Let's Pass the Damn Charter Amendments

In county government, smaller may be better

I don't know about you, but after studying the issue some, I'm voting for both charter amendments, #3 and #4 on your ballot. I can't vouch for the projected $4.5 million in savings, but it seems obvious we'll save something, and the changes make sense for other reasons.

Amendment #4 would turn the various courthouse registrars into mayoral departments and would help things run more efficiently. Registrars shouldn't express any ideology in office; we can judge them only by their competence, and if they're incompetent, they should be fired—not wait for somebody to campaign against them in the next election.

My favorite amendment, though, is #3, the one that reduces the population of County Commission to 11, a less-freakish size. As the Baker Center's report—which I recommend, by the way—points out, few American counties support a governing body as large as 19 members. And larger legislative bodies, on a local level, tend to breed subterfuge.

And commissioners aren't volunteers; we pay them to argue. Or doze, or look pretty, or act spunky, whatever they choose to do once a month.

I know, I know, we hillbillies will pay to watch a fight, and some commission meetings are more fun than tag-team pro wrestling, or a good cockfight. A really good cockfight, with 19 birds in the pit. Hoo, boy. We don't like to pay for schoolteachers and librarians, but if you're here to fight, we'll pay ye. We'll even give you nicknames, like we give roosters and wrasslers.

But here's a quiz. We have 19 commissioners—that is, including former chairman Scotty "Scoobie" Moore, recently ousted for perjury. They're in the news every month. After the dust clears, they've often made major decisions that affect everybody who lives in Knox County, including Knoxville. Can you name, say, nine? That would be almost half of the people you and I pay to make decisions concerning our schools and libraries and county roads.

I can wait. Just nicknames are okay.

Maybe you can; I'd be willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of Knox County's registered voters can't. Certain political junkies are fascinated with the interplay of local power and personality, and they know these people as intimately as most Americans know Paris Hilton or Brad Pitt. But for the majority of us, there's a limit to how much the earnest citizen brain can carry around daily. If you add together all the county-level offices that come up on Knox County ballots, including judgeships, we each have to make decisions, on a regular basis, concerning the performances of 30 county officeholders. Each office has incumbents, former incumbents, and usually at least one challenger, sometimes several. (If you live in far West Knox, the odd district which has three commissioners, you need to keep tabs on 31 county-level public servants; that anomaly would be fixed by the amendment, too.)

So, every election cycle the Knoxville voter has a say in selecting more than twice as many county officeholders than city, state, and federal officeholders—combined. A few, maybe including you, can keep track of all 30 of them, enough that you can reasonably assess their wisdom and competency. Try as we might, the rest of us may be preoccupied with work and family and vote recklessly, for the Republican, or the Democrat, or the girl, or the one Deacon Bob told us to vote for, or the one with the funny, funny name.

But maybe this finer screen could sift out some of the Lumpies from the county-government gravy. And we should get more accountability in the bargain: 19 is a number just high enough for any one commissioner to say, credibly, "whatever happens, it's not my fault." Over the last few years, commissioners have had a lot of reasons to make personal excuses.

Some have alleged that the amendment, by paring back the number of elective offices, will undermine voter influence. However, in the reduction of size of the commission, the charter amendment is adding two at-large seats, which I would expect might, in itself, add a level of civility to the proceedings—and suggest more responsiveness to voters.

The typical Knox County voter now has influence over two of 19 seats; that is, you have a choice in only about 10.5 percent of the composition of county commission. The rest of the commissioners could be zombies from hell, for all we have to say about them. If they're Nazi pederasts, or polygamist Druids, or self-appointed angels on a holy mission to hasten the End Time, it's just none of your business; it's not your district. You only get to vote in the ones from your district. Only that 10.5 percent proportion of commissioners has any practical reason to be interested in you and your vote.

When County Commission is composed 89 percent of people who have no practical reason to be responsive to my vote, it's no wonder so many of us feel alienated from commission. However, by the proposed amendment, each voter would have a say in the choice of three of 11 commissioners—or about 27.3 percent of the whole.

At-large representatives add comity. City Council, which has seemed enlightened by comparison, has three of them. Anybody in Knox County has a right to vote for or against at-large representatives, has a right to expect to hear from them, and has a right to campaign for them without anyone suspecting we're meddling in some other district's business. A couple of at-large candidates will bring at least a whiff of community spirit to the proceedings.

But back to the main question: does Knox County need a much-larger (and more expensive) governing body than most urban counties its size in America?

Why?

If Knox County were a model of efficient, honest, and open governance, compared to peer counties with smaller governing bodies, I'd cheer our system on. The fact is, it's gotten national press for its dysfunctional high jinks. The Baker Center report suggests, plausibly, that larger governing bodies are more vulnerable to infighting and abuse.

It's time to try something else.