One Question Deserves an Answer

As County Commission spent three tortuous hours earlier this month belaboring whether to subpoena the notorious Tyler Harber to an investigative hearing, one of Knoxville's most distinguished senior statesmen sat patiently at the rear of the Commission meeting room.

Finally, after an ever-so-welcome recess, former University of Tennessee president Joe Johnson was invited to the podium to present the recommendations of the Knox County – One Question process that Johnson chaired. That process started last spring with a series of public-input sessions to address the question: What changes, if any, do the citizens want to make to the form or structure of government in Knox County? With this input and an analysis of local government best-practices conducted by UT's Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, a diverse, 60-person steering committee devoted a day-long retreat to deliberating its way to a recommended set of answers.

The recommendations include an array of amendments to the Knox County Charter aimed at making the county's governmental structure more efficient and accountable and less prone to conflicts of interest. Among them:

• A prohibition against county employees serving on County Commission.

• A reduction in County Commission's size from 19 members to 11, with one elected from each of nine commission districts and two at large.

• Appointment rather than election of the County Trustee, County Clerk, Property Assessor, Register of Deeds, and Law Director, thus making these administrative posts accountable to the County Mayor, subject to confirmation by County Commission.

• Creation of an independent Office of Inspector General, appointed by Commission for a six-year term, whose purpose would be to "conduct management audits...recommend ways to strengthen management functions, increase cost-effectiveness and citizen responsiveness, improve internal controls, and to root out waste, fraud, and abuse."

"It would be our hope," Johnson told Commission, "that you would move forward toward placing these recommendations on the ballot in August and let the public debate them." For a charter amendment to be placed on the ballot for the voter approval that is required, it must first be approved by a two-thirds vote of County Commission or else be the subject of a petition signed by 15 percent of Knox County's 260,000 registered voters—which would mean collecting nearly 40,000 signatures.

After all the citizen involvement and effort that's gone into shaping the Knox County – One Question recommendations, they certainly deserve to be brought to a vote. Yet it's anything but clear whether County Commission will even consider them, let alone approve them.

Some encouragement can be drawn from last week's unanimous Commission vote in favor of a charter amendment that would subject elected officials to recall. Under this amendment, it would take the same requisite number of signatures on a petition to force a recall vote. And if an official is thus removed from office, the charter amendment provides for a special election to be held to pick a successor. But amid all the factional in-fighting that's going on between Commission and County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, the recall vote can be viewed as just as an extension of the spite with which pro- and anti-Ragsdale factions are seeking to bring each other down.

Commissioner Mike Hammond is also planning a push for two other charter amendments as soon as the eight Commission seats that are presently vacant get filled by appointments; these are due to take place following the Feb. 5 primary voting that commissioners are looking to for guidance in making these selections (to serve until the Aug. 7 general election). One of these amendments would provide for a special election to fill multiple vacancies in county offices, such as those that occurred after the State Supreme Court upheld the charter's term-limits provisions and then again after a Chancery Court voided Commission's initial appointments of successors that were found to have been made in violation of the state's Open Meetings Act. Hammond will also seek an amendment banning county employees from serving on Commission as an inherent conflict of interest. But this is much less likely to succeed than his provision for special elections—even though it's not clear whether state law allows for them.

It's inconceivable that Commission will endorse a charter amendment reducing its size or one reducing the number of elective offices in Knox County. And despite all of the public dissatisfaction with county government over the past year, my own guess is that voters will reject any reduction in the number of elected offices as well.

Still, County Commission should be held accountable for dealing with these issues. And if it fails to do so, a petition campaign should see to it that they are at least placed on the August ballot for voters to decide them.