The Knox County Charter Review Committee Needs to Think Bigger

Knox County's charter is its constitution, the document that defines county government. The Knox County Charter Review Committee is the local version of a constitutional convention, and it has convened this year, as required every eight years. This is a time for big thoughts, but so far the committee has taken a small and unimaginative approach, combing through the existing charter to find areas that need tweaks and clarification.

Much of the committee's time has been spent discussing pensions, an issue too detailed to be tackled within the language of the charter. Fortunately, committee members have resisted the urge to solve pension problems themselves. Instead, they've empaneled and empowered a retirement board that can work through problems with the Uniformed Officers Pension Plan.

This should allow the review committee to move on to broader topics, but if they continue to take a bookkeeper's approach, the results of their efforts will likely be disappointing. Solutions come from bold thinking, but the charter committee is being timid.

On Thursday, they will take on their first big idea: converting certain offices from elected to appointed positions. John Schmid has proposed making the law director a mayoral appointee, with other branches of county government retaining the power to hire their own legal counsel. Ed Frahme proposes that not just the law director, but also the county clerk, trustee, register of deeds, and property assessor be appointed.

The duties of the clerk, trustee, and register are straightforward and well defined. Direct accountability to voters does little to assure that these offices are run well. Instead, it unnecessarily politicizes the jobs and blurs the line between employee and campaign staffer. Those positions, and the court clerks as well, should be appointed.

Property assessor is different. Decisions made in that office impact property tax bills, and accountability to voters and independence from other branches of government can promote fair and honest execution of duties.

Law director is even more of a conundrum. In current form, the office represents County Commission, the mayor, and other county offices. This can and does lead to conflicts of interest that force hiring of outside counsel. Furthermore, the interests of the public can differ from those of officeholders, and as the shabby history of enforcing term limits demonstrates, public interests may fall by the wayside.

Rather than pretending an elected law director can represent citizens, what Knox County really needs is an elected auditor to act as a watchdog and ombudsman. Mike Ragsdale proposed creation of an independent auditor, but the idea was shot down not on merits, but because of who proposed it. The Charter Review Committee should revisit the concept.

To be truly independent, the auditor's position would have to be non-partisan, and that is another idea that deserves the committee's attention: converting some or all county elections to non-partisan contests. Party divisions hinge on national issues. At the local level, parties just create divisiveness. School board and city government function well without the imposition of partisanship.

There may be some role for parties on Commission, but judges and other local, elected offices should be non-partisan, and the charter is the proper place to make that change.

Citizens could be empowered in other ways as well. The charter could require local candidates to end fund-raising and disclose all donors one week prior to election day, or forbid donations from corporate entities. It could require a "None of the Above" option on every ballot, so even unopposed candidates are not assured victory. If "None of the Above" gets the most votes, the office is treated as vacant, and losing candidates cannot be nominated.

There are plenty of good ideas for making governments more open, transparent, and accountable. Some would work well in Knox County, others not. Some involve minor changes, others bold transformations. The Charter Review Committee should not be afraid of bold ideas. In fact, it is their duty to think big.