Knox County's Charter Revisions Need Good, Unbiased Legal Advice

The post-election battle between Law Director Joe Jarrett and Law Director-elect Bud Armstrong has been more entertaining that the election itself.

Jarrett resigned and invited Armstrong to go ahead and take office, since he has no Democratic opponent. This would put Armstrong in a position of advising the current Charter Review Committee, which is likely to make several controversial recommendations for the voters in November. Armstrong, however, didn't bite. He had several reasons not to step into that trap, but one legitimate one is that the charter group may need to decide whether to let the voters decide if the elected law director position ought to be abolished.

Jarrett evidently decided he preferred unemployment in order to put Armstrong in a box.

After Armstrong dodged the bullet, Jarrett has asked to withdraw his resignation and continue to serve (and get paid) until the end of August. That will give him time to find another job.

As we have discussed before, the Charter Committee has a chance to clarify a lot of confusing issues in Knox County government, if it will. It has the power to put any number of things before the voters, independent of County Commission or anyone else.

Like:

—Should the county go back to 19 County Commissioners each elected from a district or keep the current form of one commissioner to a district and two countywide at-large positions? Do the voters prefer the new system or do they want to go back to the previous form?

—What does two terms, as in term limits, mean? If you serve a couple of years of an unexpired term, are you then eligible for to run for two more terms? Or just one more term? (That was also a concern for Armstrong: Would serving a few months before taking office term-limit him in the future? How could he advise the Charter Committee on the issue?)

—Should the voters be given a chance to decide the future of the pension plan for the Sheriff's Department? If so, what should it be? Or should it be left to Knox County Commission to solve its under-funding?

—Should the voters be asked if the budgets of the elected fee offices (trustee, clerk, etc.) be under the county mayor's office and subject to County Commission's budget process? Should the officeholders continue to have unlimited hiring and firing approval in their departments? Or should the County Merit System be employed to set job qualifications and dismissal procedures?

County government has been rocked by court decisions, the most disruptive being the state Supreme Court imposing the term limits the voters approved years ago. It led to Black Wednesday, further lawsuits, interim appointments, and finally a watershed election.

We don't need to return to that confusion and turmoil when the current crop of county officeholders run for re-election in 2014. Some of them served a partial term and then were elected to a full term. We have had some experience with the new form of County Commission and need to decide if we want to keep it—otherwise it will be many years before it can be changed again.

We've also had another issue arise in a fee office that is under investigation. Does that change the voters' minds about appointing rather than electing them?

The Charter Committee only comes along every seven years to review possible charter changes. So all of these issues need to be resolved by the voters this fall. Given the problem with the language on some previous charter amendments, the Charter Committee needs good legal advice on the form that goes to the voters. It needs to be clear. Unambiguous.

There needs to be a special counsel hired to advise the charter group.

This legal adviser does not need to be Armstrong, Jarrett, or anybody else that has ties to county government, the law director's office, or County Commission. It doesn't need to be anybody who has a vested interest in the history, the current events, or the future of county government. The integrity of the process is paramount. There should not be any question that the wording of any ballot initiatives has any secret agenda.

Corrected: It's the Knox County Charter Committee, not "Commission"