frank_talk (2006-27)

The Coup Continues

Will we have six people filling most jobs in county government?

by Frank Cagle

Let us assume the state Supreme Court decides, after the August election, the Knox County charter—and its term limits provision—is valid. Suppose the Supremes include all county office holders, as the term limits referendum stated. It might seem unlikely, but given what’s happened in this case over the last six months, you can’t rule anything out.

Should the nine term-limited county commissioners running for reelection win Aug. 3, they would then be removed from office. That would leave 10 members of County Commission. Those 10 members would then pick the other nine commissioners and would then be charged with picking new office holders like the sheriff, county clerk and register of deeds.

It would require a majority vote of the “existing” commission under Supreme Court decisions, so it would take six votes to pick the rest of the County Commission. If the commissioners decide to fill all the other offices before picking their colleagues, then six commissioners will be picking virtually every post in the courthouse. So we will have had a series of court decisions based on the original premise the will of the people is sovereign come down to almost the whole of Knox County government being decided by six people. (Question: Could these county commissioners appoint each other to fill the posts of register of reeds, sheriff or county clerk?)

If these six people pick a new sheriff, county clerk, nine other commissioners and so forth, how long would the terms be? If the picking is done within 45 days of the November election, then the terms would be until the next county general election, in August of 2008. If the positions were filled earlier than 45 days before the November election then these offices could be put up for election in November: a possible two month campaign for sheriff, clerk and other county offices.

If someone is picked for sheriff or elected in November, the term would last until the August 2008 election. Could the current sheriff, county clerk, register of deeds, etc. run for the office again in August 2008? It appears they could. They would not be running for a consecutive term.

If you assume the term-limited people on the ballot win reelection and are then booted by the court, who will make the decision to fill all these offices? 

Well, you would have existing county commissioners not term-limited, assuming they win reelection. The list would be Tank Strickland, Paul Pinkston, Craig Leuthold, Mike Hammond, Ivan Harmon and Scott Moore. You will probably have three primary winners in R. Larry Smith, Tony Norman and Phil Ballard. Then you would have either Greg “Lumpy” Lambert or Margaret Massey-Cox, depending on who Powell and Karns voters picked in the general election.

(We are assuming the term-limited county commissioners win reelection, of course. There is a possibility Chuck James could defeat Mark Cawood, or Amy Broyles’ write-in effort could topple Billy Tindell, or Mark Harmon might defeat David Collins, or Nick Della Volpe could defeat Diane Jordan, etc. Should any challengers win, they would join the group filling the rest of the offices.)

We were worried after the primary about having scores of party delegates meet to pick new County Commission candidates and it would not be as democratic as a primary. Now we may have as few as six people replacing all of county government.

The state Supreme Court has to decide which “will of the people” to honor. A term-limits vote in 1994, or the reelection of the term-limited county office holders in August. Is it possible for them to rule these officials are term-limited and order a new election in November (if there is time) or a new election for all these people in August 2008? It would be less disruptive to county government, but under what legal theory do you come up with a solution to leave them in office until they are replaced?

This is only one nightmare scenario facing Knox County in the coming months. The courts have created the mess. The state Supreme Court refused to reach down and take the Shelby County term-limits case last year and render a decision in plenty of time for this election cycle. It is fitting that the mess has returned to the court’s laps for them to clean up.

Perhaps it is time to put the state Supreme Court back on the ballot with competitive races. The appointed judges seem to be out of touch with electoral politics, the real world and the workings of democracy. Let’s suggest to the legislature they shake these folks out of the ivory tower and return them to holding elected positions.

With term limits of course.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .