secret_history (2007-08)

Our Rootin' Tootin' County Commission

Is Knox County government a contradiction in terms?

by Jack Neely

For years, Metro Pulse has given the News Sentinel a hard time, whenever possible. It's company policy to dog the daily. But now the News Sentinel is suing to drag County Commission's machinations out into the light of day. This time, we're saying , You go, girl.

But I'm not sure it will solve the essential problem.

Over lunch at the counter at Pete's the other day, an old friend was reading newspaper accounts of the latest County Commission embarrassments. You know, he said, this is the best argument yet in favor of consolidated government.

For a generation it was the banner cause of progressivism, the initiative to combine city and county governments into one. It would eliminate waste on several levels. It made sense.

Consolidation passed in Nashville, but didn't pass here. Voters in the city generally favored it, but those out in the county always more roundly rejected it.

But in some ways, Knox County was already consolidating. City and county education was separate through the '60s, with the county generally getting the lesser end of the bargain. When city-school kids encountered county-school kids at YMCA camp or baseball games, the city kids noticed, with some envy, that the county kids weren't obliged to respect city-school grammatical rules.

But then we consolidated city and county education into one, funded by the county. Was that good? It might be hard to compare the old city-school system and the countywide system for effective education, but parents of kids in the public-school system know that Knox County government, and its taxpaying electorate, does not prioritize education.

And for several decades, the public library was strictly a city thing, and was generally regarded as a model system. Until the city, in an unrelated financial bind, turned it over to county government.

Today, some library supporters think that early experiment in consolidation was a mistake, illustrated, a few years ago, in the bald cronyism that crowned the least-qualified director in the library's history. The embarrassment drew national attention, and required state legislation to fix it.

On a countywide basis, the evidence seems to suggest, our people aren't much interested in public libraries. A long-needed new public library with an estimated cost of $25-45 million prompted a noisy low-tax revolt, which had its greatest strength in rural and suburban districts. One commissioner raised the question of whether Knox County even needed a public library, now that we have Wikipedia. Some of the rhetoric turned anti-library, as if we'd be better without one. Build a library, some claimed, and the damn latté-drinking liberals might use it. Intimidated, the county shelved the project.

Meanwhile, the county's building a six-mile county road extension that costs $40 million, and exists only to relieve rush-hour traffic for a small percentage of Knox County commuters. It got past County Commission and its electorate without much argument.

You'd think that, with close to half a million people living in Knox County, we wouldn't have a hard time finding ideal candidates to govern. For each commissioner, there are more than 20,000 citizens; we should wind up with a panel of humanity's best and the brightest. Some are worthy representatives. But to the casual observer who attends meetings of both the city and county's governing bodies, County Commission is dependably cockier, smarmier, dumber, the commissioners' motives often as crude as their grammar. County Commission can seem like City Council's reform school.

They've been an embarrassment long before the coup d'Scoobie. But the main problem is that Knox County voters don't care much.

We all vote for County Commission, but in Knox County, voters in the country still outnumber voters in the city. And to many people in rural areas around the South, the idea of obligatory cooperation just isn't a priority. Considering that the suburban lifestyle is the choice of most Knox Countians, there must be lots of appealing and sensible reasons to live outside of the city. Many suburbanites are especially fond of boasting about their much-lower property taxes. Some also like the fewer restrictions on what they're allowed to build, or burn.

In areas where citizens hardly interact with public amenities that aren't made of asphalt, the whole idea of municipal government can seem arcane. Suburbanites may not miss greenways or public transit or performing arts or the more complex zoning laws. They don't depend on government much and maybe skeptical of those who do.

Those who resist the burdens of government aren't just East Tennessee's rugged individualists, shotgun loaded by the cabin door, anxious that, offered too much education, Junior might rise above his rearing. I've spoken to too many affluent, educated people in the suburbs who couldn't name one county commissioner, and would laugh at anybody who assumes that's a problem. Their kids attend one or more of our proliferating private schools, located safely on the outer fringes of the problematic city. They've got cable, and Internet, and they're happily oblivious to public discourse.

In conversation you might gather they don't feel any particularly strong connection to a Knox County "community." They expect their kids to grow up and live elsewhere, some real city maybe--and they may expect to retire to some more luxurious place, themselves. While they're here, they mainly just want to keep their taxes low.

A lot of them are good folks, dependable spouses and parents, loyal Vol fans. But what kind of government can we expect from people who live where they do, in part, to escape government?

Many Knox Countians tolerate politics just as non-golfers tolerate golf. But when their neighbors do get interested in local politics, it's often because politics is a family tradition; for others, it's a mark of status that might otherwise be elusive. It is, as one county commissioner recently put it, a "lifestyle."

On a countywide basis, we tolerate cronyism. We even celebrate it. Talk to some people who like our county government, and you may be surprised to hear them talk about it fondly, as if cronyism is a moral good. If politics is in a fellow's family or in his circle of buddies, well, he'd get his feelings hurt if he didn't get elected, too. These meddlers don't understand.

By Knox County standards, cronyism is, at its very worst, sort of funny. The redneck and suburban yuppie may not think of themselves as having much in common, but to both of them, politics is judged largely by its entertainment value, and some actually like the idea that the people they elect are mainly hilarious. They prefer that their county commissioner be, to some appreciable degree, rootin' tootin'. It's an important qualification and, for many voters, maybe the chief one.

Anyway. A consolidated metro government would be elected on the county level, with rural and suburban voters outnumbering those in the city. What if that were our only government?