Step Away from the Petition

Your signature could buy Knox County some sub-prime reforms

Since the people behind the orange-and-white petition drive can't decide what to call themselves, I am going to defer to Knox County Law Director John Owings, who malapropriately called them "Knox One Petition" at the June commission meeting. One is the only number they've never known.

Sure, they began life as Knox County-One Question, but from five public forums, an academic study, more meetings and some hand waving, they arrived at nine proposed charter amendments. They adopted the name Knox Charter Petition and asked County Commission to put all nine on the ballot. Commission rejected eight, and the group now has two petitions, with two numbered items on one and three on the other, and they are calling themselves Knox Accountability. Nothing says "accountable" like changing your name thrice in a year. Somehow the five numbered items on the petitions add up to seven amendments. Knox One Petition they are not, so I am going to call them that.

It is a better name because it serves as a reminder of the shell game they are playing. There is a pea under one of those shells, and if you pick it you lose. Which amendment are they trying to sneak through? Is it expanded mayoral powers on the back of the Inspector General? Will they shrink County Commission behind their back while everyone is watching the nepotism amendment? Only Knox One Petition knows. Maybe it is both.

If you sign either the orange or the white petition, your signature is like a ten-spot thrown on the sidewalk asking voters to pick which petition holds the pea. Haven't citizens of Knox County been playing the loser long enough?

If an amendment is good enough to place before the voters, it should be good enough to have its own petition. It damn well should be good enough to face the voters on its own merits, not bundled with other, unrelated amendments for the convenience of the petitioners.

The daily paper was so enthusiastic about the Election Commission's approval of these petitions, they set a standard for coverage they will be hard-pressed to match in the future. The News Sentinel took what editor Jack McElroy called "the unusual step" of printing a two-color, four-page insert that can be used as legal copies of the two petitions. Those who pay for legal notices in the paper must have been jealous. Still, the story was legitimate news, and including public documents in news stories is routine. Legal and ethical charges against the paper are scurrilous.

What the News Sentinel should be criticized for is their approval of these petitions. They claim they are trying to empower the public, but they are leading them by the hand to a trap. The ethically dubious part of this story is the bundling of unrelated amendments, and the daily paper apparently approves of ambiguous votes and avoidable compromises. If the petitioners want to live up to the name Knox Accountability, they should withdraw their petitions and start over with the "one vote, one amendment" ethical standard firmly in mind.

We have not had enough public discussion about changing the size of commission to have arrived at a specific plan. Citizens who attended Knox County-One Question public forums suggested both shrinking and expanding County Commission. Deciding whether to shrink or expand ought to be the first step toward changing the composition of the county legislature. That is the sort of question best decided through vigorous public dialog. A daily newspaper enthusiastic about engaging the public in government would be the perfect venue.

Instead, just as the first truly legitimate and whole commission since term limits were adopted in 1994 gets sworn in, Knox One Petition wants to scramble the rules some more. Citizen reform movements should not play shell games, and newspapers should not be shills. Stay away from those petitions.