published Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

Pulling up stakes: Campaign signs prohibited from public spaces

Campaign signs are posted outside of the Hamilton County Election Commission off of Amnicola Highway on Wednesday. The Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday passed a resolution banning campaign signs on county property with the exception of polling locations.
Campaign signs are posted outside of the Hamilton County Election Commission off of Amnicola Highway on Wednesday. The Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday passed a resolution banning campaign signs on county property with the exception of polling locations.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

It's settled once and for all. It's not OK to campaign at the courthouse or any county property — except 101 feet or more from polling locations.

Hamilton County commissioners on Wednesday set that notion in stone after a kerfuffle last week about copies of a campaign letter posted in the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building.

Then county leaders found out that, in fact, there was no rule barring political campaigning on county property.

Commission Chairman Fred Skillern brought the resolution as a late item, not on the agenda passed last week, because he said it was an urgent matter that needed to get on the books.

State law already prohibits campaign signs within 100 feet of polling locations -- the idea is to keep candidates from influencing voters at the polls.

But Commissioner Joe Graham was quick to point out the broad resolution would make "thousands of signs" posted outside the Hamilton County Election Commission illegal.

"I think [the signs are] a valuable tool for voters," Graham said.

Commissioners said they could amend the measure to exclude signs on public property outside polling places.

Even if there are unintended consequences from the blanket measure, Skillern said those could be ironed out later.

"I think we need to pass this now and make other amendments as needed," he said.

The measure passed unanimously.

Commissioners also had a spirited, albeit tardy, discussion about how they should be able to spend a combined $900,000 a year in discretionary funds.

Commissioner Warren Mackey raised an issue during a resolution putting the commission's allotted discretionary money on the county's $90 million line of credit, which would later be covered by a bond.

The change, which was unanimously approved last month when commissioners passed the 2015 budget without debate, means discretionary funds can only be spent on structures or properties that are open to the public, such as schools, parks or fire halls. Projects also have to last at least 15 years.

Mackey said that ties commissioners' hands too much, and said he has good organizations in the urban core that he is no longer able to help. He also said people in District 4 are not getting a fair share from the county.

"I don't want this decision to penalize urban kids," Mackey said. "I wish when you go into these urban communities, you look at these children. Everything here's not equal. You know it, I know it. This decision is going to be hard against urban kids."

Commissioner Greg Beck agreed with Mackey. He had been funding a summer work program in his district with commission funds for years, but he couldn't under the new rules. However, Beck also said he saw the wisdom in setting strict rules on discretionary funds. He abstained from voting.

Skillern reminded commissioners they already passed the budget, and said moving the discretionary funding to the line of credit is what allowed county employees a 2.5 percent raise.

Commissioner Jim Fields agreed, and Mackey's push was not successful.

The resolution to move the funds to the credit line passed 7-1, with Beck silent.

Commissioners also heard and approved a resolution to approve a payment in-lieu-of-tax agreement with Chattem Chemical Inc. in St. Elmo. The measure did not appear on any agenda, and there was no opportunity for commissioners to hear from the pubic on the matter. But the the body approved the resolution unanimously. The city of Chattanooga also passed the PILOT agreement Tuesday. It will now go before the Industrial Development Board.

Chattem Chemical is a subsidiary of Sun Pharma, a multinational company with roots in Vapi, Gujarat, India. The company manufacturers pharmaceutical ingredients.

Steve Hiatt, director of existing business development for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, told commissioners the company was planning a $6 million to $8 million expansion, which would create 25 new jobs with average wages of $45,000 a year. The first phase is a four-year PILOT, and the company would also have an option for another five-year PILOT. That second phase would add 25 more jobs and include another $10 million to $15 million expansion, Hiatt said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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