County government's many problems are perplexing, in part, because we can't point to any one culprit. There are high jinks alleged in the body of Knox County Commission, by representatives who often oppose the high-jinks-plagued offices of the county Mayor.
What did we do to deserve this? Maybe nothing. Literally.
There are 412,000 people in Knox County; 321,000 of them are of voting age. They range from farmers in the northeastern parts of the county, to affluent suburbanites on the southwest side. It's home to the faculty, staff, and students of the largest university in the region.
What do they have in common? Well, there's one thing. Most of them don't vote for their county government. The last election for county mayor drew 8 percent of the county's voting-age population.
Voting for county offices is much more robust during presidential or senatorial cycles. The next county primary, on Feb. 5, will coincide with the presidential primary. Some have proposed that all local elections should be scheduled to coincide with the big-money races. But if people don't bother to visit the polls until they're motivated by a major race, throttled by TV ads and overheated radio rhetoric—and then, while they're in the booth, condescend to hunt and peck a few local races they wouldn't otherwise have bothered with—are they making the best decisions about our county government?
A reformist faction has suggested that lowering the number of Commission seats could raise the bar by forcing greater public interest in individual elections, and broadening the field from which to pick candidates. It's an idea worth considering. But you'd think that within that population approaching half a million, we'd find plenty of qualified officials. If democracy worked perfectly, each of the 19 commissioners would be the single fairest, most competent, most enlightened individual in a population of more than 15,000 adults. If more of us voted, and cared, it would be like that.
Knox County citizens prove what they can do when they care about an issue. If there's a shift in school zoning, or the specter of a $30-a-year wheel-tax hike, Knox Countians will storm the battlements, armed with facts and figures. The problem is that citizens care so rarely.
And anecdotal evidence suggests that most county voters know little about county government. They don't know what district they live in, or even that they vote in districts. Many are not even aware that County Commission is the county's legislative body, and elected directly by the voter.
Some of it may have something to do with nomenclature. "Commissions" are often ad-hoc troubleshooting crews, not elected legislatures. And perhaps because we all use the phrase "in the county" as shorthand for "outside of city limits," a surprising number of city dwellers don't know that County Commission is responsible for decisions concerning several vital services in the city, including all schools and libraries.
The press, including Metro Pulse, shares some blame. We write about county politics, but we rarely back up and explain things from the beginning, for harried citizens in professions far removed from politics, why they should care. Maybe we should, even to the point of redundancy.
Democracy doesn't allow for graceful abstaining. When people don't vote, it gives more power to the small pool of citizens who do care, many of whom may care for the wrong reasons. Abstaining empowers machine politics, patronage, and abuse.
There's one more way to be sure we have competent public officials. If you really believe that you're better than your elected officials are, or smarter, or more honest, run against them. The incumbent is filling a space that has to be filled by somebody. If you don't come up with somebody better, the incumbents may well assume that you want them there, doing exactly what they're doing.
Maybe due to the recent controversies, this coming round is livelier than most. The qualifying deadline is two weeks from now, Dec. 13, but already a total of 67 citizens, many with fresh names we're not used to seeing in the papers, have announced their candidacies for eight seats on County Commission. Every seat has at least five rivals for it, and one—West Knox County's seat 6-A—has 13. It's heartening to see that interest, especially after some elections with no challengers. Then again, the total number of citizens who are legally qualified to run is around 300,000.
Though there aren't yet as many candidates for other important races, like school board, it's a good, if modest, sign. In the meantime, when you're prone to be snide about the incumbents, remember that you had a lot to do with putting them there, whether you voted or not. Own up to it. If voters were paying attention, you wouldn't put silly people in office, or let them do silly things.
There's an old adage, usually employed as a complacency to describe the Third World, but maybe we should apply it to ourselves: Every county gets the government it deserves.