frank_talk (2007-05)

Bad Behavior Rewarded

Overstaffing has been good to incumbents everywhere

by Frank Cagle

Whatever behavior you reward generally gets you more of the same behavior.

We talked last week about the excess staff and expenses in Knox County fee offices. The News Sentinel had a big story on it Sunday. You ought to read it if you missed it.

The irony of the situation in Knox County is that the behavior we may deplore is the behavior that has been rewarded over the years. A lean and cost effective fee office is not a recipe for political success. If you have a lot of employees, you have a lot of campaign workers. They have an incentive to get you re-elected. Their families have an incentive to get you re-elected. Computers may be efficient, and they may increase productivity, but they can't get you any votes.

Suppose someone had gotten elected to one of the fee offices down at the Courthouse a decade or so ago. Imagine he or she were a conscientious sort with definite ideas on public service. Suppose the new constitutional officer cut the size of the office staff by two-thirds, returned double the amount of excess fees back to the county treasury and refused to hire any relatives of other officeholders. That would have guaranteed a one-term office holder.

All those employees are also popular with the public. When you walk up to the counter at one of these offices headed by an elected official you can count on someone jumping up to help you, handling your business with dispatch. Contrast the service walking in to file a deed with walking into a state office and trying to renew your driver's license. It's nice to get good service at these county offices. But you get what you pay for, and you have been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for the service. Those offices pay expenses out of the fees they collect. Excess fees are turned over to the county general fund. What does the office holder the most good: people pleased with counter service or a six-figure line in the county budget that no one notices?

Since you have people sitting around with little to do most of the year, where's the harm in some of those doing the sitting being relatives of other office holders? Or even a county commissioner? Is it likely the Knox County Commission will investigate, audit or hassle a countywide officeholder if it endangers their job, a relative's job, or angers a fellow commissioner because it has endangered their relative's job?

Having a courthouse full of ground troops is not only helpful to the office holder, it is also helpful to other office holders at the local, state and federal level. Come the county election the political parties can call on county employees to volunteer for campaign duties. That's how machines are born and maintained. It is also helpful to gubernatorial candidates and U.S. Senate candidates. And don't forget the presidential races. Knox County patronage is a vestige of the patronage system that used to be rife in this country, from the White House on down. The decline of the patronage system at the state and federal level matches the decline in the power of political parties. Politicians can still get you a job--it's just that civil service makes it harder, limits the number and prevents house cleaning after every election.

You can see how the system has resulted in fee-office holders holding office for long periods of time, how county commissioners have held on to power and how various political machines, of both parties, have functioned over the years, funded by the taxpayers. One of the reasons there has been some reluctance to look very hard at the notorious Tyler Harber affair has been a reluctance to start looking at county employees who only do political work. (I would submit there is a world of difference, however, between county employees working to save their jobs by getting the boss re-elected and a political operative like Harber with a consulting firm being paid thousands of dollars to actually run races.)

You also may now understand why so many functions at the Courthouse have not been computerized. Why should you have to go to a county office for routine transactions, instead of handling it at your desk online? Too many rice bowls at risk, as they say in the Far East.

Term limits will change a lot of faces at the courthouse. But will it change the culture? It will be harder to build and maintain a political machine if the office holders only face one re-election and then leave. Unless we start having musical chairs: I'll run for trustee this year, you run for clerk. We'll swap in eight years and I'll run for clerk and you run for trustee.

In the short run you may see more influence by county political parties and less by individual office holders. At least until they figure out how to game the new system.

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