published Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Attorney Chris Clem returning to Hamilton County Election Commission as commissioner

The Hamilton County Election Commission's former attorney, who resigned in December after butting heads with its chairman, has been tapped to serve the body again — this time as a commissioner.

In an emailed vote over the weekend, the Hamilton County legislative delegation recommended Chattanooga attorney Chris Clem to fill the Republican appointee seat being left by Tommy Crangle. Crangle is leaving the Election Commission to seek the Tennessee House District 27 post being vacated by state Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga.

The state Election Commission ultimately will decide on Clem's appointment. Its next scheduled meeting is April 14, but an earlier meeting to consider the appointment is expected in the next two weeks, according to spokesman Blake Fontenay.

Clem resigned as the commission attorney after the commission approved a petition to let Chattanooga voters decide whether the city will keep an ordinance to extend health benefits to domestic partners of city employees.

At the time, Clem and Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden disagreed because Clem had advised Hamilton County Tea Party President Mark West, who was leading the petition effort, to speak to the state about how to proceed. Walden said going around the local body helped to politicize the issue and put the election commission's objectivity in question.

Clem said Tuesday his resignation would not impact his service on the election commission if his appointment is confirmed.

He left the commission to get more involved in local politics, he said. And he's had his fill of that.

"I got quite a bit involved with helping a lot of these campaigns get off the ground, just giving unpaid advice about where to get signs, and things like that ... I've been involved sufficiently enough," Clem said.

He also said his disagreement with Walden is water under the bridge.

"[Walden has] been a great election commissioner, and we've been friends a long time. Whatever little disagreements we had last year will not affect my ability to serve," Clem said.

Walden did not return a telephone call for comment.

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, chairman of the Republican delegation, said Tuesday legislators held an e-mail vote over the weekend and came up with a 4-2 vote in favor of Clem. He said Clem's history with the election commission was not part of the discussion.

The delegation includes Reps. Dean; Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah; and Floyd; and Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

Others under consideration for the job were Ray Adkins, former County Commissioner Mitch McClure and Margaret Chastain, Dean said.

"Not a public vote"

On Tuesday, Dean declined to specify how individual delegation members voted, saying it "was not a public vote." He said he didn't want to share how the six elected officials voted because he "didn't want to embarrass anyone."

Elisha Hodge, the state's open records counsel, said the delegation might not have to release the vote information.

Tennessee courts have ruled members of the state General Assembly are exempt from laws governing open government meetings and open government records, Hodge said.

Although the General Assembly sometimes responds to open records requests, Director of Legislative Administration Connie Ridley did not respond to an e-mail request for a copy of the vote record and e-mail thread on Tuesday.

Even though General Assembly members have the right to withhold information from the public, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher says they shouldn't.

"If they believe the government should be accountable to the public, they should be open with the public, whether they are required to or not," Fisher said. "There is the law, and there is the principle. And the principle is that citizens deserve transparency in their government. They deserve to know about the decisions their elected representatives are making."

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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