Knoxville's Mayor Mystery

If Bill Haslam is elected governor in November, somebody will have to take his seat as mayor. The intrigue has begun.

Who will be Knoxville’s next mayor?

That question came to the fore almost immediately after Mayor Bill Haslam won the Republican gubernatorial primary last week. It refers not to next fall’s city elections (although there are implications for them), but to the vacancy in the City County Building that will be created if Haslam is elected governor in November. In that case, when he takes the reins of state government in January, somebody else will have to take his seat here in Knoxville.

There are several possible scenarios, and all are being watched closely by local politicos—especially those thinking about running for the office in 2011.

Here’s what the city charter says (you can go to Section 705(A)(1) if you want to read along):

A.) When the mayor’s post becomes vacant, the vice mayor (a member of City Council) assumes the title of acting mayor. Then, within 10 days, City Council must meet to select by majority vote one of its own members to the post. This could be the vice mayor, but it doesn’t have to be. All nine Council members are eligible for consideration.

B.) If the vacancy happens with more than 10 months left before the next regular city election, Council also has to call for a special election for mayor, to be held within 90 days. As in any normal mayor’s election, if nobody gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers go on to a run-off.

C.) If the vacancy happens within 10 months of the next regular election, the interim mayor named by Council simply serves out the rest of the term.

The next city general election is set for Nov. 8, 2011. Following the math backward, the 10-month cutoff would fall on Jan. 11 (the second Tuesday of that month). If Haslam resigned then or later, the interim mayor would complete the rest of Haslam’s term. If he resigned before that date, the city would have to fill the office with a special election, and then hold the primary and regular elections as scheduled next fall.

The next governor is due to be sworn in on Jan. 15. So Haslam would have the option of remaining mayor until a few days before, then handing off to whomever Council selected, without forcing a special election. But the choice would be his, and for the moment he’s not saying anything about his inclinations. “We’re taking it one thing at a time,” says Dave Smith, Haslam’s campaign spokesman.

City Council members seem to have mixed feelings about what would be best for the city. Some, like Vice Mayor Bob Becker, at-large Councilman Chris Woodhull, Nick Pavlis of the 1st District and Daniel Brown of the 6th, see disadvantages to forcing a special election just months before the regularly scheduled voting next fall. Brown notes that holding more elections would cost the city extra money; Becker says, “You’re down to a point when you’re electing somebody who’s going to serve six to eight months.”

Pavlis says he thinks the existing Council could come to a consensus on one of its members who could effectively fill out Haslam’s term. And Woodhull worries that forcing a special election could create a strained environment. “We’ve had these little special elections,” he says, “and oftentimes they become these exercises in divisiveness which don’t really move us forward.”

On the other hand, Councilman Nick Della Volpe of the 4th District says, “It’s always better in a way to have the people choose who is going to govern them.” But, he adds, “I really haven’t thought about it yet.”

Councilwomen Marilyn Roddy and Brenda Palmer express no particular opinion, saying the decision about when to step down would be Haslam’s to make. “I absolutely do not have a preference,” says Roddy, who is “exploring the possibility” of running for mayor next year. (She has named a campaign treasurer, making her the only member of Council so far to do so.) Palmer does note that an extra set of elections might create ballot fatigue. “The voters need a little respite,” she says.

Then there is the larger question of whom Council members would select to serve as interim mayor. With Roddy already expressing interest in running next fall, and Councilman Joe Bailey not ruling it out (“I’m keeping my options,” he says), many Council members say they would prefer to name somebody who wouldn’t use the interim post to campaign for the full-time job.

“I think it would probably be better to have somebody who’s not going to run, because that would give that person a leg up on his opponents,” Brown says.

There’s another wrinkle, too: The way the city’s term limits law is written, even a few months in office would count as a mayoral term. So an interim mayor would be eligible to run only once more, which would presumably make the post less attractive to next year’s prospective candidates.

Pavlis has been mentioned in recent months as a possible mayoral candidate, but he now says he won’t be. He says he would consider serving as interim mayor, if his colleagues nominated him. “I’m open to it,” he says. “I’ve got eight-and-a-half years of experience. So we’ll see where that goes.”

Becker, who has also ruled out running next year, is also mentioned as a possible interim executive. But he waves off speculation. “At the moment, I’m still at the point of saying there’s a lot that has to happen,” he says, noting that if Haslam doesn’t win the governor’s race in November, the whole question will go away.

Other possible candidates in the mayoral field are circumspect about the interim-mayor question. Madeline Rogero, the city community development director who ran a close race against Haslam in 2003 and has said she intends to run next year, says, “I’d rather just leave it to Council and the mayor to decide.” (Rogero named her own campaign treasurer on Tuesday.)

Former Councilman Rob Frost, who says he is considering running next year, says he doubts that an appointed interim mayor with just a few months in office would even have much of an advantage going into next fall’s election. “I’m not sure if you would have much quote-unquote power of incumbency from that,” he says.

Any interim mayor would be likely to take office in the middle of the annual budget planning, and might not have a lot of opportunity to put a personal stamp on his or her tenure. Pavlis thinks that’s a good thing. “I would want that person to, number one, continue for those 10 months, not make a lot of policy or personnel changes,” he says.

Woodhull agrees. “I think that role is to provide some stability between when Haslam leaves and the citizens decide on a new mayor,” he says.

Bailey, meanwhile, offers a word of caution: A poor choice by Council could have repercussions, even during a short interim term. “You can do a lot of harm or a lot of good in one year,” he says. “All of us will look at what the interim mayor will do or not do.”

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