System or People?

To improve local government, do we need to change it or the people who run it?

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Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

There are those who believe that if we fiddle with government long enough we can create a system impervious to human foibles, able to withstand administration by the occasional moron, miscreant or misdemeanant.

That seems to be the impetus for the formation of various good government groups of late, inspired by the event of Jan. 31 when the Knox County Commission appointed replacements for 12 term limited officeholders. I wish these volunteers well. Anyone taking the time to try and make local government better is to be commended.

I understand the impulse. I have had discussions lately with people wondering how we got where we are. Most local officeholders are people who love their home town, love their friends and families and they work hard at pleasing the public. How did it happen?

I am acquainted with most of the officeholders in Knox County and I like most of themâ"I like more of them than like me, but that's inevitable in my job. Is there a systemic problem that charter amendments can fix?

There is a school of thought that the way to reduce politics in public life is to get rid of as many politicians as you can. This rationale has eliminated elected school superintendents and judges above the local level. The framers of the state constitution saw no need to elect an attorney general, a lieutenant governor on any other office save governor. I think we suffer from a lack of elected officials, and I am wary of eliminating even more opportunities to vote for public officials.

But the temptation is strong given the public's inattention in recent years, even to the point of re-electing people who were term limited only because these same voters said overwhelminglyâ"they wanted them out.

Knox County Commission is composed of people elected in districts. They are responsible only to the voters in their district. They have no incentive to pay attention or to care what happens in other districts or to the county as a whole. On the one hand it makes them responsive to the neighbors who elect them and that is a good thing. But it also gives them a parochial view of county government.

The commission is a mini-legislature. In order to get things for their district, commissioners build alliances with other commissioners. I'll vote for your projects, you vote for mine. Rather than work these things out on a case-by-case basis they tend to form a faction around the magic number of 10 votesâ"a majority of the 19-member commission. Sometimes the County Mayor is the leader of a 10-vote faction; sometimes the County Mayor is on the losing end. For a very long time Sheriff Tim Hutchison led a faction that controlled the commission chairman and a majority of the votes on commission. That coalition seems to still be in placeâ"Scott Moore is the commission chair.

Commissioners in city districts and in the South, East and North sat by for a couple of decades while the unfettered development occurred in West Knox County. They either voted to allow development as a result of horse-trading or, since it didn't affect their district, they voted with business interests that provide financing for their campaigns.

The school board is building expensive new schools in the suburbs, where the children are, and closing or operating less-than-full schools in the city. The total number of students has not changedâ"they just live in different places. This is a direct result of commission decisions.

Inside the city there are council districts where you run and the neighborhood selects candidates. The top two candidates then run citywide. You have district representation, but the council person also has to keep an eye out for citywide issues as well. Perhaps we ought to look at a similar system for commission.

I have to believe, in my 35 years of experience as a professional typist, the form of government is less important than the quality of the people populating it. There are any number of people we might think would be good candidates for County Commission. How many of them would run, suffer the slings and arrows of public opinion, put up with snarky political columnists and devote the time necessary to do a good job?

We will see if the events of Jan. 31 prompt a new breed of candidate, and we will discover going forward if they are an improvement on what we have. We may very well discover the Commissioners we have are who the people in their districts prefer.

I suspect there will be some surprises along the way. But the increased scrutiny of local government and the interest shown by average citizens in getting involved is a hopeful sign.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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