insights (2007-06)

County Commission's Shameful Succession

County Commission's Shameful Succession

Allowing outgoing commissioners in several of the affected districts to virtually handpick their successors, absent any semblance of a public process, was bad enough. Even worse were the machinations surrounding the selections in two other affected districts where the recommendations of their commissioners were spurned and others chosen who are in no way representative of their districts.

In North Knoxville's 2nd District, the district's two Democrat commissioners each nominated worthy candidates, who would have preserved the district's Democrat orientation. Mark Harmon nominated activist Amy Broyles who had drawn the most support at a public forum that he (alone among commissioners) had sponsored. Billy Tindell, who by then had relinquished his seat after being appointed County Clerk, backed a well-credentialed businessman, Jonathan Wimmer, who's also served as president of the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Association. But then Commission Chairman Scott "Scooby" Moore entered the fray by nominating a fellow Republican, Charles "Chucky" Bolus, who'd served as Moore's campaign treasurer in last year's election.

In the ensuing voting, no candidate came close to getting the 10-vote majority needed for appointment to the Tindell vacancy. Bolus got six votes; Wimmer, six; Broyles, three; and a fourth candidate, Deborah Porter, also got three. Commission rules called for the candidate with the fewest votes to be dropped from consideration until the field was narrowed sufficiently to produce a majority. Yet because Broyles and Porter were tied, there was no candidate to be dropped.

At this point, Moore declared a recess, and what happened as commissioners conferred privately in violation of the state's public meeting law is not entirely clear. All I know is that when Commission reconvened, enough arm-twisting had been done to yield Bolus the 10 votes needed for appointment.

That appointment was crucial to breaking an equally sorry deadlock in the 4th District, which encompasses Sequoyah Hills and other affluent western suburbs in the Bearden area. There, outgoing Commissioner Phil Guthe nominated a fellow insurance man, James Smelcher, to succeed him. Commissioner Mike Hammond from the neighboring 5th District followed up with the nomination of Scott Davis, a developer who had represented the 4th District for one term in the 1990s. Either one of them would have carried on the district's tradition of progressive representation. But then came Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert from out of nowhere with the nomination of Lee Tramel, a sheriff's deputy.

In the three-candidate field, Tramel got eight votes; Davis, six; and Smelcher, four. With Smelcher thus eliminated it seemed likely that his votes would go to Davis, giving him a majority. But Guthe, still sulking over the rejection of his nominee, chose to pass rather than support either remaining candidate, leaving Davis with nine votes and Tramel still with eight. Another recess ensued during which outgoing Sheriff Tim Hutchison was observed jawboning outgoing commissioner Diane Jordan, who had been supporting Davis. When Commission reconvened and the roll was called again, Guthe at long last voted for Davis, but then Jordan switched her vote to Tramel, resulting in a nine-to-nine tie. To break it, Moore and Lambert managed to get Bolus sworn into office to fill the Tindell vacancy and produce the decisive 10th vote for Tramel.

Perhaps the Scoobies, Lumpies and Chuckies of this world can't be faulted for pursuing their agendas--as antithetical and laden with hostility as they are toward County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. Certainly, they can't be blamed for having created the inherently awkward need to fill eight commission seats by appointment per the state Supreme Court's mandate to do so in its decision last month upholding Knox County's Charter and its term limits. And after all, arm-twisting, deal making and juryrigging are par for the course in just about every legislative body in the land.

Actually, there was a time during last week's Commission proceeding when, for all its flaws, I was encouraged by the prospects for favorable outcomes. Wimmer and Davis appeared likely to gain majorities when the fields in their respective contest were reduced to two. And I was especially delighted by the nearly unanimous appointment of Frank Leuthold to the 5th District seat in the far western suburbs being vacated by John Griess.

The venerable Leuthold, who had retired as a commissioner in 2002, brings back the invaluable experience and acumen gained during the 18 years he served as chairman of Commission's finance committee and 20 years as chairman of the county's pension board. Moreover, Leuthold is fiercely independent and stands a better chance of bridging the gap, if not healing the schism, between Ragsdale and the nickname boys than anyone else I can imagine.

While the hand picking of successors to outgoing Commissioners Mark Cawood, John Mills and Larry Clark in the staunchly conservative 6th, 8th and 9th Districts doesn't look good, they may not be so bad, or in any event no worse than their predecessors. Indeed, incoming Sharon Cawood seems a better prospect to me than her outgoing husband Mark. And I have enough respect for Mills to suppose that his nearly unanimous appointee, retired tire dealer Jack Huddleston, will be representative of East Knox County interests.

  In the South Knox district where I live, I've learned the hard way that trying to buck the Pinkston family dynasty is a futile undertaking, and am thus resigned to its extension via the appointment of florist Tom Greene.

All of the appointees will only serve for an interim until the seats can be filled by the voters. Whether that's in the special election later this year that Ragsdale has called for or in next year's regular county election remains to be seen. In any event, public indignation will hopefully bring more worthy candidates to the fore, especially to replace unrepresentative appointees like Bolus and Tramel.