frank_talk (2007-11)

Rethink It

Lawsuits, turmoil, uncertainty aids incumbents

by Frank Cagle

There are well meaning people, angry at recent events in Knox County politics, who, in achieving their goals, may create a more chaotic and confusing situation than we already have.

The state Supreme Court decision upholding term limits dropped into the middle of last year's county elections. Qualifying for the primaries had already been completed and ballots had been printed. Caught flat-footed by the situation, I'm sure there were many good candidates for local office who could not get organized to mount a serious campaign.

In other cases, people jumped into the race with no money, no time to organize supporters and they were defeated by incumbents. There were also people who are unlikely to ever be term-limited elected to office who jumped in, muddied the water, and also helped term-limited incumbents get reelected.

So when the court ruled term limits mean term limits, there were still 12 people in office who had no right to be there. Replacements had to be appointed by County Commission.

We now have less than 11 months before the county primary elections. We have time for the county parties to elect new chairs. We have time for the recruitment of candidates. We have time for candidate workshops. We have time for people to raise money. We have time for candidates without a lot of money to get around and meet people and use shoe leather equity to replace an ad budget.

Yes, we also have time for appointed officeholders to demonstrate they deserve to be elected.

Most of all, we have the time to do it right, instead of doing it in the midst of the confusion we had last year, when it was never clear who could run and who should go home.

Though it would appear to be a dead issue, there is a continuing effort to have a special election in September. Before we all go running down that road, let's stop and think a minute. Do we really need another hurry-up, confusing mess of an election?

Do we think we can order up a special election, in seeming defiance of the Constitution and the Supreme Court decision, and not expect a protracted legal challenge? Lawsuits, pending court decisions, uncertainty about the next election date--all of that works to the detriment of candidates trying to replace appointed officeholders.

Confusion helps the incumbents. Uncertainty helps the incumbents. See last year's election results.

The infighting, the lawsuits and the public spats have one other unfortunate side effect. Rather than inspiring people to go out and vote it turns them off. If they can't sort out who's right, some people would rather just stay home.

The next few months will see the approach of a new budget process for the county. It will be a tough budget year. There's that sheriff's pension plan to fund. Normal expense growth. The schools will be there asking for more money. It will require all the intelligence, focus and expertise that can be accumulated between County Commission and the County Mayor's office to achieve a satisfactory result. No one knows what will happen, though a property tax increase ranges from possible to extremely likely.

It would probably be to the taxpayer's benefit if we let the elected officials concentrate on this budget process for a few months, rather than have them off organizing for an election in September or preparing to defend a lawsuit.

The justifiable criticism and the yelling of recent months resulted from flaws in the election process, from the Charter referendum to the timing of last year's primary. The only permanent solution to restore faith in local government and put it behind us is an open, fair election process.

We desperately need a process free of lawsuits, a process free of pending court decisions, and a process with fixed dates for campaign planning purposes.

Everyone needs a clear timeline for the next election, most of all potential challengers.

Mayor Mike Ragsdale and the News Sentinel need to rethink lawsuits, special elections and removing the appointed officeholders. Even if you are successful, you only add to the confusion, further undermine the credibility of government and you further turn off potential voters.

Let's concentrate on Charter amendments to improve the function of county government, eliminate nepotism, get the bloated budgets of the fee offices under control and, most importantly, get ready for a clean and fair primary election next February.

Let's stop confusing the voters and creating uncertainty.

Give potential candidates a clear timeline on the next election, fix the targets in place and get on with it. It may not be as emotionally satisfying, but it's the way forward.

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