insights (2007-04)

County Commission's Abominable Appointment Plan

County Commission is making a travesty of the process of selecting appointees to fill the 12 county offices vacated by the state Supreme Court's decision upholding Knox County's term limits.

Spurning County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's call for an open, transparent process for selecting the successors, a County Commission majority on Monday opted to hand pick them at a special meeting Jan. 31, with scarcely any semblance of the public hearings and the candidate vetting that Ragsdale recommended.

What tipped the scales against allowance for public participation was a total flip-flop on the part of County Commission Chairman Scott Moore. A week ago, Moore had called for a selection process very similar to Ragsdale's plan. But at Monday's commission meeting, he opposed all efforts to provide for one.

Commissioner John Schmid got only four votes on that 19-member body for a proposal that called for anyone seeking appointment to the four countywide offices involved (Sheriff, Trustee, Register of Deeds and County Clerk) to submit their names and qualifications by Feb. 5, and then be subject to a public hearing on Feb. 9, with Commission then making its selections later in the month. Commissioner Mike Hammond did gain acceptance for the proposition that office-seekers be requested to make their interest known by Jan. 29. But Chairman Moore stressed that commissioners would be free to nominate and appoint anyone of their choosing at the Jan. 31 meeting, regardless of whether prospective appointees had made their interest known.

The chairman lamely argued that Commission has filled vacancies in elected offices in the past without holding any hearings or subjecting appointees to any questions. But nothing approaching the sweeping changes mandated by the Supreme Court has ever faced Knox County or perhaps many other governments in the country before.

What really accounted for Moore's flip-flop, as best as I can tell, is that several power brokers worked behind the scenes to gain Commission support for keeping the selection process as opaque as possible. Heading that list is Sheriff Tim Hutchison. Even though he's on the verge of being term-limited out of office, Hutchison still has a lot of clout and wants to maximize it in picking his successor. His choice of deputy sheriff J.J. Jones is a controversial one, and there's a widespread belief that Jones would not fare well in a public forum at which other candidates for the post could also present their qualifications. Similarly, term-limited County Trustee Mike Lowe wants to see his chief deputy, Fred Sisk, appointed to succeed him, and Register of Deeds Steve Hall is backing his deputy, Sherry Witt. But Sisk and Witt are much less controversial choices and would probably fare well, whatever the appointment process.

Another source of influence in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is reportedly lawyer/lobbyist John Valliant. Valliant represents developer interests in many zoning matters before Commission and is pushing candidates favorable to those interests for appointment to the Commission seats vacated by term limits.

In all, eight incumbent commissioners, along with the four countywide elected officials, became ineligible to serve as a result of the Supreme Court's decision validating the Knox County Charter's two-term limit on all elected offices (except for judicial and school board posts). The Supreme Court decision also made it clear that, per the state Constitution, vacancies in county offices are to be filled by County Commission appointment until the next regular county election in 2008.

Another unseemly aspect of the current maneuvering (and Moore's flip-flop) is a reported deal for filling the fourth countywide office that's being vacated--namely that of County Clerk Mike Padgett. Moore is widely believed to covet the $91,000 post, which would be a big step up from his nominal real estate business. But he also knows that seeking appointment as county clerk by his colleagues at this point would look unseemly and could hurt his chances of getting elected to the post in 2008. So the reported deal is for term-limited County Commissioner Billy Tindell to take the appointment, with a pledge not to seek election in 2008. In turn, the power brokers would pledge to back Moore's candidacy at that time.

Perhaps worst of all, Hutchison is widely reported to be pushing for appointment of commissioners who would make life difficult for Ragsdale, whom the sheriff detests. I can't attest to the truth of any of these reports. But their sheer prevalence in Courthouse circles militates in favor of the more open appointment process that the county mayor has called for.

Whether the public can do anything at this point to gain more of a voice in the selections isn't clear. But showing up en masse at the 9 a.m. Jan. 31 Commission meeting to protest peremptory, preordained outcomes just might make a difference.

At least two more weeks are needed to properly prepare for and conduct public forums at which all candidates for all the vacant positions can and should be vetted. While I can sympathize with commissioners who are already sick of being inundated with phone calls and want to get the process over with, public confidence in Knox County governance is at stake here. And County Commission's present course seems certain to impair it.