Our Lawless Law Director

And an over-the-top denouement that reads like pro-charter-amendment propaganda

This column isn't about whether Knox County Law Director Bill Lockett should resign. Of course he should. It's hard to argue otherwise without sounding like a crony. He shouldn't have run for the office to begin with. Resigning is the closest he can come to doing the right thing, even if the right thing seems not to be his primary concern.

Lockett reportedly admitted embezzling thousands of dollars from the law firm that employed him. His several friends in county government claim it's a personal matter between him and his victims. It's an old East Tennessee tradition to regard a spectrum of felonies as none of the government's business.

Whether his firm presses charges or not, Lockett, our "law director," reportedly committed what he must be aware, in his legal education at Samford U., is a felony—and, you'd think, relevant to the citizens of Knox County who might prefer a law-abiding law director. But if we excuse criminals on the basis of sincere personal need for quick cash, we could empty our state penitentiaries. It would save the taxpayers a lot of money.

The revelations seem like an overdramatized, over-the-top example of what can go wrong with these offices by the status-quo structure of county government. That a county law director, in his first months in office with the next election far away, would be credibly accused of a very recent and very serious felony. "Come on," some might protest. "Like that's going to happen."

Last week, Lockett became an unwitting poster child for charter-amendment reform.

This one money-stressed attorney's unlikely rise to county power coincided with a long-brewing progressive effort to make some overdue reforms in the structure of county government. The charter petition effort last year, bundled into two petitions and presented as two amendments, offered several promising proposals; the most controversial of them was to consolidate the previously independent "fee offices"—the county clerk, the register of deeds, the county trustee, and the county law director—as mayoral departments, seated by appointment and subject to review by the mayor and County Commission.

The proposal was controversial in Knox County. It's not controversial in America. As a Baker Center for Public Policy report pointed out, what was proposed is standard operating procedure in many urban counties, and generally proves to be responsive, efficient, and economical for the taxpayer. In most American counties, the law director is chosen not for his or her charisma or campaign chest or popularity among voters, but appointed by an elective governing body, based on the candidate's particular knowledge and skill in interpreting the law and supervising legal matters. In Knox County, though, voters have a soft spot for the rootin' tootin' frontier way, with every public official independent of the others, living by his own rules, like Wyatt Earp—answering to nobody but the voters, come election time, whenever that is.

Lockett was one of those folks who prefer the old way, who didn't like the idea of consolidating these offices. A relatively little-known attorney without experience as a public servant, he beat the uncharismatic incumbent in the Republican primary just last year. Lockett didn't like proposed Charter Amendment 4. If passed, Amendment 4 might have curtailed his prospective career as law director. On May 3, 2008, the News Sentinel published his strongly worded editorial against the amendment. He questioned the Baker Center's recommendations of "best practices."

"One man's best practice is another's invitation to corruption," wrote Lockett.

Unopposed in the general election, Lockett became our law director in August and asserted an authority some of us didn't realize he had. That petition amendment had jumped through all the legal hoops. By its original phrasing vetted by its own attorneys, it earned more than 40,000 registered-voter signatures. But regardless of what citizens sign, the county law director is the one who decides, on his own, the version voters will see on the ballot.

Lockett might have recused himself, given that A) his own career would be affected by the amendment he was writing into the ballot, and that B) he had already editorialized against the amendment in Knox County's biggest newspaper. He could have left it to a deputy, another legal authority in county government who was perhaps neutral.

But Lockett chose the wording himself, and chose wording that parroted statements by the amendment's opponents: "Shall the Knox County Charter Amendment be amended [1] to take away from the people the ability to vote for the County Trustee, County Clerk, and Register of Deeds, [2] to take away from the people the ability to vote for the County Law Director...."

I have the impression that most voters stopped reading right there. In the weeks afterward, I heard the same thing from several friends: "I didn't understand it, but I didn't want to take away people's ability to vote."

The amendment failed by a landslide. It passed in only two precincts, both in near-West Knoxville.

Those who passionately opposed the amendments did save their right to vote. Knox County voters who are mad as hell about the prospect of a felon as their law director will have the ability to let Lockett know their displeasure in 2012.

Maybe they will, if they remember. In the meantime, he may serve most of his term, and draw his six-figure salary, after the revelation that he's a recent, and so far unpunished, embezzler. Because that amendment failed, Bill Lockett doesn't have to retire. No one can fire him. He is, for the next three years and two months, the master of his domain. At least, until the Knox County Law Director is disbarred. It's a real possibility, and for Knox County's citizens, the most embarrassing likely solution.

If the amendment had passed by any of its wordings, your elected County Commissioners could remove Lockett from office "for fraud or malfeasance" immediately.

Proponents of the charter-amendment reforms, trying to imagine an illustrative scenario to prove the necessity of their proposals, would not have wished for this one.