Just Do It

Commission can make a lot of changes without changing the County Charter

Knox County Commission failed to produce the two-thirds vote necessary to put most charter changes on the ballot. They refuse to “let the people vote.” The question is, why do the people need to vote? But we’ll get to that.

Commission did not put the items on the ballot because some of them said they had problems with the wording. Some of them obviously had a problem with some of the proponents of the charter amendments, viewing the leadership as elitist. Some of them don’t want to admit they just don’t like the proposals.

I have supported the idea of putting the items on the ballot, primarily because I would like to avoid the kind of frustration that occurred during the February primary. It has fostered the idea of just punishing county government, regardless of the consequences. It is obvious the Knox Charter Petition group is capitalizing on this anger to propose a wholesale restructuring of county government. The refusal to put the items on the ballot, regardless of whether there were legitimate reasons, further inflames the situation.

What can commission do to restore its credibility and avoid the awkward situation of charter amendments going on the ballot by petition chock full of changes—vote for one you get them all?

After consultation with the County Law Director, the commission might be able to vote to do the following:

—Pass a policy forbidding the county from hiring any current County Commissioner or any of their immediate family. Should any county employee or teacher run for County Commission, and the voters elect them anyway, it’s the voters choice.

—Pass an ordinance requiring the installation of a Civil Service system for all employees, with job descriptions, performance reviews, and a procedure for employees to appeal any hiring or firing for political reasons. Pay scales would be defined for each job description.

—Require that the fee offices submit a budget to County Commission for approval. If you can’t do this without a charter change, write it like you want it and put it on the ballot. It doesn’t take away the right of the people to select the officeholders.

—Pass a new job description for the county auditor, call him an Inspector General if you want, and give him the authority to instigate an investigation of any financial wrongdoing in county government. Require that a two-thirds majority of County Commission be necessary to fire the auditor. Pay him the same as now.

Commission has already approved three charter changes that will be on the ballot. One is the recall. One lowers the number of signatures required to put a charter change on the ballot. The third requires commission involvement in picking charter committee members.

If all this is accomplished, it leaves the charter petition group with the task of getting two charter changes: giving the mayor the authority to appoint elected office holders, and reducing the size of commission from 19 members to 11.

Term limits, civil service, a nepotism policy, and commission scrutiny of fee office budgets solves most every problem we have seen in county government. Most of these changes don’t require charter changes, petition drives or an election. Commission can pass as many of these as possible as county ordinances. If the law director thinks any of them requires a charter change, then write the charter change, hold public hearings, and put it on the ballot. There is no need to pay attention to the “elitist” charter petition group.

This would also allow the petition group to go to the public with two questions: Do you want to allow the mayor to appoint the fee officeholders? And do you want to reduce the size of County Commission from 19 members to 11? It would leave the petition drive exposed for what it is: an attempt to gut the power of County Commission and the traditional courthouse machine headed by the fee offices and turn virtually all the patronage and power over to the County Mayor.

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Comments » 2

Vdon08 writes:

With due respect, lots of people - hundreds of them - have specifically expressed a desire to make the changes reflected in the proposed Charter amendments related to Knox County government.
Combined with the people's right to petition (that is all, or any of the people, however characterized), those expressed wishes have not been addressed, nor even seriously considered, by the current or any previous legislative body in Knox County.
To suggest that the precise form of government designed for Knox County more than 200 years ago should remain, with no changes - no matter how innocuous, defies comprehension. Is an ethics policy or a nepotism policy too much to expect of a local government in 2008? Are we better served by more legislators rather than fewer? Is the U.S. Congress a better model than 95 percent of the local governments in the country, which tend toward fewer than more legislators?
Are "fee offices" truly the modern model for local government to which we should aspire? Fee offices which do not go through the normal budgeting process, and require no oversight by elected officials - the representatives of the people? The "fee offices" which regularly tout success in "returning" funds to the County - funds which are public dollars in the first place?
Come on. Think this through. Is providing ratification of Mayoral appointees by the County Commission and requiring that fee offices present their budgets to County Commission for approval, and providing removal authority of Mayoral appointees to the County Commission actually "gutting" the power of County Commission? Please explain how you arrive at that conclusion.
Don Parnell, Sr.

bird_dog writes:

I was with you until the last sentence, but then you probably have more information than is publicly known about the motives of the Charter Petition group...

County Commission can honor God and Charlton Heston, but is too gutless to make substantive changes that would restore confidence in elected officials. The so-called Mayor and fee-office holders have contributed to the public disgust and distrust of Knox County government.

They can hardly be any further eviscerated.

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