frank_talk (2007-07)

Hall Redux

by Frank Cagle

Since the administration of County Executive Dwight Kessel, the fee offices for Knox County have used the Finance Department to cut payroll checks and keep up with accounts--except for the Register of Deeds office. Steve Hall, who took over the office in 1980, kept his office separate. He was fond of saying he wanted "these damn people" to know they didn't work for Knox County, they worked for him. "I want my damn name on the check they get every two weeks."

That may be why there has been little reaction over the years to stories about employees mowing his lawn, remodeling his house or doing his housekeeping. His most frequent refrain should anyone object to private favors was: "I sign your goddamn check."

Hall was term limited and replaced in "his" office along with the other officials after the state Supreme Court said the voters who approved term limits meant it. His chief deputy, Sherry Witt, was appointed to the job. We understand Hall has been in Florida, waiting for things to cool off. There are people at the courthouse who believe he will return next month--tan, rested and ready--and go back to work in the Register of Deeds office.

Will Witt put him on that inter-office payroll that doesn't show up at the County Finance Department? Witt says the deputy's job is open and when Hall returns from Florida he may want to apply for the job and if he does she "would be foolish" to ignore his 26 years of experience in the office. She says there is no agreement in place to re-hire him.

This is not without precedent, of course. Trustee Mike Lowe switched jobs with his deputy, Fred Sisk, and continues to work in the Trustee's office. But Hall was smart enough not to take the job in the middle of the firestorm over County Commission appointments. He may think a month's hiatus will enable him to slip in unnoticed and assume duties, whatever they are, in the Register's office.

One can understand Hall's sense of ownership. He often boasts of leading the ticket after each county election. He has rarely had a serious opponent, and he usually rolls up a large vote count. He operated the office as a separate kingdom, with "his" people and he answered to no one. "His" people also got out and worked and made sure he led the ticket each election. It has come as something of a shock to him that he does answer to the people--and the state Supreme Court. Prying him away from his kingdom will require more than a court opinion.

We can understand Witt's dilemma. She had become chief deputy and now Register of Deeds due to Hall's patronage. Did she have to promise him a job in return for his support? She should now know that following through with such a bargain will make it difficult to be elected to the post.

There is clear evidence fee officeholders use their office to provide surplus jobs to county officeholder relatives, they overstaff, they waste taxpayer money. I always hesitate to suggest reducing the number of people elected in Tennessee--God knows we have too many offices not accountable to the people. But given the conduct of these officeholders maybe it's time we ask ourselves whether these positions ought to be appointed by the County Mayor and ratified by County Commission rather than be elected.

Being elected to office is a public trust. If you use your position to hire Commissioners and their relatives, if you stack your office with more people than you need in order to build a political machine, and if you start to think of the office as "yours," then we have to wonder whether you deserve to have an office at all.

If there is any theme to the election next year it ought to be a clean slate. The County Mayor, the County Commission and the legislative delegation ought to take a hard look at these offices and ask how they can be brought under control. If they are to remain as elected offices, they shouldn't have unlimited hiring authority with no limit on the number of employees. There should be job descriptions and job qualifications.

We need a charter amendment on the ballot next year with the "clean slate" election. That amendment would have the positions of trustee, register of deeds, county clerk and tax assessor be appointed in the future or at least bring hiring and budgets under control. And the budgets, hiring and payroll checks need to go through the county finance office.

It would be nice if the voters turned these people out and paid attention to their outrageous conduct. But since the voters returned most term limited officeholders back to office last year and continue to elect people like Steve Hall, you have to wonder whether Knox County voters haven't been getting what they deserve of late.

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