Form vs. Functionaries

Is problem the form of county government or people running it?

Boy, who knew the structure of Knox County government was such a mess all those years. When Dwight Kessel was County Mayor and Tommy Schumpert was Trustee and Frank Leuthold was chair of the Knox County Commission finance committee, was there just a massive cover-up of a dysfunctional, corrupt, inefficient courthouse?

We didn't hear about hospitality slush funds, employees illegally paying themselves $200,000, and no one was reported to be having a lobster lunch at Regas on the county dime or buying home entertainment centers.

Could it be that the form of government at that time was satisfactory, because we had people who did the right thing?

The result of scandal after scandal in county government has been a rash of charter changes and referenda—as if tinkering with the form of government would make things right. A few more tweaks and we'll be there.

But the scandals in county government have had another common thread: individuals in office who have had the hubris to view the county budget as a source of money for their own ambitions. From Mike Ragsdale to Mike Arms to Mike Lowe, their sins have been discovered by audits, revealed to the populace, and are allegedly under investigation by proper authorities. (Suggested charter change: no one named "Mike" can run for office.)

Could it be that the faults of county government are all about the people who have been elected to office, rather than the form of government? After the 2008 election massacre of incumbents, there is another chance in 2010 to elect some more new faces. Will that solve the problem?

The Supreme Court decision upholding term limits set loose a flood of ideas as it now appears that the Knox County charter is a governing document and home rule actually means decisions can be made at the local level. But can we pass enough laws to make people honest? Can we change enough procedures to prevent people from gaming the system?

This is not to say reform is a bad thing. I have advocated bringing fee-office employees under the county merit system to prevent political abuse. I also have argued that their amount of their budgets ought to be regulated by the county legislative body in the form of County Commission.

But it should be up to the officeholders elected county wide to decide who they hire, what benefits to offer, and how their budgets are to be spent. The voters were given a chance last year to abolish these offices and they voted overwhelmingly to keep them. These officeholders are also elected by every voter in the county—while County Commissioners are each elected by a small group of people in their districts. Who has a greater claim to voter legitimacy?

Sheriff Jimmy "JJ" Jones has a point when he says the commission approves his budget, but it is up to him as a duly elected sheriff to decide how that money will be spent. He will answer to the voters in 2010 on whether he spent it properly.

State Rep. Chad Faulkner, a Knox County sheriff's deputy who represents Union and Campbell counties, had no business getting involved in the current controversy. But since his bill exists, the Knox County delegation needs to step up and take his proposed legislation and bring clarity to the situation. Either the constitutional officers are independent agents elected by the people, or they are charter-created department heads subject to micro-managing by County Commission.

There is one person who has a stake in this game and is in a position to resolve it. We happen to have state Sen. Tim Burchett in the delegation, and he is also a declared candidate for County Mayor next year. Burchett needs to cut this Gordian knot. It will reveal his vision of what county government ought to look like and how it should function. It is an opportunity for him to demonstrate to the voters that he understands the issue and he has a chance to shape the future of the government he hopes eventually to lead.

When it's over you should have a sense of what kind of mayor Burchett would be.