Controversy over Knox Co. Charter Continues

Nashville opinions steer Knox County toward stormy waters yet again

If you are old enough to remember when Knox County was not embroiled in controversy over its Charter, your memory of those days has surely grown dim. The way things are going, you will be lucky to live to see those days again.

County Commission devoted considerable energy to adopting district boundaries for next year's election, but a lawsuit filed two weeks ago could make it all for naught. Meanwhile, efforts to recall Law Director Bill Lockett and school board member Bill Phillips stirred up concerns about amendments on last year's ballots.

The Lockett recall group retracted its petition and decided that the recall amendment approved last August must be cured first. In 2007, citizens disgusted with the various scandals arising from Mayor Ragsdale's office began a drive to empower voters to recall county officials. Commission took up their cause and placed an amendment on the ballot, saving citizens the trouble of gathering thousands of signatures, but commissioners included a poison pill in the law.

The recall ordinance mandates a special election with a primary to fill a vacated office, allowing a five-day window in the timing of these contests that makes piggybacking on regularly scheduled elections almost impossible. Election administrator Greg Mackay says a countywide election costs $270,000, so holding a primary and general election to fill a vacant office would cost $540,000. The office would not actually be vacant, of course, just filled by someone appointed by the people's representatives rather than directly elected. These overwrought provisions amount to a half-million dollar insurance policy for sitting office holders.

Commissioner Richard Briggs has requested that Commission revisit the matter with an eye toward presenting voters with a new recall amendment next year. Recall is part of our Constitutional right to petition for redress of grievances, and that right should not be impeded with costly obstacles.

County Commission needs to simplify the recall process, but in doing so, they must avoid a pitfall that forced the Phillips recall petition to be rewritten and may wind up overturning the amendment shrinking commission to 11 members. State Election Coordinator Mark Goins, who was not in office when last year's amendments were circulating, pointed out while reviewing the Phillips recall petition that state law requires any question placed before voters to be in straightforward, yes/no form. The Phillips petition posed two related questions: shall Phillips be recalled from office and shall a special election be held to replace him? In response to Goins' opinion, the part about holding a special election was removed.

Both of the amendments that arose from the Knox County One Question movement contained multiple questions which were not even related, merely bundled together for the convenience of signature gathering. Attorney David Buuck, who successfully fought the Metropolitan Planning Commission over the Midway Business Park issue, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of several citizens and office holders seeking to have Charter Amendment 3 declared invalid. This amendment included four separate questions covering nepotism, conflicts of interest, county employees serving on Commission and the size of the Commission.

While Goins' opinion does not carry the weight of a judge's ruling, his logic is clear. A voter could conceivably wish to answer affirmative on one question and negative on another, but the form of the petition prevents that. Voters gave just that sort of contradictory answer last year, approving a conflict disclosure in Amendment 3 while rejecting almost identical language in Amendment 4, as Buuck emphasizes in his filing. He also discovered several other defects in the amendment, including direct contradiction of a state law allowing county employees to serve in elected offices.

As 19 incumbents and a few hopefuls jockey for 11 positions on the shrinking Commission, a judge may render their games moot. Whichever chancellor winds up hearing Buuck's suit would be wise to rule promptly and avoid the kind of disruptions that marred the 2006 elections.