Pale Shadow of a City Council

City representatives had not much to say when filling interim appointments

Groundhog Day came early this year, at least the Bill Murray version. City Council treated Knoxvillians to repetitive absurdity when they replaced the mayor and 5th District city councilman. It took 16 rounds of voting to put Charlie Thomas on Council, and if that does not foretell six more weeks of winter, it explains why it has been so cold. We've been seeing the shadow of our political culture.

Last Thursday, six qualified candidates stood before Council to explain their experience, vision and desire to serve the final 10 months of Bob Becker's term. Applicants for the position had five minutes to speak, and they all had one or two citizens speak in support for up to two minutes. This led to nearly an hour of discussion spanning all manner of professions, service and knowledge.

When interim Mayor Daniel Brown called for a vote after the final citizen spoke, the transition to a nearly silent Council was stark. Only a few thank yous and vague platitudes of praise for the field of applicants disrupted the silence before voting commenced. Most members uttered nary a word to explain why they voted as they did. No one lobbied for a favored candidate, none went through the roster complimenting each, nor named two, three or four favorites. No names were mentioned at all. Then they voted.

Some voted for the same candidate each round, some swapped among two or three. Why they changed was not said. In the end, Council made a great choice, but getting there took votes without deliberation, lots of them. Black Wednesday worked the same way, but with frequent potty breaks.

Nick Pavlis and Brenda Palmer stuck with Bill Rolen throughout, and Chris Woodhull with Beth Eason, while the rest of Council alternated among eventual winner Thomas, recent state Senate loser Chuck Williams and retired state Rep. Joe Burchfield. If you are curious why Pavlis and Palmer were smitten with Rolen, it was his promise to build fountains.

According to rules Council made for itself, the first 10 rounds of voting had no effect. No candidate was eliminated, and none achieved the six of eight votes needed for a win. Several times the outcome repeated unchanged from round to round, and it became so awkward that Councilman Nick Della Volpe suggested a round of questions for the candidates to break up the monotony.

But his phrasing was tentative, and the motion died not so much for lack of a second as lack of a first. Council attorney Charles Swanson told Council they could make up any rules they wanted, but Della Volpe was only curious. He didn't actually want to ask the candidates a question.

One of Becker's great strengths as vice mayor was clarifying intent when members spoke. He would have asked Della Volpe whether his suggestion was a motion, but the rookie mayor did nothing. Instead of speaking to those wanting to join their ranks, instead of deliberating about a serious choice, the groundhog Council saw deliberation's shadow.

Electing Thomas seemed like a random choice, and what if you really can decide who best represents North Knoxville without talking about it? What if there is no point in talking?

The congressional strategy of allowing members unlimited time to speak before an empty chamber is not all that different from City Council's silent votes, and it gives congressmen the chance to tally the true currency of persuasion in the privacy of their office.

On many of the day's leading issues, expertise gets trumped by exposure and knowledge nullified by lies, burying truth in a perpetual confusion of words. Deliberation seems a quaint relic of simpler times, and maybe we can just let minds change at random until a majority decision falls in place.

One drawback to this approach is that problems like ballooning health-care costs and climate change do not hold still while we vote over and over waiting for a solution. We cannot depend on serendipity to always bring gifts like Charlie Thomas, but we sure do need clear voices like his rising from the emptiness of modern politics.


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