose over the fact that, under the law, the commission was not required to conduct any public interviews with the candidates, although its members could if they so desired.
They decided not to hold any public interviews.
In a column that ran in the Times Free Press, former County Executive Dalton Roberts accused the commission of violating the state's Sunshine Law. Carter also accused the commission of backroom deals to place Coppinger in the mayor's seat and said the process lacked transparency.
Commissioners don't want to face that turmoil again.
"You saw the struggles we had," Coppinger said. "All of us are more comfortable when the public is making that decision."
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said the legislative delegation could propose a local act to allow for an election.
Commissioner Larry Henry, who is currently vice chairman and will become chairman once Coppinger becomes mayor today, said the commission's Legal Committee likely will take up the issue.
Commissioners Fred Skillern and Jim Fields also were hopeful the delegation would reform the process.
"It's an important decision to put on nine people," Fields said.
Moments after Coppinger was selected as the county's next mayor, Ramsey called to congratulate him.
Ramsey is in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show, where Volkswagen is unveiling the new Passat that is being manufactured at its Chattanooga plant.
"He and I had a good discussion," Coppinger said.
Coppinger said he did not know if he'd be keeping any of Ramsey's staff or whether Ramsey would be taking his staff with him.
County Human Services Administrator Scott Schoolfield plans to retire today, and Coppinger said he does not know who will replace him. He also does not know if he will appoint a new special assistant to replace Carter.
Coppinger said he planned to meet with county staff Monday, though many were not at work because of the snowstorm.
"We're going to look at ways to make certain we're at the right staffing level," Coppinger said. "What we've heard from people is government is getting too big."
The path to this point was tumultuous. The commission deadlocked 4-4 in four separate votes on whether to appoint Coppinger or Carter.
Last week, Skillern, the former commission chairman, stepped down and cited an ill family member as the reason. That elevated Coppinger to chairman, lining him up to automatically become mayor if the commission could not break the tie.
On Friday, Commissioner Warren Mackey, who previously had supported Carter, said he was changing his vote to Coppinger. The next day, Carter pulled his name.
Carter did not go quietly, however. He claimed that Coppinger's appointment to chairman was part of a coup to install the chairman as mayor without a vote.
Coppinger said there was no plot to appoint him, but added that one of his priorities is to restore public confidence in county government.
"That's my goal, to earn the public's trust and respect," Coppinger said. "And to continue to earn the commission's trust and respect."
Commissioners may relive the contentious process again, albeit on a smaller scale, when they begin searching for Coppinger's replacement on the commission.
Carter has said there is an effort to appoint Mitch McClure, a volunteer chaplain at the sheriff's office, to Coppinger's District 3 commission seat.
McClure said he is flattered his name has come up, but he has not formally declared his intent to apply.
Commissioner Greg Beck said he's interested in becoming vice chairman.
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...