frank_talk (2007-04)

Dispel Urban Myths

Audit Knox County fee offices now, just for peace of mind

by Frank Cagle

Hey, you know what would be a really cool idea?

Since we are replacing longtime officeholders down at the courthouse it would be a good time to clear up some of these urban myths that have been hanging around for years. You know, the stories about no-show jobs, nepotism and the like.

To clear the air and create peace of mind for the new person in the job, let's have an audit of all the fee offices. A fresh start. While we are at it, maybe we can discover why the Knox County offices seem to require more employees and have more expenses than comparable fee offices around the state. We hope when all is said and done everyone gets a clean bill of health and that there haven't been any NCAA violations.

These constitutional officers are elected by the people and they don't have to pay much attention to the county mayor or County Commission. If they want to have 50 employees put up yard signs, attend bean suppers or go door-to-door campaigning, they are free to do so. Not that they would, you understand. The public wouldn't stand for it. Would they?

A funny thing happened on the way to stacking the County Commission. All hell broke loose. It shouldn't be surprising. Consider 19 commissioners. Consider eight positions to fill. Consider all the people who want the jobs. As best I remember from Algebra I, the possible permutations in these equations approach infinity. Pleasing everyone is impossible, pleasing most of the people is improbable, pleasing anyone is a long shot. Despite Ray Hill's best efforts, having a predetermined slate of candidates to shape the future County Commission isn't likely.

Most commissioners seem to be satisfied with influencing the selection of commission candidates in their own district--the people they will have to work with on Commission to get things for their district. The people their voters in their district find acceptable. You want to risk your seat picking someone everybody hates? If you want your choice, you support the choices of the other district commissioners who are picking their successors.

There is a school of thought that there is some sort of process we can use here to produce a good result, make everyone happy and restore some semblance of democratic process. I'm sorry, my friends, that ship has sailed. We have had over a decade of officials ignoring the term-limit wishes of 75 percent of the voters, we had term-limited officials refusing to resign and get out of the way during last year's election, and we had officeholders suing to overturn the voter -approved charter. The only remedy for this debacle will come next year with new elections.

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has proposed public forums. I'm not sure how that would work. Perhaps it could be like American Idol . Candidates could come down, present their resume, make a speech. Everyone in the audience could vote by their applause. People watching on cable could call in on a hot line. Commissioners could insult anyone who ran against them last year as a write-in.

Then we would have process, and Knoxville loves process. But who would be in the audience, registering their approval? (Applauding? Booing? Show of hands?) Where does the public--the audience--come from? The West Knoxville Republican Club? The Deaniac Democrats? The mayor's call list? The Leadership Knoxville gang?   Friends of the Library? County employees? People wandering in from the bus transfer station outside in order to get warm? (I'd prefer the last group.) In such a format, there will only be one group of people in the chamber who represent the will of the people. That would be the 19 people up front elected by the people in their district to represent them. Nobody elects newspaper editors, columnists, TV pundits or bloggers. Or an American Idol audience.

A public process is not a bad move on the mayor's part, and I'm not saying it would be a bad thing. But we should acknowledge the possibility commissioners might have a better feel for a candidate that has support in Karns, Mascot, Park Ridge or Vestal rather than any random group of people who show up at a public forum to be vetted by the establishment.

One suspects the people's attitudes about the process will depend heavily on whether their candidates get picked. Commissioners can't come up with a system everyone likes. They will be judged by the quality of the candidates they pick.

In the long run we can only hope that is uppermost in their minds. It's the right thing to do, and it is the smart thing to do. What are the odds?

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