frank_talk (2007-14)

Poison Pills

Metro supporters need a grassroots county attitude

by Frank Cagle

Passing metro government is not that hard. You just have to tell everyone we have a crisis, we need to save money through efficiency and a drastic shake-up of government is necessary. Out the other side of your mouth you need to reassure everyone. No one will lose jobs, nothing drastic will occur and nothing will really change.

Metro has never been a grassroots movement; it is usually pushed by the business community and the good government leagues, seeking a mythical government that is efficient, cost-effective and populated by people better than what they perceive as the current crop of morons.

Good luck with that.

At the time of the 1996 metro government election I was never sure whether the forces for metro government were determined to have it only on their terms, whether there was a contingent inside the effort determined to see it fail, or if it was just conceived by some of the most inept political strategists ever to get involved in politics. I guess it could have been all three.

Before we start off down the trail toward another vote on metro government, it might be instructive to look back at the 1996 election and ask ourselves what has changed that might produce a different outcome.

(Everyone is reporting that the measure failed outside the city, but that it passed in the city. That may be true, but we don't really know. There was no accurate count of the city vote. What many people have forgotten is that the election commission neglected to keep count of the early vote--on election night no one could say how to break down the early vote between inside and outside the city limits. The referendum had to pass in both places. We do know Election Day totals in city precincts gave metro a narrow majority--the narrowest ever. From that you can assume the measure passed in the city. Since the measure failed outside the city limits no one looked at it very closely.)

The metro forces spent $350,000 on the campaign and had the entire media establishment in its pocket. What went wrong?

The metro forces, despising Sheriff Tim Hutchison, made sure the charter reduced him to being a jailer. The metro government would appoint a top cop--did anyone doubt it would be the Knoxville police chief? This ensured that 1,000 sheriff's department employees and their families would be fighting the referendum every day. Not to mention the people who elected Hutchison sheriff four times.

City firefighters were promised that their pensions would be secure, but they, the police and other city employees did not have guarantees in the Charter they could be comfortable with. You had a large contingent of city workers working against metro. (You should not assume city workers live in the city. Many of them live out east, in South Knox County and in Halls.) County workers were understandably nervous.

Blacks are concentrated overwhelmingly within the city limits. That gives them a larger percentage of the vote in city elections. They have a virtually guaranteed seat on City Council and two seats on the Knox County Commission. Dispersing the black vote within the entire Knox County populations dilutes the vote and reduces their political power. They have 17 percent of the vote in a city election, but nine percent in a countywide race. Many black leaders were skeptical of metro. That may explain the narrowness of the vote in the city.

Imagine you are running for countywide office. You adopt a platform that guarantees you will be opposed by the sheriff's department, county employees, city employees, city police and firefighters. You will also be opposed by blacks.

Would that be a winning platform?

No, but it was the platform for the last effort for metro government.

In the brave new world of metro government we will have the same number of city and county employees, and city residents will pay a higher tax rate, as they do now.

Writing the Charter, avoiding poison pills, and coming out with a result worthy of the effort is challenging. Does anyone doubt metro government will have a Council of at least 28 or 29 members? (You certainly can't eliminate a Commission or Council seat, can you?)

You should also be prepared to swear an oath in blood that taxes will not go up for people outside the city limits. They won't believe you, but you have to try. Last time the Charter had a three-year tax freeze.

To demonstrate the efficacy of a city-county combo, nothing prevents County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam teaming up to combine some city/county services and eliminate duplication. They get along famously, haven't you heard? They don't need no stinking election, they can just do it.

Haslam is completing four years in office. Ragsdale is in his fifth year in office.

They should have a long list of these efficiencies to point to in the metro campaign.

Oh. Well, never mind.

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