One Question, Nine Charter Amendments

Publicly inspired amendments to the Knox County Charter remain in limbo this week, despite the action of County Commission a week ago to put most of them on the August general election ballot for up or down votes by referendum. The problem is that the Commission actions were on first reading of the amendment referendum items, and the voting was close enough to suspect that not all may pass on the required second reading March 24, or that some of the recommended charter changes might be altered in the process.

A Commission majority voted in a marathon session Feb. 25 and 26 to allow county voters to determine the following questions:

Whether to prohibit county employees, including school system employees, to serve on Commission;

Whether to tighten the county's ethics provisions to require disclosure by county officials or employees of any conflicts of interest and to prohibit nepotism in county hiring and promotion practices;

Whether to reduce the size of Commission from 19 to 11 members, with one representative elected from each Commission district and two members elected at-large, beginning in 2010, and to fix the Commission terms in keeping with two-term limits;

And whether to establish an office of Inspector General to increase cost effectiveness and efficiency and to root out waste, fraud, and abuse in county government, to be appointed by Commission, abolishing the post of internal auditor.

Those are all good charter changes that the voters would seem likely to support in a referendum for adoption.

The Commission majority voted down proposed amendments in two other areas, including a provision to switch the fee offices of Trustee, Clerk, Property Assessor, and Register of Deeds from elected to appointed positions as department directors, with the county mayor appointing them, subject to approval by Commission.

That is a sticky question, even without the inclusion of the Sheriff, who would still be elected by popular vote to four-year terms. The Commission majority declined to allow voters to vote on whether they wish to vote on the fee offices or have them appointed by the mayor. In the present political climate, with Mayor Mike Ragsdale embroiled in a scandal that includes allegations of improper spending practices, such a change would seem unlikely to pass voter muster. Whether it's a good idea, though, ought to be left to the voters themselves to decide in an August referendum.

Another item that failed to secure Commission backing was one to repeal any existing county acts, ordinances, resolutions, and regulations that would conflict with the charter as amended. The measure would seem to be a simple housekeeping move, but it did not pass on first reading.

Commissioners scheduled a workshop on the amendments for March 12 to resolve lingering questions among themselves before the amendments go to second reading.

That left a citizen organization, the Knox Charter Petition Committee, an offshoot of the Knox County-One Question group that disbanded after formulating the proposed amendments, to consider contingency plans. The petition committee had been formed to secure the required signatures to put their nine amendments on the August ballot if Commission did not perform that task. The amendments were created after a series of public forums held to determine what citizens would like from their government, plus substantial input from UT's Howard Baker Center for Public Policy's research into best government practices.

As it stands, the petition's steering committee met Monday and decided to put together a workbook for the March 12 workshop session outlining the reasoning behind the amendments and to answer as many as possible of the commissioner questions as have already been raised. It is almost a given that if the petition group is able to meet its deadlines under the election and referendum process that it will include the charter amendments it has advanced that are not passed along to voters by Commission.

That is a daunting challenge, in that it would take 35,000 certifiable signatures of registered county voters to get the issues petitioned packaged onto the ballot.

Much better that the Commission itself would put the issues to referendum on an item-by-item basis, allowing each charter change to be judged by the electorate on its own merits. That is what's meant by letting the voters decide, just as a Commission majority has repeatedly asserted. Let's walk the walk, now, commissioners.