Two Stand Out

Distractions aside, restructuring county government is the real election issue

The fractious political climate on the Knox County Commission this past year is epitomized by the mess facing voters in November. The commission’s refusal to put a series of proposed charter amendments on the ballot in single, easy to understand bites will likely put two amendments on the ballot with multiple provisions.

If a voter strongly supports one of the items, it requires voting for several others as well. The petition signatures are still being counted, but if the usual rejection rate of 20 percent holds up there should be enough to get the items on the ballot.

But if you clear away the distractions, it is clear there are two issues that totally change the nature of county government: One amendment allows the county mayor to appoint what are now elected officeholders. The other reduces the size of County Commission from 19 members to 11.

This is not to say that other provisions are not important. But these issues, like nepotism, can be dealt with by ordinance or solved by the voters. (Don’t vote for county employees to be commissioners.) The two provisions that totally reshape the form of county government are the most important and it is on these two issues the matter ought to be decided.

Commissioners had several opportunities to put these provisions on the ballot, by themselves, for an up or down vote. They didn’t. Several excuses were offered. They didn’t like the petition organizers’ attitude. They asked if they were supposed to put on the ballot just any amendment brought to them—were they establishing a precedent. They raised questions about the wording of the amendments. They questioned whether the public meetings were legitimate or whether the final version of the amendments reflected the community’s real concerns.

But they could have worded the amendments any way they liked. They could have taken the suggestions and held hearings on them and gotten it done. They could have at least put on the items having to do with nepotism and conflicts of interest—the rallying cry of petition forces. Their failure to do so has only increased suspicion of county government. If the total restructuring of county government passes because people just want to vote against nepotism or conflicts of interest, commissioners have only themselves to blame.

There are a couple of provisions in the petitions that have not received very much attention.

It is often said that one amendment allows the county mayor to appoint people to the offices now held by elected officeholders: the trustee, the clerk, and the register of deeds. But that isn’t exactly true. The county mayor would have the ability to abolish any or all of these offices and restructure their duties in new departments. The trustee’s office could be abolished and folded into the county finance director’s office, for instance. The duties of all these offices continue, but there is no provision they have to be structured as they are now. The impression is given the mayor will appoint a “register of deeds” and County Commission will ratify the choice. But the county mayor doesn’t have to have a “register of deeds” as I understand this provision:

“The Mayor, subject to approval by resolution of the Commission, is entitled to structure the Executive Branch of County Government and to create or abolish major departments of County Government with each department having a Department Director and duties assigned to such department by the Mayor.”

Like Knoxville’s mayor does it.

The restructuring of commission also has a little-noticed wrinkle. In order to have staggered terms (like Knoxville’s City Council) commissioners in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th districts will be elected in 2010 for a SIX year term. The commissioners running in the 3rd, 7th, 10th, and 11th districts will be elected for a FOUR year term. (The 10th and 11th districts are county wide positions.) In the future we would have County Commission elections every two years.

If the charter provisions pass, county government will closely resemble Knoxville’s city government. It might be something the voters prefer, we’ll know in November. But instead of listening to the distractions, be very clear on the real effect of the amendments’ passing.

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

Comments » 4

bobbyperu writes:

Frank, I think you pointed out on a "Tennessee This Week" show a while back that some of the amendments contained unconstitutional provisions (e.g., term-limits on Federal officials). It appears that these have been cleaned up in their current format. Is that correct? Since the County Commission and / or Law Director failed to perform any due dilligence on these amendments, I will ask you: do you see any particular details in the current charter amendments that might be construed to be unlawful or litigious? And what happens if they do get on the ballot and there are legal ramifications? I assume that the County Commission must keep their hands off of them and if deemed legitimate the amendments would need to go on the ballot as-is. Right? I would appreciate it if you - or anyone with a good grasp of the facts - could expand on that a bit.

The reason I am asking is that I think that the County Commission dropped the ball on this (surprise, surprise), and really failed to gauge the public's anger at their actions and inactions. And secondly I am concerned that the "sausage-making" process as performed by un-elected activists and passers-by on the street corner would not ordinarily be suitable to the task.

Thanks,

sprintsnail writes:

I think it will be fascinating to see if the interests of the Knox County electorate will be served through increased efficiencies and professionalism or if County Commissioners and their partisan supporters will retain their stranglehold on political spheres of influence that promote intense factionalism, nepotism, and gridlock.

Vdon08 writes:

With due respect to one of your respondents, the Founding Fathers were "unelected activists" - some perhaps even passers-by on the street corner - and their work products have seemed to pass the test of time - or at least for the first 232 years.
Respectfully,

bobbyperu writes:

Sorry Vdon08. I did not intend to disparage anyone by referring to them as "un-elected activists" or "passers-by." Some of my closest friends, including myself, sometimes fall into one of these categories. My point was that 1) any amendment that will become part of the County Charter and re-shape our government structure should be thoroughly vetted before put to a vote in order to avoid unintended consequences and legal challenges and repurcussions down the road; 2) that the County Commission has the resources and, as our representatives, should have been a first step in that process, which they carelessly - and arrogantly - declined as noted in the above article; and 3) as brilliant as your average Knoxville voter may be, I question whether they have the resources, time, inclination, or available information - as our Founding Fathers did - to properly grasp all of the implications of a single amendment, much less multiple ones.

I certainly do not. That is why I asked the question concerning legal implications of the amendments. Challenge to laws - even wars - have come about by the mis-placed comma. I agree with the intent of many of these amendments, but I would have liked to have seen more public debate. Unfortunately, they are now in stone. They cannot be changed or re-worded if unforeseen problems are identified. And my question has not been answered. I guess I will close my eyes and vote.

Peace,

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