Too Few Answers

Lingering county questions will be resolved with August and November ballots

Confusion has ruled since a citizen group unleashed nine proposed charter amendments, but last week a little clarity blew in. The charter-reform movement that arose from the Knox County-One Question survey submitted formal petitions to the county Election Commission. They are aiming for November with five amendments lumped onto two petitions.

County Commission passed one and discarded two of the nine original amendments, favoring only the amendment lowering the signature requirement for petitions, but effective as of January 2010—too late to help the current petitioners. Commission passed a recall amendment in December, and both will appear on the August ballot. There is also a City Charter amendment on the ballot.

The fog may be clearing, but the other side of the river is still hidden.

All three amendments on the August ballot are worthwhile, so the immediate course is apparent, but the further path is murky. The first obstacle confronts commission this month. Last month, County Mayor Ragsdale included funding for an Inspector General (IG) in his proposed budget. There is no county Inspector General. The mayor does not have the power to create one, not yet. One of the petitions filed by Knox Charter Petition (KCP) includes an amendment allowing the mayor to create and eliminate departments.

If Petition One gets enough signatures, the November ballot will ask if fee offices should be absorbed into the executive branch as mayoral appointees. If voters turn Trustee, Register of Deeds, and County Clerk into appointed offices, they will also give the mayor the ability to create an Inspector General, so Ragsdale included the office in his budget.

County Commission should play along for two reasons: it is an outstanding proposal, and if voters reject Petition One, the budgeted dollars fall from the sky unspent. It's a win-win wager.

Ragsdale's staff consulted with TVA's Inspector General Richard Moore in formulating how the IG office would operate, and their proposal, while similar to the KCP version, provides better independence for the office and keeps the Internal Auditor. Yes, Ragsdale proposes keeping the office causing him grief; KCP wants to replace it with an IG.

Moore spent last week explaining to Congress the history and value of TVA's OIG, created in 1986 amid controversy over the agency's management of its nuclear reactors. The office employs about 100 and spends millions on tests and equipment, but it pays for itself 10 times over. Last year, the IG caught a supplier skimming coal from TVA's stockpile as it loaded barges and won a $25-million settlement, the largest in the office's history. Hundreds of millions in fines and recoveries have been paid to TVA over the years, and estimates of savings due to efficiencies and safeguards reach into the billions.

The Knox County IG office would employ three, occasionally calling on other departments for assistance. Citizens want an IG, and IGs pay for themselves and might have prevented the p-card scandal and problems with the Solway green-waste facility. If commission keeps the IG in the budget and Petition One gets enough signatures and votes, the office could begin operation as soon as January.

Petition Two lumps the nepotism amendment with the one shrinking commission to 11 members, perhaps the worst mistake Knox County could make. More members means more democracy; fewer means outcomes are easier to manipulate. Banning nepotism is great, but Petition Two is the devil.

Bundling amendments onto a single petition puts citizens in a quandary and threatens to do the same to voters. If you want to ban nepotism, you might also have to shrink the commission. Knox County Election Commission should nip that nightmare in the bud by declaring that each amendment will appear separately on the November ballot. It is wrong to make voters decide multiple questions with a single answer.

Confusion is a built-in feature of these petitions, so I reject both.