Talk of reforming Knox County government goes back to around 2000 with the Nine Counties, One Vision project, but things really got underway when the state Supreme Court ruled in January 2007, in Jordan vs. Knox County, that counties could restructure their executive and legislative branches in any way the majority of voters wanted. With this newfound freedom, the Knox County-One Question movement formed. Consisting of 56 people and led by the late former University of Tennessee president Joe Johnson, that group held a series of meetings around the county to ask, How should we alter the form or structure of Knox County government?
Simultaneously, UT’s Howard Baker Center for Policy began a broad assessment of Knox County government, comparing it with to 160 similar-sized governments to find best practices. One major finding? That Knox County’s ballot was too long, with 26 officials from the legislative and executive branches subject to election. The average was 10. A big part of this was County Commission: Knox County had 19 members on its Commission; the average was nine.
After discussing the Baker Center report, in September Knox County-One Question gave citizen comments and the Baker Center recommendations to the County Commission, then disbanded. According to Don Parnell, a member, the Commission then sat on the report for five months, refusing to take action. Thus, another group was created, the Knox Charter Petition group, to bundle the recommendations into two petitions—one aimed at legislative, or Commission, reforms, and another aimed at executive, or mayoral, reforms—and put them on the ballot in 2008. How this bundling should have happened and how the signatures should have been collected are both topics of contention. Yet the bottom line is that the Commission reforms largely passed while the mayoral reforms did not.