insights (2006-35)

Collision Course on Term Limits

The Knox County Law Department is on a collision course with the Charter Review Committee appointed by Mayor Mike Ragsdale to rectify what Chancellor John Weaver dubiously found to be defects in the county’s Charter when Weaver ruled it invalid.

The collision is over the issue of whether the Sheriff, Trustee, County Clerk, Property Assessor and Register of Deeds are subject to term limits. The holders of these offices, Tim Hutchison, Mike Lowe, Mike Padgett, John Whitehead, and Steve Hall respectively, have all served more than two consecutive terms and could be removed from office if the term-limits provision of the charter applies to them.

As overwhelmingly approved by voters in a 1994 referendum, the two-term limit applies to “any elected office of Knox County.” However, Weaver ruled the Charter invalid primarily because it fails to provide for the five aforementioned offices that are called for in the state Constitution (and hence often referred to as “constitutional offices.”)

Their omission from the Charter also heads the list of reasons why it’s doubtful whether they fit the definition of offices covered by its provision for term limits. Beyond that, the constitutional officers have all contended that even if they were incorporated into the Charter, it couldn’t impose term limits on them because their qualifications are set by state laws so as to preclude a county charter from infringing on them. (Term limits are deemed to be qualification for an office.)

The Charter Review Committee has sought both to make provision for the constitutional officers and to stipulate that the Charter can set qualifications for them. At its last meeting Aug. 10, the 19-member committee voted unanimously to amend the Charter to add a new Article IV with sections that codify each of the constitutional officers and their duties. In every case, the amendment specifies that their qualifications shall be “governed by the Constitution and laws of the State of Tennessee and the Knox County Charter.” The committee spurned an attempt by Knox County’s Senior Deputy Law Director John Owings to get the phrase “and the Knox County Charter” deleted on grounds that “Adding that phrase may very well create another set of problems.”

At what’s due to be a final meeting today (Aug. 30), the committee is expected to submit its recommendations to the Knox County Election Commission for inclusion on the Nov. 7 general election ballot. Charter amendments must be approved by the voters, and the belief is that their adoption will solve the problem that prompted Weaver to rule the Charter invalid on June 9. The chancellor subsequently granted a six-month stay of the effectiveness of his ruling, which would appear to allow time for corrective action.

Meanwhile, the Law Department is appealing Weaver’s ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has taken up the matter on an expedited basis and may well rule on it next month. In its brief submitted to the Supreme Court on behalf of Knox County, the Law Department asserts that the Charter did not need to make specific provision for the constitutional officers because their existence and duties are established by state law. If the Supreme Court buys the county’s reasoning and overturns Weaver’s ruling, then the work of the Charter Review Committee might not be needed except as it pertains to the applicability of term limits.

In an attempt to obviate that work as well, the Law Department’s brief goes on to assert that “it would appear that the General Assembly did not give counties the right to provide qualifications of the ‘constitutional county officers’ other than the county legislative body and the county executive/mayor.” And it asks the Supreme Court to so rule.

The reasoning behind the Law Department’s argument is so steeped in legalistic mumbo jumbo that the average reader may have a hard time following this column from this point forward. It invokes the “statutory construction principle of ‘expressio unius est exclusis alterius’," which translated from Latin means that the “the expression of one thing implies the exclusion of all things not mentioned.”

In the state law granting counties the powers derived from a charter form of government, the Legislature specifically allowed them to set qualifications for county commissioners and for “the administrative and executive officers of the county government.” But another section of the enabling legislation stipulates that “the duties of the constitutional county officers as prescribed by the General Assembly shall not be diminished under a county charter form of government….” The Law Department seizes on this section’s silence on the subject of qualifications for these officers as indicative of the Legislature’s intent not to let counties set any.

However meritorious this abstruse argument may be, it’s astonishing that the Law Department would be making it in a way that flies in the face of the intent of the Charter Review Committee and of the voters who approved the term limits amendment to the Charter in 1994. In their deliberations, committee members—even including some county commissioners who stand to be term-limited out of office if the Charter is ruled valid—repeatedly invoked “the will of the people" to term-limit all elected county officials as their source of guidance.

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, according to his Chief of Staff Mike Arms, is “extremely pleased with the work of the Charter Review Committee” and believes “the sentiment of the committee reflected the sentiment of the citizens of Knox County.” But the Supreme Court hasn’t even been apprised of the work of the committee, and its chairman, lawyer Bruce Anderson says, “What bothers me is that nobody is defending the Charter and saying we believe that everybody is term-limited because that’s what the public voted on."

So how can the Law Department be marching to such a different drumbeat? Owings says, “The more we read the enabling legislation, the more we believe as lawyers that it [term-limiting the constitutional officers] can’t be done." But the Law Department is also operating in a political arena in which all of the elected officers are its clients, co-equally with the county mayor and County Commission. So one has to question whether the department, headed by an independently elected law director is trying to serve too many masters. It just so happens that on Sept. 1, County Commission is due to appoint an interim successor to outgoing Law Director Mike Moyers, who is vacating the job to assume the chancellor’s post he won in the Aug. 3 county election. Owings is the leading candidate to succeed him, but the support of Sheriff Tim Hutchison, trustee Mike Lowe, and other courthouse potentates could be important to his getting the appointment to serve as law director until the next county election in 2008.

In its reading of the enabling legislation for charter counties, the Law Department brushes aside the section that authorizes setting qualifications for “the administrative and executive officers of the county." Until the Charter provides for the other constitutional offices, it may be true that the county mayor is the only one who fits this profile. It’s also true that the Charter presently makes the mayor “responsible for the exercising of all executive and administrative functions of the County Government….” But the Charter Review Committee can readily broaden that singularity when it meets today by adding the phrase “except those functions vested in the officers prescribed in Article IV of this charter." Then who’s to say the constitutional officers are not plurally “administrative and executive officers of the county?” Certainly, it shouldn’t be the county Law Department.