County Commission's Growing Stature

Knox County government is on the verge of getting its act together

After having stooped low in recent years, I'm encouraged to believe that Knox County government is on the verge of standing tall and becoming a major source of community strength and pride.

Granted, Tim Burchett, whose overwhelming Republican primary victory over Tim Hutchison virtually assures his election, hasn't yet well defined the "New Direction" for the county that's been his campaign theme. But from having watched him grow in stature during his 16 years in the state Legislature, I'm confident that Burchett is a man of high integrity and leadership ability. His right-hand man, Dean Rice, is very able and politically experienced from his years serving as an aide to former Sen. Fred Thompson. But Burchett probably needs to complement his team with someone who has the sort of executive experience that retired First Tennessee Bank president Larry Martin has brought to his post as chief deputy to city Mayor Bill Haslam.

What encourages me even more so is the prospective composition of the slimmed-down, 11-member Knox County Commission that will also take office in September. Subject to the outcome of the only two seriously contested races in the Aug. 5 election, I believe the Commission will be the best constituted of any during my nearly 20 years of observing that previously factionalized and often dysfunctional body.

The two contested races involve challenges to stellar incumbents, Finbarr Saunders in the 4th District (West Knoxville) and Amy Broyles in the 2nd District (North Knoxville).

Saunders is a Democrat in a district that usually votes Republican. But his superior qualifications and demeanor won him the seat by a large margin in 2008, and his Republican opponent this year is less well qualified. Saunders balances business experience as a banker and accounting firm manager prior to his retirement with extensive civic engagement as former president of Knox Heritage and the East Tennessee Historical Society, as well as neighborhood involvement as president of the Westwood Homeowners Association.

Broyles has brought a breath of fresh air to a seat that had been stigmatized by the polluted way in which the man she defeated in 2008, Chuck Bolus, gained appointment to Commission on Black Wednesday. As the unopposed winner of this year's Democratic primary and with no Republican on the ballot, one might suppose she'd be a shoe-in. But an ousted former chairman of the county Democratic party is perversely running against her as an independent.

Running down the lineup of the rest of the nine-district Commission (before getting to the two at-large seats) is like assessing a baseball team that has strength at every position.

In the 1st District (Center City), Sam McKenzie has brought the acumen of an ORNL official with a masters degree in physics to a district that has never seen the likes of him before. In the 3rd District (Near West), Tony Norman is a retired West High biology teacher who is the Commission's leading environmentalist and a progressive voice on many other issues. In the 5th District (Far West), Dr. Richard Briggs is an eminent heart surgeon who brings the same kind of painstaking care to his Commission work.

In the 6th and 7th Districts (Northwest and North Knox), Brad Anders and Larry Smith don't quite measure up to the standards of the aforementioned, but they've been generally good commissioners all the same. In the 8th District (East Knox), retired AT&T administrator Dave Wright has impressed me as bringing even-handedness to a district whose representation has tended to be parochial and politicized in the past. In the 9th District (South Knox), retired insurance agent Mike Brown brings positivism to a district that's been noted for its negativity.

The two at-large seats created when the number of commissioners per district was shrunk from two to one by a voter-approved 2008 amendment to the county charter will also be well represented. In one, broadcasting executive Mike Hammond has distinguished himself during his six years of service as a 5th District representative. In the other, retired railroad executive Ed Shouse brings a wealth of experience gained during his 20 years of prior service on City Council.

Almost as important is who and what will no longer be present on Commission. While new coalitions may form over time, the newly constituted body starts out devoid of factionalism, especially the schism between those beholden to former Sheriff Tim Hutchison and those aligned with outgoing County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. Mean-spirited sheriffian Paul Pinkston will no longer be around to conduct vendettas; and Commission's clown prince Greg "Lumpy" Lambert has also taken his leave. About the only outgoing commissioner who'll be missed is its Chairman Tank Strickland, who brought dignity and decorum to the post after his nefarious predecessor, Scott Moore, was ousted for perjury.

Tim Burchett is very fortunate to have a legislative body of this caliber with which to work, and I believe he's also blessed by the caliber of most top county government administrators. A few bad apples (most notoriously former Community Services Director Cynthia Finch) don't make a rotten barrel and Burchett will do well to retain other key department heads starting with Finance Director John Troyer, who has grown remarkably in that difficult job over the past few years.