Councilman Larry Sewell took exception to Vice Mayor Marc Gravitt’s leading the charge to give City Attorney Hal North a raise.
Sewell listened patiently to Gravitt’s well-reasoned argument to increase North’s $120,000 a year salary. Among the reasons were that North’s firm, Chambliss Bahner & Stophel, puts in a “tremendous” amount of hours dealing with East Ridge issues; that North was recently named as a “Super Lawyer” by a research team of his peers; that North can rely on the expertise of his firm’s other lawyers who are experienced in an array of legal specialties including labor relations and employment law.
North, who will have been the attorney for the city for three years next month, spoke for himself and said that he has defended the City in seven law suits; he prepares and revises ordinances and resolutions; he drafts contracts, he appears before the city’s administrative law judge; he fields questions about city issues from employees on a daily basis; and he was “not simply a scrivener” during the six-month effort to revise the City Charter.
Sewell had heard enough. “What is the figure?” he asked pertaining to the amount of the salary increase. “All this talking about expertise.”
North said he wanted a 10 percent raise, which would amount to $1,200 per month.
Sewell reminded Gravitt that North took the job for $90,000 (less than half of what former City Attorney John Anderson was paid in his last year with the city) and the council had increased North’s compensation to $120,000 in the past three years.
“When you (Gravitt) ran, you ran on the (former) attorney making too much money,” Sewell said of Gravitt’s election to the Council in 2012. “You’re inching (North’s salary) up too.
Gravitt retorted by reminding Sewell that Sewell had made the statement, “you get what you pay for,” in a previous council meeting. Sewell reminded Gravitt that former City Attorney John Anderson was largely responsible for East Ridge’s participation in the Border Region Act, which has become the spearhead of the city’s resurgence in development.
“Look what we got, we got the Border Region,” Sewell said. “You get what you pay for.”
Gravitt said that he believed others, including former State Representative Vince Dean and State Senator Bo Watson, played a crucial role in securing Border Region status for East Ridge. He added that the former City Attorney also cost the city $672,000 over a “title dispute.” (East Ridge sold the property the No. 2 Fire Hall was on to developers and had to reimburse the state fair market value for the property).
Mayor Brent Lambert said he could not support a raise for North. He said he understood how “complicated and voluminous” North’s job is. But, four months ago Lambert did not vote in favor of a two percent across-the-board salary increase for employees. Instead the council gave a 25-cent raise to employees. Lambert said he would be a “hypocrite” if he voted in favor of raising North’s salary.
Councilman Jacky Cagle said that he “wished” the issue of a salary increase had been brought up during the time the council was discussing the budget. He said Councilman Denny Manning had suggested discussing North’s salary at that time. Cagle said that North has been very responsive in working with city staff and elected officials, something that Manning echoed.
“When you call (North) he will call you back,” Manning said. “We had one (attorney) that cost us a lot more than is being asked for tonight.
“He’s stood by us,” he continued. “He’s fought for East Ridge.”
Gravitt “called the question” for a vote and Lambert reminded him that there was no motion before the board. Gravitt quickly made a motion for the salary increase that Manning seconded. The measure passed with Sewell and Lambert voting no.
In other business, the council tabled an ordinance that would radically amend regulations governing business signs and billboards. Staff had revised and made recommendations to a draft that the council had reviewed during a special called meeting last week. Vice Mayor Gravitt said that council members received those revisions just prior to the meeting and needed more time to review them.
The new sign ordinance deals with a litany of issues including LED billboards, temporary sign permits and whether or not a moratorium on “off premises” billboards is temporary or permanent.
The council approved a rezoning measure on Roosevelt Road that would allow construction of 20 single-family homes. It also signed on with other municipalities in Hamilton County to hire a consultant to lobby against a potential bill in the State General Assembly that would give a portion of the state’s shared sales tax to counties, not just cities. Mayor Lambert stressed that if the bill passed it could deprive East Ridge of between $500,000 and $1 million of money a year from the state. East Ridge would contribute $20,000 to the consultant’s salary next year.
The council passed on first reading a revision to the city’s beer ordinance. The revision would allow businesses to sell beer within 250 feet of a residence. The issue came to the fore recently after Walmart and Save-A-Lot had to get variances to sell beer at their respective locations on Ringgold Road. Houses behind the businesses and away from the commercial district were within the 250-foot limit, requiring the extra time and effort of appearing before council to plead for a variance.
The council passed a resolution allowing city officials to re-apply for a $525,000 state grant on behalf of the WWTA to assist in upgrading the city’s sewer system. Amanda Miller, the city’s Community Involvement Coordinator, told the panel that the city, which is being used as a “pass through entity” for the grant, would not be required to match any portion of the grant. The city would be informed next fall if it received the grant, she said.
The council briefly discussed the effort to get a plan in place for the redesign of Exit 1 on Interstate 75 to facilitate future traffic flow into the Jordan Crossing/Bass Pro Shops development. Mayor Lambert emphasized that once a plan is submitted to TDOT any revisions to that plan would stall the process.
_ City officials will receive a briefing from Industrial Development Attorney Mark Mamantov on Thursday, Nov. 19. Mamantov is the state’s leading expert on the Border Region Act, Mayor Lambert said. The meeting is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. in the council chambers. The public is invited.