On Owings' Failings as Law Director

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The abortive Humpty-Dumpty attempt to put Knox County government back together again by re-doing appointments to elected offices vacated by term limits results in considerable part from bungling on the part of the county's Law Director John Owings. Moreover, his bum advice to county commissioners and posture in court that no violations of the state's Open Meetings (Sunshine) Act occurred when Commission filled those vacancies in January is just one of many matters on which he's failed to represent the citizens of Knox county well.

Just as Chancellor Daryl Fansler spurned the law director's position on the Sunshine Law earlier this month, so did the state Supreme Court in January when it rejected his case for the validity of the Knox County Charter. Ditto for his arguments that the Charter's term-limit amendment should not apply to the sheriff and the county's â“constitutionalâ” fee offices. Last year, he sought to sabotage the work of a Charter Review Committee that was seeking to buttress the applicability of term limits to â“any elected office of Knox Countyâ” as overwhelmingly approved by the voters in a 1994 referendum.

A bill of particulars addressing Owings' failures in each of these matters follows:

In defending County Commission against a suit by the News Sentinel alleging violations of the Sunshine Act, the law director contended that only meetings at which a quorum of commissioners are present need be public. However, this contention flies in the face of the act's provision that no meeting or other communication between two or more members of a public body â“shall be used to decide or deliberate public business.â” Depositions in the case are replete with admissions on the part of the commissioners that they conferred with one another privately about appointments prior to the infamous January 31 Commission meeting at which the appointments actually occurred.

In ordering the case for trial, Fansler pointed out that appellate courts in all three grand divisions of the state had rejected the so-called â“quorum defenseâ” against Sunshine Law violations. â“The county's entire argument ... is devoid of substance and thoroughly discredited,â” asserts the News Sentinel' s attorney Richard Hollow.

The only remedy for decisions made in violation of the act is to void them. If Owings had impressed that prospect on commissioners following the Jan. 31 debacle, it might have been possible to create a truly public process for re-making the appointments promptly or for holding a special election to fill the vacancies, as county Mayor Mike Ragsdale proposed in vain. But now, eight months have passed, and the Feb. 5 primary election for candidates to fill these seats is nearer at hand than the date the county dropped the ball. On Monday, County Commission refused to consider an Owings proposal for re-doing the appointments in an attempt to settle the News Sentinel lawsuit. In effect, commissioners hoisted Owings on his own petard of prior assurances that no violation had occurred. A lengthy trial seems certain to result in the further humiliation of a county government that's already lost the public trust.

In the case of the Knox County Charter, Chancellor John Weaver had ruled it invalid last year primarily for â“incompletenessâ” due to failure to provide for the office of Sheriff and the other â“constitutionalâ” offices. In appealing Weaver's ruling to the state Supreme Court, Owings asserted in a brief that â“A county charter need not create the other constitutional offices that already exist under the Constitution and laws of the state.â”

Rejecting that assertion, the Supreme Court agreed with Weaver that the Charter was indeed invalid as a matter of a law. Fortuitously for Knox County, the Supreme Court managed to come up on its own with a rationale for â“de factoâ” validation of Knox County government. So, no thanks to Owings, the county was spared the dire consequences of invalidation.

The Supreme Court paid no heed to Owings' convoluted argument why the Sheriff and other â“constitutionalâ” offices should be exempt from term limits. Rather, the court upheld the will of the people, as reflected in the term-limit amendment to the Charter applicable to â“all elected officialsâ” (with an exception for judicial offices and school board members).

Where the Charter Review Committee is concerned, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale had formed it with a mandate to redress defects that Weaver had found in the Charter. The committee did so mainly by making provision for the appropriate offices including their duties and qualifications. During a committee recess, a lawyer for then Sheriff Tim Hutchison was observed conferring with Owings. After the recess, the law director urged the committee to delete the provision for setting their qualifications which could include term limits, but the committee rebuffed him.

It's debatable whether Knox County law directors should continue to be elected to that post since it tends to make them beholden to political power brokers like Hutchison. On balance, though, it's good that voters will get to pick a law director next year because it's clearly time for a change. â" Joe Sullivan

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