Let's Avoid Another Knox County Train Wreck

County voters need to define term limits, terms, and who can run next time

We had hoped to put the turmoil in county government behind us with the election of a new County Commission and a new-broom county mayor. But there is a mess looming out there and somebody needs to deal with it now before it lands county government back in court, the appeals courts and the state Supreme Court.

When term limits were ordered by the courts, positions had to be filled, like Jimmy "J.J." Jones taking over as sheriff for Tim Hutchison and Sherry Witt taking the reins in the Register of Deeds Office. They provided stability and were elected to full terms two years later.

So here is the question: Are they eligible to run for another term? They have not served two terms, but they served a partial term and will have served a full term by the election of 2014. Does the partial term count as a term under the definition of serving two terms under term limits?

Well, that's the problem. Nothing is defined.

There are a couple of things you can count on. Jones and Witt will run for re-election next time and someone (I'm just guessing here, but his name could be Herb Moncier) will file a lawsuit to keep them off the ballot.

Right now a Charter Review Committee is in the process of being empaneled that can bring charter provisions to the ballot in November.

The charter needs to clarify, and codify in law, with no ambiguity what constitutes a "term" of office. Define term limits precisely. We don't need the state Supreme Court to decide our officeholders again. We don't need the possibility of court decisions hanging over the next county general election. We need the voters to decide in November whether Witt and Jones and people in a similar situation can run for office.

While we are at it, there also needs to be language to clarify what a County Commission term constitutes. If you have served two terms in a district as a county commissioner and are term limited, can you then run country wide for an at-large seat? You would think not, but what will happen when someone does it? A lawsuit? Uncertainty during the election about who is qualified and who is not?

Lest you think these are not real issues, consider the case of Commission Chair Mike Hammond. Hammond served a partial term and a term as county commissioner. He then ran and was elected to a county wide at-large seat. No one challenged his right to do so, and I don't think they should have. But I suspect it will be a different story when it comes to offices like sheriff.

As to empaneling a Charter Review Committee there isn't any choice in the matter. There is a section of the county charter that says, beginning in 1996 and every eight years thereafter, "there SHALL be constituted a Charter Review Committee for the purpose of reviewing this Charter and determining the desirability of amendments thereto." It came up on the eight-year cycle on Jan. 1 of this year and County Mayor Tim Burchett and commissioners are in the process of picking a group of 27 people. The committee can decide not to offer any charter amendments for the November ballot and can notify the county to that effect. Or they can deal with these issues once and for all and prevent another court-ordered change in Knox County government.

A Charter Review Committee to consider these issues will no doubt complicate life for County Law Director Joe Jarrett, whose office will have to advise and guide the process. The complication is that Jarrett is running to be elected to the office after being appointed to the post to fill out Bill Lockett's term. Putting these on the ballot, and the wording, will be controversial; it will complicate the election this year and it could anger powerful county officeholders.

But the definitions of terms, term limits, and whether county wide at-large Commission seats are a different office from district seats needs to be settled once and for all—and by the voters.