Astroturf Reform

Civil service and term limits would solve most problems

The grassroots effort to put nine charter amendments on the ballot is looking more and more like Astroturf. Capitalizing on the voter anger about the mismanagement of Knox County government, the reform movement came forward with proposals generated from the Knox County-One Question dog and pony show.

If you review the suggestions from the public meetings, you will see several suggestions that county employees be put under civil service. This would prevent political hires; job descriptions and civil service would prevent political firings. Term limits and civil service might solve just about every problem extant in county government. But the suggestion was ignored.

The amendments brought to County Commission were cherry-picked from hundreds of suggestions. This is not to say the ones brought forth were not popular. But they were picked by a small group of people from among many suggestions.

Nonpartisan commission elections and eliminating elected fee officeholders are transparent efforts to destroy the Republican courthouse machine. The goal can be accomplished with civil service. You could also propose that any fees collected by these offices go to the general fund and that commission then appropriate money to run the offices. It would give commission control of the number of employees in these offices.

There has been an effort to force the newly constituted Knox County Commission into rubber stamping the Knox Charter Petition amendments and putting them on the ballot. They were presented at the first meeting of the new caretaker commission with the heavy handed and arrogant suggestion they get it done—now.

To their credit, some of the new commissioners are taking seriously their oath to uphold the charter. Victoria Defreeze, a Republican from South Knoxville, Elaine Davis, a liberal Democrat from Bearden, and Richard Briggs, an independent-minded Republican from West Knox County have been among those asking good questions about the wording, the legality, and the timing of the amendments. They have done this despite being attacked in comments on websites and blogs as thwarting the will of the people.

They should be commended for taking their new responsibilities seriously and standing up to the stampeding herd while the petition group sets off firecrackers.

There is a small group of people who fund just about everything that happens in Knoxville, from the United Way to the Knox Area Chamber Partnership to the symphony, opera, and the art museum. It is no surprise they have been solicited to fund the charter petition drive. There is nothing nefarious about it, contrary to the assertion of amendment-process critics. Rich people have the right to petition their government. But the group erred in not making the contribution list public on the front end, allowing conspiracy theories to develop.

Criticisms of the process and the rush to judgment led Briggs to put an item on the agenda for next Monday's commission meeting calling on County Mayor Mike Ragsdale to name a charter review committee to study amendments and get legal advice on what is possible, legal, and good for county government. It is a better solution. Ragsdale, who would pick the members, has agreed. A charter commission could not be called earlier because it requires a commissioner be appointed from each district, and the 4th District didn't have a commissioner for a period of months. Ten other citizens will be added to nine commissioners.

One would hope they would consider civil service for county employees—a civil service exam, review and job descriptions are the best deterrent to nepotism. Take a look at the city of Knoxville, which has civil service, and see how many council members have relatives on the city payroll.

The election of 2010 will rid county government of Ragsdale and several more of the old guard. Perhaps it would be the time to calmly vote on a seriously vetted list of reforms. By that time we might be able to determine if any more reform is really necessary. m