Everyone knows eight is enough, but the Knox Charter Petition wants nine amendments to the county charter. One more and they would have a Bill of Rights!
Unfortunately, none of the proposed amendments is as vital or high-minded as those famous amendments. It’s rinky-dink stuff like how many commissioners the county should have and whether teachers can run for office. Really, only one of the amendments is worthwhile: the one lowering the signature requirement for petitions.
Currently, the charter demands more than 30,000 valid signatures on a petition, 15 percent of the total number of registered voters in the county. The Founding Fathers used petitions while throwing off the yoke of England, and they enshrined the right to petition the government in the Constitution. The Knox County Charter says we have that right as long as we run our cause past every sixth person from Halls to Kimberlin Heights to Virtue for their approval first.
An arbitrary minimum on the number of signatures on a petition makes sense. It can weed out less-than-serious proposals and keep the government from wasting time with marginal matters; but the current requirement goes far beyond that, to the point of being prohibitive. It is not reasonable to ask citizens to gather that many signatures nor to ask the Election Commission to validate such a mound of scribble.
Any cause with enough gravity to accrue 30,000 signatures is far too popular for elected officials to ignore. Acrimony over the 2004 anti-wheel tax referendum and the subsequent threat of a property tax increase lit a fire of discontentment in county voters, and the Black Wednesday appointment process fanned the outrage into the overthrow voters registered on Feb. 5. That signature threshold is not a measure of the validity of a petition; it is a gauge of rebellion.
Things should not have to get that bad for the county to take its citizens seriously, and lowering the signature requirement would make county officials more responsive.
There are too many amendments up for consideration right now. It will be difficult to discuss the merits of individual proposals without confusion, and the late-night session commission had to endure at its last meeting is testimony to the fact that we are biting off too much at once. Petition leaders are considering lumping the amendments onto two petitions so their signature gathering is more manageable, but this promises yet more constraints on the already unwieldy process.
Knox Charter Petition should have prioritized their efforts instead of throwing all nine amendments at the voters at once, and County Commission now has the opportunity to do that for them. The commission should put the signature-lowering amendment on the ballot, but discard the rest. This would empower citizens and give petition leaders a chance to regroup, focus their efforts, and clean up language that has made some of the amendments problematic. None of their proposals are urgent enough that they cannot wait until the next voting cycle, by which time commission will be restored to a fully elected body.
“Let the people decide” is a cop-out lazy commissioners and pundits are using to avoid taking a stance on the various proposals. A commissioner’s job is to make decisions for the people who entrusted him or her with the office. Commissioners should muster the courage to reject amendments that are ill-formed or misguided, saving their constituents the bother of having to do it themselves.
If their interest in the will of the people is more than rhetoric, lowering the prohibitive signature requirement for citizen petitions shows much more respect than just passing along a mess of amendments for voters to sort out.