insights (2006-25)

Term Limit Clarifications Needed

It’s abundantly clear to me that the will of the citizens of Knox County to impose term limits on their elected officials should not be thwarted.

That will was first expressed in 1994 by an overwhelming vote in favor of a term limits amendment to the Knox County Charter. It’s been reinforced by recent public opinion surveys and by the public outcry over Chancellor John Weaver’s misguided ruling on June 10, that the entire Charter, including its provision for the term limits, is invalid.

Just desserts for the five otherwise term-limited county commissioners who brought the nefarious lawsuit that begat Weaver’s ruling would be to throw them out of office. But rectification of his egregious error can’t be accomplished in time to prevent their names from appearing on the Aug. 3 county election ballot, along with four other incumbents on that 19-member body who have served two or more consecutive terms. As many of them as get reelected can also be expected to take office for a new four-year term on Sept. 1 before Weaver’s ruling can be overturned on appeal or by the remedial course of action that County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has initiated.

It’s virtually inconceivable to me that the state Supreme Court would uphold invalidation of the Knox County Charter and its term limits. Such a

My first blush reaction to Weaver’s ruling was to have it appealed as expeditiously as possible. But on reflection, I see merit to Ragsdale’s plan, as approved by County Commission on Monday, to appoint a Charter Review Committee to recommend Charter amendments conforming it to Weaver’s predictions. Those amendments would then have to be approved by voters in the Nov. 7 election.

This entire course of action is predicated on Weaver’s approving what amounts to a stay of the effectiveness of his ruling until after that election. If he refuses to do so, then Ragsdale is resolved to immediately appeal his ruling. And woe unto County Commission of it tries to block him.

As has been oft recited, Weaver found the Charter “incomplete, invalid, and ineffective” because it failed to specify the functions of the Sheriff, Trustee, County Clerk, Register of Deeds and Property Assessor whose offices are created by the Tennessee Constitution. Never mind that the duties of those constitutional offices are prescribed by state law in a way that precludes any diminution of them by a county, he ruled. But it should be easy enough to satisfy his predilections by naming them and redundantly reciting their duties in the county Charter. (His other punctilious ground for invalidating the Charter because it wasn’t transmitted to the Secretary of State can surely be redressed.)

Amid all the dark clouds cast by Weaver’s ruling, there were some silver linings. If the Charter properly provided for the constitutional offices, he concluded that, “the office holders’…argument that a county charter may not restructure their offices or provide for their terms…runs counter to…the Tennessee Constitution as construed in Bailey [the Shelby County case].”

In other words, this finding, if it stands, rejects contentions by the sheriff, et al, that they are not subject to term limits—removing an uncertainty that has overhung the term-limit amendment to the Knox Charter from its inception.

I also believe that the amendment was ill-worded and ill-advised in its provision that, “no person shall be eligible to serve in any elected office of Knox county if during the previous two terms of that office the person in question has served more than a single term.” The actual ballot proposition that voters approved in 1994 was better stated and better suited in providing that, “no individual shall be permitted to hold the same elected office of Knox County government more than two (2) consecutive terms.” Its advantage, in my view, is that someone who’s appointed to a partial term to fill a vacancy would be permitted to serve two full terms thereafter. The Charter Amendment Committee could readily recommend this change.

That leaves the sticky question of when a modified term-limit provision should take effect. As odious as is the prospect of rewarding the five diehard commissioners who brought the lawsuit with four more years in office, the alternative of removing them may be even worse.

The only person with standing to initiate removal proceedings against ineligible office holders (including up to nine commissioners) is District Attorney General Randy Nichols. Should he do so, that could leave 10 remaining commissioners in the position of appointing (until the 2008 election) nine commissioners as well as an interim sheriff, trustee county clerk, etc. What makes this prospect all the more bothersome is that it would take rare unanimity among the 10 commissioners making the appointments to constitute a majority—thus inviting undue delays and unsavory horse-trading.

So the Charter Review Committee should consider making term limits effective in 2010 with no exclusion for prior service. Any attempt to make them purely prospective, thus granting incumbents an even longer stay, should be resoundingly rejected. And if the voters say “hell no” to a Charter amendment allowing them “four more years,” then let Randy Nichols proceed with ouster suits pursuant to the charter’s present term limits provisions.