Political scandals often provoke an urge for reform, and Knox County is clearly afflicted. Last year’s Black Wednesday appointments and Sunshine Law trial left a foul taste in voters’ mouths, and anyone involved who was on the February ballot got spit out. With term limits finally in force, voters found the will to kick incumbents out of office.
The era of obstinate incumbency may have finally washed up dead on the beach, and a wave of reform is approaching. Voters may have as many as nine charter amendments facing them on the August ballot, and county legislators have introduced a bill in Nashville that would preclude another Black Wednesday. How much of this reform is necessary, and how much is there to satisfy an urge?
Recognizing a problem is easier than devising an appropriate solution, so we need to watch out for reforms that do nothing, or worse, create new problems. Legislation rooted in core principles of democracy and justice can be effective, but politics inspired by turmoil often goes astray. Our nation was eager to do something in the wake of the tragic attacks of September 2001, but without wise leaders, we have accomplished little but a sustained bleed-out of lives, dollars, and civility.
There are troubling signs suggesting the proposed changes for Knox County may be more reactionary than reasonable. The proposed charter amendments are a mixed bag of major and minor reforms, some high-minded and necessary, others dubious, and they may wind up bundled together so voters cannot adopt or reject them individually. The bill before the General Assembly seems fraught with potential for unintended consequences.
The state bill would require a special election any time a county faces two or more simultaneous appointments. Such a law would have prevented the Black Wednesday mess, so it seems like a good idea, but it is not. Special elections are costly, and simultaneous vacancies are more likely to result from a tragic accident or a tawdry scandal than from a systemic breakdown like Knox County’s protracted term-limits battle. Our Commission’s failings do not mean that every county in the state will confront misfortune and error with pee-pee breaks in the shadows.
The bill’s proponents are contemplating either raising the limit to three (or more) simultaneous vacancies or better defining the circumstances where a special election might be desirable, but what they are likely to end up with is a law that may never apply. At least they look busy. The bill would be better if it simply gave county commissions the option of calling a special election to fill vacancies.
After the Sunshine trial, several county officials wanted voters to fill the vacant seats, but Law Director John Owings and state officials claimed the county lacked the authority to call a special election. This is probably incorrect. As a charter government, Knox County gets to make its own rules. Disregard for the charter has plagued the Law Director’s office since Richard Beeler held the position, and that disregard was the prime mover behind most of the recent trouble. Chancellor Weaver declared the charter invalid, but he was overruled on appeal.
The autonomy of a charter county is a central issue in the matter of the nine proposed charter amendments. At last Monday’s meeting, commissioners doubted the legality of some of the proposals. In some cases their concerns are valid, and with the possibility of the nine amendments getting lumped onto two petitions, such concerns portend yet more court battles.
One of the proposed amendments would prohibit county employees from serving on Commission. The real problem with county employees is that their bosses use them as campaign workers, and this amendment is a misguided effort to address that issue. There is nothing wrong with school teachers or deputies seeking political office. If anything, their work experience makes them more qualified for the job. Prohibiting teachers from running for office is look-busy ethics, not real reform.
Knox County needs the wisdom to channel its outrage toward productive ends. m