Call for the Question

But charter amendments need extensive debate, separate space on ballot

If a newly constituted 19-member Knox County Commission has any sense, it will move to put a series of proposed charter amendments on the ballot in the August election. It should be clear from the primary election that the populace wants change and any effort to deprive them of voting for change is likely to be met with even more hostility.

Nothing will create another firestorm like charter-change advocates having to go out and secure names on petitions to get the items on the ballot. It will be like an anti-incumbent political campaign with a $300,000 budget. It is also the right thing to do. These issues have been discussed for years and it's time the voters decided some of these things once and for all. But, as usual, the devil is in the details.

Ideally, each change would be a separate ballot item. But the plan, according to the News Sentinel, is to have two ballot items, the first containing four changes; the second would have five changes. Suppose you would like to have an inspector general, for instance. And you'd like to reduce the large number of signatures to get a charter amendment on the ballot. But perhaps you don't want the county Mayor to appoint all the currently elected fee offices. Well, they would be in the same item, vote for one you get the others.

Perhaps you might want to vote to forbid county employees serving on Commission, as well as the item outlawing nepotism. But you may not want to reduce the number of Commissioners from 19 to 11. But they are all the same item.

The proposals seem designed to get people who want to outlaw nepotism, making charter changes easier, and have an inspector general to also vote for a drastic change in the structure of county government.

Brad Hill and John Schmid, at KnoxCharterPetition.com, appeared on our radio show last week and made a strong case for the changes. They argue that these changes, while making county government look more like city government, would improve county government and do not constitute the opening round in a push for metro government. In fact, Hill criticized the current efforts of Knoxville City Councilman Joe Bailey to push a metro government election. Hill attended a debate between Bailey and former Councilwoman Carlene Malone at Fountain City Town Hall to make that very point.

The original Knox County-One Question document recommends creating a commission to study how best to combine some city and county functions. This is something that has long been needed—why doesn't the county Trustee send out tax notices for city and county in one envelope? But the charter referendum group purposely decided not to include it in its list of charter changes—it would make the argument this is a stalking horse for metro government a little too obvious. Hill takes strong exception to my including the combining of city and county departments in my column two weeks ago. My argument is that this is the most badly needed provision and can be done without making the county Mayor "Boss Hogg."

But these are matters of opinion that require debate. It would be a very productive summer if we have a series of debates on these charter changes—perhaps in the City County Building main assembly room and on cable television—available for any other media that wanted a live broadcast.

Should County Commission put the items on the ballot, it needs to do it in a clear-cut way, with each item standing alone. It avoids confusion and makes the will of the voters clear. Having them vote for some provisions merely to achieve other provisions is not fair to the voters and does not render a clear cut verdict.

In legislatures they call it a "clean bill" when it's an up or down vote without tacked on amendments to poison it or sweeteners to get extra support.

We need clean bills for an up or down vote. m

Cagle is the co-host of The Voice on AM 1140, 10-12 a.m., Mon-Fri. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com.