frank_talk (2007-03)

Denial, Delusion and Deceit

Charter decision and picking officer holders is a test; don’t flunk

by Frank Cagle

Some free political advice for Knox County officeholders….

The folks are a little edgy these days about the ongoing disputes over term limits and the Knox County Charter. They did their part. They voted for the charter. They voted for term limits. Then they have had to sit back and watch people trying to subvert both elections.

But the Tennessee Supreme Court decides what’s constitutional. The court has decided to decapitate Knox County government. It’s not the court’s fault local officials ignored the law and ignored an overwhelming margin of victory for term limits. Local officials went to court to try to invalidate the government they were sworn to uphold. The court said, in effect, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.

If you are term-limited you need to understand you are done. Denial won’t help. Deluding yourself into believing you have some inherent right to stay in office makes you appear ridiculous. Resign now and avoid the rush. Go back to selling cars at the Subaru dealership. You may want to run for something else one day.

Believe it or not, there will be a primary election one year from next month. Give the voters a chance to elect people they want. County Commission should look for interim placeholders when possible. Let the people decide the shape of county government going forward.

Should you feel it necessary to hire a lawyer and go to federal court to try and overturn the verdict of the Tennessee Supreme Court, you should know we are all rooting for the judge to dismiss your suit, hold you in the contempt, and put you in jail for stupidity.

The onus is on the Commission to fill the empty chairs in the wake of the opinion that upholds the Charter and makes term limits valid. Commissioners should realize the voters will be playing close attention. The voters and the state Supreme Court have made it clear what the law is, what the will of the people is and what the meaning of is is.

Anybody who thinks he or she can pull a fast one in the context of the current crisis needs to think again. Musical chairs among term-limited office holders? Don’t even think about it. If commissioners think about appointing one of their number to one of the fee offices, the public will be outraged. An officeholder resigning, having an assistant take over, then getting hired at the same salary to be permanent “chief deputy” in the same office will face the wrath of the public. (The possible exception would be a four-month stint for Sheriff Tim Hutchison in order to qualify for his pension, unless he has enough leave time accumulated.)

Law enforcement is critical. One would hope Chief Deputy Tom Spangler would be appointed for the interim. He is a good officer and administrator. Then let there be a full-bore election in 2008 to let the voters decide who should be sheriff going forward.

We knew Justice Gary Wade joining the state Supreme Court would be a good thing. He arrived just in time to write the latest opinion. He was obviously well versed on the issues and his opinion was the best the folks could get. He recognized some technical flaws in implementing the charter, but recognized the real-world implications of overturning a “de facto” government that has been operating in Knox County, passing innumerable ordinances and entering into thousands of agreements, since 1990.

Just to be clear, Wade noted in the opinion that there would be no further appeals in state courts. He evidently knows local office holders pretty well. He also noted the responsibility for replacing those officials rests with the Knox County Commission. For those calling for an election, they should remember we had an election last year, and it was not definitive because you guys wouldn’t resign and get out of the way. There will be another election next year.

The opinion says an officeholder serves until replaced. That would seem to mean the Knox County’s current 19 county commissioners will pick the new ones. Term-limited commissioners will be sitting until they name replacements.

We would suggest you not replace the countywide elected constitutional officers until the new Commission is in place. Having the term-limited bunch appoint those offices as they go out the door is unseemly. Remember, you may want to run for another office one day. The city of Knoxville survived term-limit implementation. The county will as well. There is no shortage of good people to serve.

But we would ask one final thing of these long-serving county officials. For the love of God, just go. Go quietly, with dignity, and show some class. But most of all—just go.

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