Charter Amendment Turmoil

It's unfortunate that Knox County Commission—at 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning—kiboshed a way to relieve the confusion and contention that have arisen over the numerous changes to Knox County's charter being pushed by a citizen reform group.

Only a week before, commissioners with seeming unanimity had recommended the formation of a Charter Review Committee to address the charter amendments. The reform group, now called Knox Charter Petition, joined in calling upon County Mayor Mike Ragsdale to appoint such a committee. And Ragsdale quickly obliged by naming 27 individuals, including nine commissioners to serve on it, subject to commission's ratification of its appointment.

By providing a forum for more thorough consideration of the proposed charter amendments, the committee could have served to bring clarity to the many points of uncertainty and even legality raised about the proposed amendments.

But when the committee's appointment came to a vote in the middle of the night, only nine of the 19 commissioners supported it—one short of the majority of 10 needed for approval. That leaves the issue of what to do with the charter amendments back on a fickle commission's court where their fate is anything but clear.

Commissioners will now be pressed by the reform group that grew out of last year's Knox County-One Question process to approve, in the form of eight separate ordinances, an array of amendments to the county charter covering everything from a reduction in the size of County Commission and a prohibition against county employees serving on that body to provisions for appointing rather than electing several county officers. If approved by a two-thirds vote of commission, these changes would then go on the ballot in the county's August general election for the voter approval that is also required for charter amendments.

Knox Charter Petition remains resolved to get any of the amendments that commission fails to approve on the ballot via petitions that would require the signatures of some 40,000 registered voters. The group was operating under the mistaken belief that the amendments would have to go on the August ballot and that the deadline for mounting a petition campaign was at hand. When the group's leaders came to realize that such a vote could be held in the November general election just as well, the heat was off—so to speak. But commission's rejection of the Charter Review Committee nonetheless represents a setback even though commission now intends to consider the charter amendment ordinances at its next monthly meeting in April.

Six of the eight ordinances were actually approved on first reading by commission at its February meeting, but it takes two readings to adopt an ordinance. In proposing formation of a Charter Review Committee, Commissioner Richard Briggs cautioned that, "We need to have clear amendments that are easily understood by the public and don't have ambiguities."

In the end, I will be amazed if more than one member of commission favors the amendment that would reduce the size of that body from 19 members to 11 (one from each commission district plus two at large). And I will be equally amazed if the presently elected County Clerk, Register of Deeds, and Trustee (or candidates for these positions) fail to defeat provisions for making their posts appointive by the County Mayor.

Indeed, it's ironic that changing their status is under consideration just two years after another Charter Review Committee recommended, and the voters approved, charter amendments providing for their election and specifying their duties. To be sure, these changes were made in an effort to overcome a Chancery Court ruling that the entire Knox County Charter was invalid in large part because of its failures to provide for these positions. Yet the amendments now being pushed by Knox Charter Petition fail to rescind the 2006 amendments, and that is just one of many examples of incongruities created by the group's proposals.

Another source of confusion is a proposed charter amendment that purports to reduce the number of signatures on a petition required to put a proposition on the ballot from 15 percent of registered voters to 15 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election. The charter already provides for the latter but was superseded by a subsequent state law setting the higher requirement, and state law generally prevails in the event of such a conflict.

Commission can hopefully clarify or rectify these and other ambiguities and anomalies in the Knox Charter Petition group's mixed bag of proposals. Measures dealing with conflict of interest, nepotism, and precluding county employees from serving on commission might then be deemed desirable and submitted for voter approval without resort to the arduous process of gathering 40,000 signatures on a petition.

It seems clear, though, that the petition route will prove to be the only way to get a restructuring of the legislative and administrative branches of county government on the ballot. And to judge by the prevailing sentiments expressed at public forums last week, their chances of success are minimal.