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.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 11

BaldEagle writes:

Never thought I would see Metropulse as a defender of the status quo.

Here are the facts. County Commission was asked to put each amendment on separately - it takes a 2/3's vote. Seven members defending the status quo blocked that.

The current standard, designed by politicians to make petition drives almost impossible, means that the Knox Accountability drive has to get 2 1/2 times more signatures than have ever obtained in Knox County (40,000).

Physically and financially, both for the petitioners and the Election Commission, it is impossible to circulate more than two petitions to obtain 40,000 signatures.

On one score, the article is right - the amendments have been grouped. The orange petition is designed to make Commission accountable. The white petition is designed to make future Mayors and the Executive Branch accountable. Both contain ethical and structural changes based on a public outcry for accountability. The specifics come out of best practice research by UT's Baker Center for Public Policy comparing Knox County nationally to 160 similarly sized counties.

My comments now focus on the Orange Petition, the article's focus. But similar comments could be made about the White Petition.

Commissioners can presently have a conflict of interest and fully participate in the vote. Commissioners can get jobs from other branches of County government, the biggest conflict of all! Though Commission finally voted for a nepotism provision, it can be changed tomorrow because it's not in the charter. So, the ethics charter amendments are desperately needed.

The article's main concern is the proposal to change the number of Commissioners - we presently vote for 2 of 19 (district only); the proposal is to vote for 3 of 11 (one per district, 2 at large). The average size of Commissions in the 160 comparison counties was 9. Best practices for Commissions include staggered terms, and a mixture of district and at large representation. Knox County has none of those attributes. The charter change achieves all those attributes while giving the citizens more votes.

Reasonable people can differ - that is why we have elections. If bundling the ethics and structural changes together causes a no vote because someone is adamently opposed to Commission restructuring, that is the risk that is run. But, even today, all Commission needs to do to put the amendments on separately is to vote to do so.

The article's admonition to step away from the petition attacks the wrong enemy - more than 200 volunteers are having to run this petition drive because the defenders of the status quo will not let the people vote.

Simply go to and examine the research. Once educated, I am certain you will want to vote and the only way to assure that is to step up to the petitions and sign.

Rikki writes:

The status quo in Knox County government is Shakespearean farce. Term limits adopted 14 years ago will finally kick in with the August elections, after two years of chaos that included a huge slate of write-in candidates, temporary nullification of the County Charter, the Black Wednesday appointments, and months of operation under an 11-member Commission. This petition drive looks more like the next chapter in the status quo, complete with the possibility of lawsuits when Commission seats get eliminated or elected fee officers dismissed and they argue that bundling deceived voters.

As I wrote a couple months ago, the solution to the logistical problem of collecting so many signatures was not bundling unrelated items, but prioritizing. There is no reason why all these changes have to happen at once. Put the best amendment (an Inspector General) out first, get it passed, then use the credibility from that effort to advance additional reforms.

Of course, the sad fact is that despite the Baker Center study and lots of time and input, the Mayor's version of the IG position is better than the one on the petition.

BaldEagle writes:

Number 9 should get his facts straight. The County Commission conflict of interest provision does not prohibit discussion or voting on the matter, it only requires disclosure. In addition, Commission has now twice turned down a restriction on employment of Commissioners by other branches of County government. And, without the ethical provisions being a part of the charter, anything that Commission does today can be changed tomorrow. And, I am incredulous that he would suggest asking this Commission again to put these on the ballot right now. Was he not around when Commission was provided these amendments in September of 2007 and did nothing with them for 5 months? Was he not watching when under notice of a petition drive, from February through the end of May of this year, they were asked to put these issues on separately, and the minority of seven did everything possible to personally attack and block the necessary 2/3's vote.

None of us should have any problem if the new Commission is sworn in early after the August election and decides to take this back up before the deadline and puts them on the ballot separately. But to think the 200+ volunteers should stop their efforts to deal with the present cast of characters is misguided.

Rikki, I understnd your your post much better than I understood your article. You are suggesting strategic tactics for the Knox Accountability proponents. Certainly that is one way we could have gone. However, that assumes that we believe the IG proposal is more important than ethical proposals or Commission restructuring or Executive Branch restructuring. That also assumes that folks are willing to wait to 2010 or beyond to see more reforms. The quick answer is we think the whole package of reforms is important, and the best time to vote on them is November - while attention is highest and the most people will be voting.

Your concern about the legality of bundling has been answered. We were required (against our wishes) to bundle the amnendments by the State Election Commission, based on clear law. In fact, the opponents to these amendments - the Lumpy's and Scoobie's - already tried to legally challenge and found there was no basis.

This is ultimately about the most fundamental rights in American democracy - the citizens' rights to petition and vote. My problem with your article is not that you migbt disagree with a proposal or strategy. My problem is that it left the impression that you are against people voting on these issues.

Our whole interest is that people are allowed to vote, that they are fully educated, and whatever result occurs is fine. I would urge you to consider the same approach.

Rikki writes:

The State Election Commission forced you to bundle the petitions against your will? That makes no sense. Please explain.

BaldEagle writes:

Knox County One Question (KCOQ) was organized in April of last year with a 56 person Steering Committee from all over the County with one purpose - to ask the question (both in public input sessions and through Baker Center research) of "what changes, if any, do the citizens want to make to the form or structure of government in Knox County?" The Steering Committee delivered the report and recommendations that resulted from the process to each Commissioner individually on September 7, 2007, and officially went out of business.

The Steering Committee hoped that Commission would take up some of the recommendations on their own initiative to try to improve the crisis of confidence that existed at that time. The Steering Committee before it disbanded empowered Dr. Joe Johnson, former President of UT, and Kathy Hamilton, former County Finance Director under both a Republican and Democratic administration, to answer any questions that Commission had concerning the KCOQ recommendations.

When by December, the Commission had taken no steps whatsoever, except to turn down an Ethics Committee recommendation concerning the proposed restriction on employment of Commissioners by other branches of County government, Dr. Johnson and Kathy Hamilton asked to be placed on the agenda to appeal to Commission to start to take action on the recommendations. When after hours of sitting they were given 5 minutes with very little interest, in became clear that Commission would not act on its own, on either the ethical or structural recommendations, without at least the potential of a petition drive.

A core group of the original KCOQ group started the research toward a petition drive. Our first request was to the State Election Commission attorney to have one petition that had all the amendments with separate yes or no questions. The attorney, working with the Attorney General's office, determined that was not possible, but that we would instead have to group them, with each group being a yes or no question. That has subsequently been confirmed by every attorney who has researched it.

We then gave notice to Commission in January that we would start a petition drive unless they put the issues on the ballot separately. The rest of the history you know.

Rikki writes:

OK, I understand that. I wouldn't say you were forced into bundling, however. You still had the option of spreading the effort out over multiple election cycles and/or incarnations of County Commission. Basically, I think it was rude of the group to take the constraints the State E.C. placed on you and just pass them along to the voters.

RalphWiggum08 writes:

MetroPulse powers that be: Please ditch the comment sections on articles. You have your forum, let people go there & discuss things. It looks like some of the News Sentinels' more illustrious posters have made their way here. It's annoying there & it's annoying here.

BaldEagle writes:

Rikki, I'll give one more response to your last post because it is clear to me you truly want all the facts. Then I'll shut up on this to honor the Ralph Wiggum request.

You indicate that you think the reform proposals should have been spread over multiple election cycles, and it was rude not do so. How is it rude to put forward strongly believed in, well researched reform proposals at any time?

The next County election cycle would not be until 2010. If the effort waited until then, the most significant structural reforms, which have the potential to save substantial tax dollars that can be redirected to education, would not go into effect until 2014?

The common interest we all share is for this to be the best community it can possibly be, but reasonable and smart people can disagree on how all the time. If you believe the package of reforms are not needed at this time, then you certainly have every right to vote against them. But to oppose them being on the ballot is taking away from other citizens the right to have their say on what they think is best for the community.

The electorate is smart enough to understand these issues. The attention on County reform is now. The highest turnout in history will be in November. What better time to have a vote on these issues?

Regardless of what nine says, there are currently over 200 volunteers who are circulating petitions trying to get 2 1/2 times more signatures than ever obtained in Knox County. And, yes, over 100 donors - every single one disclosed - have supported contracting with a firm that gets local students to also circulate petitions. The number of volunteers is increasing every day.

The 40,000 signatures in 75 days is an almost impossible standard that exists because of last day state legislative political maneuvering (organized from Knox County - see Frank Cagle's article last week) that was designed to make citizen efforts a thing of the past. Thankfully, on the August ballot, there is a charter amendment to change the standard back to what was originally in Knox County's charter - 15% of voters in the last governor's election. County Commission could have chosen to make that provision effective immediately so that this petition drive would have to get 15,000 signatures (which it probably already has). However, instead, the effective date is 2010.

The fact that a committed group of people is even willing to try to get 40,000 signatures against these odds is something I would think Metropulse, with its progressive mindset, would want to commend instead of criticize.

wherethesundontshine writes:

RalphWiggum08 comments:

"MetroPulse powers that be: Please ditch the comment sections on articles. You have your forum, let people go there & discuss things. It looks like some of the News Sentinels' more illustrious posters have made their way here. It's annoying there & it's annoying here."

RalphWiggum08 does not believe in the first amendment to our Constitution? A first time poster does not want us to express our opinions? If it bothers you then do not read it. You don't not mind expressing your opinion with a comment. You must work at the KNS.

Sorry you feel annoyed. We will try to only post what you want to read.

Vdon08 writes:

The issue is fundamental.
Do the people of Knox County wish to exercise the right afforded through the Tennessee Supreme Court decision to establish provisions related to the form of Knox County government?
If they do wish to do that, the proposed Charter amendments represent one approach. For those who suggest that the petition process is cumbersome, and the combining of proposed amendments is difficult, that is so.
However, those who object should have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that the present County Commission, comprised of some elected and some appointed (the latter including several who were defeated by the electorate in the Primary) has chosen to block the effort to allow Knox County citizens to vote.
The County Commission failed by one vote to approve with a super-majority (13 votes versus the 10 normally required to approve an item)six of the proposed amendments. Therefore, by definition,a majority of the present County Commission approved placing the individual amendments on the ballot.
It all comes back to the fundamental question - do citizens of Knox County wish to change - after more than 200 years - some issues with regard to Knox County government?
If they do not choose to make those changes, then others may be proposed through the processes available to the public. We should not, however, choose to eliminate the right of the people to petition their government - even when some citizens believe that other citizens should not be afforded that right. (Does your zip code really determine your level of citizenship?)

RalphWiggum08 writes:

I was under the impression that Mike Mitchell thought the first amendment only applied to him.

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