published Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

East Ridge city manager search to abide by charter

Vice Mayor Jim Bethune
Vice Mayor Jim Bethune
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Some members of the East Ridge City Council think the job requirements for their next manager are too demanding. So they got together Monday night, some searching for a loophole that would open up the search field. No such luck.

After former City Manager Tim Gobble resigned Thursday, Councilman Marc Gravitt suggested East Ridge hire an interim manager who didn't necessarily qualify for the job under the City Charter. The charter requires that a manager hold a bachelor's degree in public administration and have at least three years' experience working for a city government. Those requirements narrow the field too much, Gravitt said.

But with help from interim City Attorney Hal North and a legal consultant from the state's Municipal Technical Advisory Service, the council members determined Monday that their next hire must have the experience and the degree, even if he or she is just an interim manager. East Ridge residents can change the charter -- and widen the search field -- but not until next year's elections.

So the council members must choose: Find a new manager who qualifies, or wait to see if residents change the charter. If the council had been able to hire whomever it wanted as an interim manager, then in theory it could have asked residents to change the charter before making that interim manager permanent.

For now, Eddie Phillips remains the interim manager. Phillips automatically filled Gobble's position after he resigned Thursday because Phillips is the deputy city manager. This is the sixth time Phillips has stepped into the role.

Phillips will make about $7,500 per month -- $1,000 more than he normally does as East Ridge's public safety director. Until the city hires a permanent manager, Phillips will do both jobs.

The council voted Monday to give Phillips the extra money, with every member except Larry Sewell approving. Sewell argued the city actually has to give Phillips a little more. According to a pay scale passed in April, the East Ridge city manager should get at least $7,700 per month.

Vice Mayor Jim Bethune, however, argued Phillips shouldn't be paid like a normal city manager because he will be divided between two jobs.

"Can you do the job and do it 100 percent the way it should be done?" Bethune asked Phillips.

Sewell interjected: "He's done it before. I'll speak for him."

"I'm asking him," Bethune responded.

Finally, Phillips leaned into his microphone: "I guess I have to."

That exchange was not the only tense moment Monday night, just four days after Gobble stepped down. Councilman Denny Manning chided Mayor Brent Lambert for talking to the media about Gobble's resignation after Thursday's meeting. All five council members agreed to stay quiet, Manning argued. Lambert disagreed.

Sewell, meanwhile, complained about the circumstances leading to Gobble's resignation. Bethune, Gravitt and Manning met with the former city manager to negotiate terms of a resignation Thursday afternoon, and Sewell and Lambert said they didn't know about it until the deal was all but settled.

"We get called in last minute at the meeting," Sewell said. "If there was cause [or Gobble's resignation], everybody should have known about it."

"If we want to discuss that," Bethune said, "for the past two years I've sat up here and not had a clue what was going on."

"That's your problem, I guess," Sewell argued.

"No," Bethune said. "That's not my problem because I wasn't invited to none of the meetings y'all had."

"I didn't have any meetings, sir," Sewell said.

"I disagree with that," Bethune responded. "We're not here to argue. We're here to solve a problem the city's having."

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