Whenever petition drives for a referendum begin there is usually some discussion about the mysterious way in which the requirements for signatures were raised to astronomical heights. There is a charter amendment on the ballot later this year to put the number back to a more reasonable level.
Up until the mid-1990s, it took 15 percent of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election to get a referendum on the ballot. What has been forgotten is that the state law provided that in a city election, you only had to have 15 percent of the vote in the last mayoral election. Considering that incumbent mayors usually have little or no opposition, it could be a very small number indeed—possibly as few as 6,000 to 7,000 signatures in Knoxville.
You can find 6,000 disgruntled voters on just about any issue.
The city of Knoxville was involved in extending the four-lane Parkside Drive deep into West Knox County, ostensibly to accommodate the building of a Goody's corporate headquarters, but also to allow the development of Turkey Creek.
Turkey Creek has proven to be a huge generator of taxes for Knoxville—and Knox County. But it was built over the protest of environmentalists who wanted to protect the Turkey Creek wetland, formed by the creek and the construction of Interstate 40/75. It would not have been that hard to get 6,000 to 7,000 signatures on a petition and prevent Knoxville from spending any tax money to build the road. No road, no Goody's headquarters and no Turkey Creek.
The last day of session in 1997, a lobbyist working for the developers attached an amendment to a Senate bill on its way back to the House for a routine voice vote for passage. The amendment, a preemptive strike unnoticed in the hectic last day, changed the requirements for signatures for a referendum. It called for any referendum to have 15 percent of the registered voters, instead of the people who actually vote. This raised the requirement to a level deemed impossible to attain.
(In fact, it was not attained until the wheel tax repeal petition during Mayor Mike Ragsdale's first term.)
When Turkey Creek was well along, two things happened. A petition drive to stop the road began (in 1999 if memory serves) and the new draconian requirements were discovered. The Turkey Creek developers, meanwhile, reached an agreement with environmentalists to preserve wetlands and to have the Isaac Walton League monitor compliance. The agreement was the brain-child of J.W. Luna, former Conservation Commissioner for Gov. Ned McWherter and a lawyer/lobbyist who frequently advises developers on environmental issues that arise on their projects.
The signature requirement remains and is a large hurdle for the current effort to get charter changes on the ballot to reshape the nature of county government. The original law, in Knoxville's case, was ridiculously low. It is now ridiculously high. The change in the county charter is a reasonable compromise.
In hindsight, Turkey Creek has been too important to the development of Knoxville and Knox County to have been allowed to fail. But that was not clear at all at the time. No one could conceive of the impact on tax revenue and development Turkey Creek would have. It was often derided at the time as just moving West Towne Mall further west. It has become, of course, much more than that.
But changing county and city charters ought to be hard. Or, at least, it shouldn't be easy or sparked by a small minority. Changes should come from a sizable and representative group of citizens. The wheel tax referendum demonstrated that if enough citizens are angry about government action, then the signatures can be found and a vote can be forced.
We are now faced with an effort to restructure county government with charter changes and the bar is high. If there is indeed enough anger among the populace to get these measures on the ballot, then there should be no argument that it is the will of the people.