Eyes Wide Open

Let's not let distractions interfere with the main points of this election

Regardless of Bill Lockett's motives, the amendments to change the structure of county government now read the way they should. As I wrote a few weeks back, there are only two real issues in the upcoming charter amendment elections:

  • Do you want the mayor to appoint countywide officeholders instead of electing them? (Amendment Four)
  • Do you want to reduce the size of County Commission from 19 members to 11? (Amendment Three)

Everything else in the amendments is window dressing, or it pales in comparison to these wide-ranging and permanent alterations.

These are legitimate questions to put before the people of Knox County. We had a court-ordered term-limit bomb dropped into the middle of county government, removing the power structure overnight. This has led to instability, political maneuvering, and further turmoil. It is entirely possible that a majority of the voters in Knox County would like to tear up the current system of county government and start over. If that's what they want, these two amendments will do it.

Others may feel that term limits, given a chance to work, will solve most of the problems we've had: it's the people in office, not the structure of government, that is at fault.

But regardless of which side you are on, a change of this magnitude should be made with eyes wide open and as free of obfuscation as possible. All this talk about an inspector general or eliminating nepotism or revealing conflicts of interest is a distraction. These can be taken care of by ordinance and policy changes; they do not require a charter change.

County Law Director Lockett has been roundly criticized for rewording the language on amendment four by moving up the mayoral appointment items to first place and saying you are giving up your right to vote on several county offices. In the original petition language the mayoral appointments are the third item, after an inspector general and a conflict of interest disclosure requirement.

Amendment three, to reduce the size of commission from 19 to 11 members, is also different on the ballot. The reduction of commission size is now in the first part of the amendment. The provisions on nepotism and disclosing conflicts of interest have been moved from first to after the commission reduction language.

You can certainly point out that Lockett has a bias against the amendments; his office would be one of the ones changed to mayoral appointment. But now a voter in a hurry can tell in the first paragraph what the most important provisions of the amendments are. That is as it should be.

To complain about the rewrite is to raise the suspicion that the structure of the amendment language was to hide from the average voter the most significant implication of his vote.

There are a lot of people who think the structure of Knoxville city government is just fine, thank you, and that the county government that would exist after these amendments pass would be just fine as well. There is a good argument to make that such a structure would be more efficient. It also makes it easier to pass metro government in several ways.

Similar structures, indeed mirror structures, would be simpler to combine. But the more important reason is that abolishing elected countywide officeholders also eliminates political power centers that might field opposition. The days when a Lillian Bean, a Steve Hall, or a Mike Lowe could put troops in the field during an election campaign (as in previous metro votes) would be over.

But Knox County's area, including the city, is roughly twice that of the city's. Cutting the districts to one commissioner might be difficult in areas with several communities spread over a large area. There is also an issue involved in reducing the number of commissioners in the 1st district in East Knoxville. You are effectively eliminating a black officeholder and black representation in a county where blacks are only about 9 percent of the population. That could be a voting rights issue.

These are some of the issues to argue about in the election. The ballot is fine. Make your case on the issues that matter. m