Just who or what is the public?
We have had an orgy of celebration of the public this past year: public participation, what the public wants, let the public decide. Public hearings are the order of the day and we are now embarked on a process to let the public vote on a series of charter amendments.
The only reliable expression of the public will is an election. We had a good one, and the public expressed its will—if we recognized your name, we didn't want you. Term limits is a firmly established principle in Knox County and the face of local government has been almost totally changed. It will be completely changed in the election of 2010.
In order to let "the public" attend, County Commission meetings are now alleged to start about 5:30 p.m.; because a zoning meeting usually runs long, the meeting starts later. Because of all the items up for discussion these days, meetings are running until midnight. The last one was over at 1:30 a.m. How is the "public" being served by having decisions made at midnight, when those watching on cable TV are asleep in their chairs, the 11 p.m. television news has come and gone, and it's past the News Sentinel's deadline for the morning edition? So for the hardy "public" souls who can go down and spend hours watching the Commission meeting, it's a fine system. But the "public" at large is getting less information about what Commission is doing.
That last meeting, by the way, featured an extensive discussion of far-reaching charter amendments to totally change the face of local government. If the public was bleary-eyed trying to follow it, imagine the state of mind of the County Commissioners.
The zoning meeting needs to be shifted to after the agenda committee meetings, on another day. The agenda needs to be shorter. A consent calendar of routine items needs to be emphasized. The chair of the meeting needs to tell diarrhea-mouthed commissioners to keep it short. Then maybe the "public" can participate and the rest of the "public" can be informed, with a shorter meeting.
The Knox Charter Petition effort is the result of a series of public meetings and the charter changes are the alleged product of the public will. Or is it the expression of the will of good government groups and their allies, while most of the public ignored the effort? Did the public demand mayoral appointments of elected office holders? The County Commission "workshop" to discuss the charter amendments was scheduled at 8 a.m. Wednesday, convenient for which segment of the public? The unemployed?
The charter amendments have been discussed at midnight and at 8 a.m. on a weekday morning. But they are indeed public.
Do we have a precedent now? If you have a public meeting and you come up with a charter change, is Commission duty bound to put it on the ballot?
Don't be surprised if there is a public meeting at, let's say, the Expo Center on Clinton Highway. The outcome of the meeting may be a charter amendment to forbid raising property or wheel taxes in Knox County without a referendum. Then Commission will be asked to put it on the ballot. Are they duty-bound to do so? Do you think the good-government groups will think it a good idea?
Suppose the fundamentalist churches in Knox County have a series of public meetings and the "public" votes to propose a charter change that Intelligent Design be taught in all biology classes in the Knox County schools.
I have advocated the current charter amendments be put on the ballot. I think most of the "public" probably wants the Commission to give them a chance to vote. But one gets the feeling that this isn't about public participation or improving county government. There seems to be a pervasive voter attitude, if the election is any guide, of "let's smash the hell out of county government."
Government by referendum is playing with fire. Let's don't get burned.