Questioning Knox County Governance

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In light of all the shenanigans and squabbles that have beset Knox County government, an extensive look at the conduct and structure of other county governments is certainly timely. That's all the more the case in the wake of the state Supreme Court's decision earlier this year that the county has leeway to restructure its governance in ways that were previously thought to be precluded by the state Constitution.

Hence, last week's voluminous report by UT's Howard Baker Center for Public Policy canvassing the practices of some 160 other â“cohortâ” counties of similar size throughout the country is certainly welcome. The report was commissioned by an undeniably civic-minded, albeit self-appointed, group called Knox County One Question whose 70-member steering committee is chaired by former UT President Joe Johnson.

The one question posed by the group is: â“What changes, if any, do the citizens want to make in the form or structure of government in Knox County?â” With myriad recommendations gleaned from five public input sessions last spring now accompanied by the Baker Center report, the steering committee, following another round of public comment on the evening of Aug. 14 at West High School, will hold a retreat and then come forth with its own set of recommendations by month's end.

However, while the Baker Center report is long on facts and figures, it falls short of a stated goal of identifying â“best practicesâ” derived from all the canvassing. Indeed, the three political science professors who prepared it were politic enough to avoid making any recommendationsâ"though a handful of conclusions are at least suggestive.

For one, the report's findings â“suggest there is a particular value added to the governance and management of counties when they have the services of a professional manager who serves as chief executive officer.â” By a professional manager, the report means someone appointed by the county's legislative body rather than elected by the voters.

One fallacy with this analysis is that state law stipulates that except in counties with a consolidated form of government (of which Davidson is the only one), â“the chief executive of each county shall be a county mayor elected by the qualified voters of the countyââ” Moreover, whatever the faults of our present county mayor may be, the thought of having his successor selected by and subservient to a discombobulated County Commission is abhorrent to me.

The report also suggests that our present 19-member County Commission is too large and goes on to say that, â“ it appears that those governmental structures that rely on a smaller number of elected representatives are relatively more efficient and effective and still have a good understanding of public needs and concerns.â”   But anyone who supposes that the presently constituted commission might initiate any change in its composition is delusional. The only way to do so is through a citizen-initiated referendum to amend the County Charter, à la the one that imposed term limits on elected officials in 1994. It would take close to 20,000 registered voter signatures on a petition to bring about such a referendum, and its chances for success seem poor. The same goes for a referendum to provide for appointment, rather than election, of such presently elected officials as the county clerk, property assessor, register of deeds and trustee.

Issues such as nepotism and conflicts of interest, including county employees serving on County Commission, have become the biggest source of discontent and distrust of county government here of lateâ"and perhaps a catalyst for change. But in scanning the rest of the county for ways to deal with these issues, the report's authors failed to look just down the corridors of the City/County Building at how the city of Knoxville does so.

The city's Charter prohibits any city employee from serving on city council. While I'm favorably disposed toward some of the three (down from five) county employees who serve on County Commission, the county would be well advised to follow suit.

When it comes to nepotism, the city's Charter prohibits any elected or appointed official from â“having a vote or voice in the election or appointment of [an] officer or employee within the third degree, either by affinity or sanguinity.â” Such third-degree nepotism is generally defined to include a parent, child, spouse, in-law, uncle, aunt or first cousin. A county employee's handbook contains a similar set of strictures in plainer English, but it is only applicable to employees of the executive branch. That leaves uncovered the various fee offices (clerk, trustee, etc.) where patronage jobs, if not nepotism, are prevalent.

The only thing labeled as a conclusion in the report states in part that, â“To be sure, structural change and organizational improvement are no guarantors of good and effective governmentâ"but certainly they are important features of its improvement. The essential ingredients for better government remain an informed, attentive, and engaged citizenry, public-spirited , visionary, and energetic community leaders, and ethical and competent public servants.â”

Without a doubt, as Joe Johnson has himself stated in the past, people are more important in effecting change than structure. Now is the time for the citizens of Knox County to start rallying to the cause of selecting good people to fill the eight seats on County Commission and six other county offices that are up for election next year. Primary voting is only six months away, and the outcomes of next year's elections can perhaps go a long way toward restoring trust in county government that is now so sorely lacking. â" Joe Sullivan

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