insights (2006-23)

Upholding Knox Charter and Term Limits

As of Metro Pulse ’s weekly deadline on Tuesday evening, Chancellor John Weaver had yet to rule on the intertwined issues of whether Knox County’s charter is valid, and if so, which incumbent candidates are ineligible to run in the Aug. 3 county election because of its term-limit provision.

At the conclusion of three days of wrangling in his court last Friday evening, Weaver promised to rule “as soon as humanly possible.” Hopefully, he will have done so before you read this column, because time is of the essence in getting these issues resolved so the election can proceed without confusion. June 26 is the deadline for placing candidates on the ballot. And if some of them who won nomination in a thoroughly confusing May 2 primary are now declared ineligible, their respective political parties need time to select replacement candidates via party conventions.

All I can do at this point, though, is venture my own opinion as to how the matter should be resolved. After three days of listening to no fewer than a dozen lawyers suppose disparate views and reading many of their written briefs, the following conclusions are clear to me:

1. The Knox County charter is just as valid today as it was when voters overwhelmingly approved it in 1988, and it’s imperative to remove the cloud that hangs over 18 intervening years of county governmental action.

2. The five diehard county commissioners who sued to contest the charter’s validity as a way to void its term limits are ineligible to run again (as are four other nominated commissioners who have served two consecutive terms but eschewed being a party to the suit).

3. Although the term-limit amendment to the charter adopted by referendum in 1994 applies on its face to “any elected office of Knox County,” it’s anything but clear whether this shoe fits the Sheriff, the Register of Deeds, the County Clerk and the County Trustee. All of the Trustee duties and qualifications are set by state law, and the county charter barely mentions the office. Because of this silence and because of their status as state Constitutional officers, I believe that Sheriff Tim Hutchison, Register of Deeds Steve Hall, County Clerk Mike Padgett and County Trustee Mike Lowe are eligible to run again.

It was the charter’s failure to provide for their offices (excepting Sheriff) that prompted the lawsuit contesting its validity. The 1979 state law authorizing a charter or “home rule” form of county government stipulated that “such charter when complete shall result in the creation and establishment of an alternate form of government to perform all of the governmental and corporate functions previously performed by the county.” In an unfortunate and unbinding earlier opinion, Weaver ventured that the charter’s failure to provide for these Constitutionally-mandated offices rendered it incomplete and perhaps invalid. Lawyers for the diehard commissioners were quick to seize on Weaver’s ruminations and try to bring down county government as we know it.

The fallacy in their argument is the presumption that the constitutional officers have functions “previously performed by county government.” In its March 29 decision unanimously upholding term limits for county commissioners in the only other county in the state with a charter form of government (namely Shelby), the State Supreme Court cited its 1979 determination that in other counties “the basic units of government are the county executive and county legislative body.” In its 1979 enactment the State Legislature stipulated that “Duties of Constitutional county officers as prescribed by the General Assembly shall not be diminished under a charter form of government.”

So Knox County didn’t need to provide for these offices in its charter because their duties and qualifications are established by the state. In sharp contrast, the charter sets forth extensive duties and qualifications for county commission and the county mayor. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County case rested in no small part on a determination that a term limits amendment to its charter for county commissioners was just another qualification for that office. And there is every reason to believe that holding is equally applicable to Knox County commissioners.

There are several other grounds on which Weaver could uphold the validity of the charter, and if he chooses one or more of them, so be it. When it comes to whether term limits apply to the Constitutional officers, any determination regarding their eligibility is better than leaving the issue unresolved and the Aug. 3 election still beclouded. So I would hope the chancellor will reject the urgings of lawyers for these officers that the Knox County Election Commission lacks standing to seek such a determination.

The other contingency that could make a shambles of the Aug. 3 elections is appeals of whatever Weaver decides. Even an expedited appeal directly to the Supreme Court would probably run past the June 26 statutory deadline for removing names from the ballot, just as the court’s March 29 decision came too late to avoid a May 2 primary shambles.

When they filed their suit in April, the five diehard commissioners said they would abide by the chancellor’s decision, but their lawyers are now hedging. Another potential appellant is lawyer Herb Moncier. He turned Weaver’s court of law into a theater of the absurd at times with his showboating, including a preposterous claim that the Constitutional offices (except for sheriff) don’t even exist. But his vendetta against Tim Hutchison will likely lead him to contest a ruling that term limits don’t apply to the sheriff.

If Weaver should egregiously rule that the charter is invalid, the Knox County Law Department will be compelled to appeal. Even a flawed election is less onerous than the consequences of unearthing 18 years of flawed county government.