The fractious political climate on the Knox County Commission this past year is epitomized by the mess facing voters in November. The commission's refusal to put a series of proposed charter amendments on the ballot in single, easy to understand bites will likely put two amendments on the ballot with multiple provisions.
If a voter strongly supports one of the items, it requires voting for several others as well. The petition signatures are still being counted, but if the usual rejection rate of 20 percent holds up there should be enough to get the items on the ballot.
But if you clear away the distractions, it is clear there are two issues that totally change the nature of county government: One amendment allows the county mayor to appoint what are now elected officeholders. The other reduces the size of County Commission from 19 members to 11.
This is not to say that other provisions are not important. But these issues, like nepotism, can be dealt with by ordinance or solved by the voters. (Don't vote for county employees to be commissioners.) The two provisions that totally reshape the form of county government are the most important and it is on these two issues the matter ought to be decided.
Commissioners had several opportunities to put these provisions on the ballot, by themselves, for an up or down vote. They didn't. Several excuses were offered. They didn't like the petition organizers' attitude. They asked if they were supposed to put on the ballot just any amendment brought to them—were they establishing a precedent. They raised questions about the wording of the amendments. They questioned whether the public meetings were legitimate or whether the final version of the amendments reflected the community's real concerns.
But they could have worded the amendments any way they liked. They could have taken the suggestions and held hearings on them and gotten it done. They could have at least put on the items having to do with nepotism and conflicts of interest—the rallying cry of petition forces. Their failure to do so has only increased suspicion of county government. If the total restructuring of county government passes because people just want to vote against nepotism or conflicts of interest, commissioners have only themselves to blame.
There are a couple of provisions in the petitions that have not received very much attention.
It is often said that one amendment allows the county mayor to appoint people to the offices now held by elected officeholders: the trustee, the clerk, and the register of deeds. But that isn't exactly true. The county mayor would have the ability to abolish any or all of these offices and restructure their duties in new departments. The trustee's office could be abolished and folded into the county finance director's office, for instance. The duties of all these offices continue, but there is no provision they have to be structured as they are now. The impression is given the mayor will appoint a "register of deeds" and County Commission will ratify the choice. But the county mayor doesn't have to have a "register of deeds" as I understand this provision:
"The Mayor, subject to approval by resolution of the Commission, is entitled to structure the Executive Branch of County Government and to create or abolish major departments of County Government with each department having a Department Director and duties assigned to such department by the Mayor."
Like Knoxville's mayor does it.
The restructuring of commission also has a little-noticed wrinkle. In order to have staggered terms (like Knoxville's City Council) commissioners in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th districts will be elected in 2010 for a SIX year term. The commissioners running in the 3rd, 7th, 10th, and 11th districts will be elected for a FOUR year term. (The 10th and 11th districts are county wide positions.) In the future we would have County Commission elections every two years.
If the charter provisions pass, county government will closely resemble Knoxville's city government. It might be something the voters prefer, we'll know in November. But instead of listening to the distractions, be very clear on the real effect of the amendments' passing.