Just Fix It

Knox County has to make everybody join the club to solve cronyism

Most everyone wants to get rid of cronyism and political hiring and firing in county government, though a hearing this week on the issue drew little attention and was sparsely attended.

The good news is that Knox County doesn't have to re-invent the wheel to implement employment policies that protect employees from political retaliation and eliminate cronyism. Knox County has pretty good personnel policy procedures, hiring procedures, and an appeals process in the event of termination.

The only problem with those procedures is that most county officeholders refuse to participate. The policies only apply to those employed directly by Knox County. The political machines that use jobs to reward and punish have traditionally been located in the offices of Trustee, Clerk, Register of Deeds, and Property Assessor. The holders of those offices, by virtue of a state law loophole, can opt out of the county personnel policies and procedures and can instead implement their own.

This is not a new issue. As Commissioner Mike Hammond noted at the hearing, he headed an efficiency panel five years ago that recommended all county employees, including those in the fee offices, be brought under one human-resources department with job descriptions and uniform policies. The suggestion was ignored because officeholders did not volunteer to participate.

The question before County Commission at the moment, brought forward by Commissioner Elaine Davis with her civil-service reform proposal, is whether recent court decisions having to do with the charter allow Knox County to force these officeholders to comply. If Knox County has the authority to change the charter to abolish elected fee officeholders (as in the current charter petition drive), then surely a charter amendment could demand they participate in the county personnel plan.

It has been suggested by the county human-resources department that implementing civil service would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. People in the human-resources department also seem to resent the idea that they don't have a good system in place. Fair enough. But as they themselves point out, it isn't their fault the elected officeholders choose to opt out.

The sheriff's department has a merit system, with testing, evaluations, and a merit council to appeal terminations. Under Sheriff Tim Hutchison, there were about 50 positions exempt from the merit system, in a department with almost 1,000 employees. New Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones, to his credit, immediately put all these positions under the merit council system, offering them protection from political meddling.

So we have a personnel system for direct county employees. We have a merit system for the sheriff's department. So the problem really only exists in the fee offices. Term limits have broken up the political machines that longtime officeholders had established with political shock troops to turn out for political campaigning.

There is some antipathy on the part of some County Commissioners to establishing a full-fledged civil-service system. Commissioner Larry Smith spoke for a lot of them in arguing that it sounds like "tenure for teachers." And we know how terrible that is. Smith also argues that anyone who goes to work for the county knows "what the deal is" and knows they get their boss re-elected or they get fired.

OK. Then approve a charter amendment requiring all elected officeholders to have employees covered by the county personnel policies, including the right of appeal for unfair termination. While you are at it, have them submit their budgets to Commission for scrutiny and justify all the employees they have. Have them explain why some employees are being paid three times what other employees are being paid for the same job.

I do not favor abolishing elected offices. I don't think having the County Mayor become the patronage chief for 3,000 employees is a good idea. But it only makes sense to have one human resources department, one set of job descriptions, and one set of rules to prevent political hiring and firing.

Commissioner Davis has brought the issue to the forefront. The people demand reform. Work it out, gentlemen and ladies. Work out a system that isn't too costly and covers everybody.