Charters and Chicken Bones
Knox County’s document is flawed—and the will of the people
by Frank Cagle
Your first response in reading Chancellor John Weaver’s 59-page opus declaring Knox County’s Charter invalid is merely to wonder if the use of the phrase “inept cretins” is redundant. Weaver does an admirable job of setting up a series of straw men and then knocking them down.
On second reading of the opinion (otherwise known as the History of the World, Part I), you get a sense that the author prides himself on attention to detail, reasoned argument and careful attention to dotted i’s and crossed t’s. What comes through loud and clear is the sense the chancellor considers the Knox County Charter to be inelegantly drawn, sloppily presented and the subject of administrative improprieties of a technical nature. He certainly wouldn’t have done it this way. The Charter is the legal equivalent of crumbs on the tablecloth, grease on the napkin and chicken bones on the floor. Emily Post would be appalled.
On a third reading, you begin to realize that the opinion is more of an indictment than a judgment. The chancellor made an observation at an earlier hearing that the charter might be flawed. This opened the door for a horde of special interest lawyers to stampede through in an effort to get their clients back into office. This opinion allows the chancellor to lay out his complete case, marshaling all his reasons and offering justification for his position.
My lawyer friends tell me Chancellor Weaver is a fair-minded jurist who is all about the law and a man with no political agenda. His opinion in the Knox County term limits/charter case certainly paints a picture of culpability that is almost criminal.
The county Charter, approved by Knox County voters, was never sent to the Secretary of State’s office and officially certified. The county says the responsibility to send it to Nashville rests with the election commission. The election commission says there is no evidence the document was ever sent to the election commission office.
There is supposed to be a copy of the petition that led to the 1994 term limits election on file in the County Clerk’s office. A photocopy recently arrived there, no original can be found. We told you the term limits amendment to the county Charter, approved by more than 75 percent of the voters, was never made a part of the Knox County codebook. It has been added within the past few weeks since we made its absence public.
But even with this bill of particulars testifying to the ineptness of Knox County, if you agree with Weaver you have to believe that these procedural mistakes outweigh the will of the people. The people voted overwhelmingly for the Charter. The people voted overwhelmingly for term limits. According to the Tennessee Constitution, the will of the people is paramount. The state Supreme Court reaffirmed that principle as recently as February in saying that home rule counties that approve term limits are sovereign.
You should also remember that Weaver did not unearth some deep dark secret. It was well known at the time, and since, that the Charter only dealt with issues Knox County wanted to change from the usual practice in county government. The intent of the Charter Commission was that everything else mirrors the state Constitution—thus they felt no need to spell out the duties of the Tax Assessor or the Register of Deeds. They also knew introducing those additional issues increased the chances of drawing opposition to the Charter—especially if they started to monkey with courthouse officeholders. After 18 years this suddenly becomes a fatal flaw.
The Knox County Commission will meet Monday. They will be doing a Kabuki dance, so let me provide you with subtitles in advance. The commissioners who sued to destroy county government in order to save their jobs now realize that some people might be upset by their action. They will attempt to figure out how to salvage the Charter, get Weaver to agree to let them do it, but somehow, in all the confusion, they will not be able to save that dang term-limits provision. They certainly don’t want an appeal to a higher court, which might lead to reinstatement of the entire Charter—including the term limits provision. County Mayor Mike Ragsdale should be ashamed if he goes along with such a ploy.
Chancellor Weaver’s ruling has ensured that self-serving politicians, who are willing to destroy the county government they swore to uphold, will be able to stay in office for one more term. It’s hardly a good day’s work for a man who is not supposed to have a political agenda.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .