Advantages for At-Large Commissioners

Having constituents everywhere creates new players in Knox County politics

There was a time when a county commissioner traveling about the county getting involved in local disputes would be considered a meddler and politely told to butt out. The county mayor was the county-wide elected official of all the districts and looked upon as the spokesman, news source, and driver of events. But with the charter change that took effect last year, that is no longer the case.

That brings us to Mike Hammond. Since he was elected county-wide as one of two at-large commissioners, any community with a problem contains his constituents. He can go to Carter Elementary and feel the pain of frustrated parents. He can get in the middle of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center funding crisis and at once express his sympathy and promise funding, but also call for an audit to “clear the air” and appease other areas of the county.

Hammond is also chair of the County Commission and is in a position to influence Commission action.

As County Mayor Tim Burchett continues pressing his bare-bones budget, angering various constituencies, Hammond is available to express his sympathy and try to alleviate some of the pain.

On the Beck Center, Burchett left Hammond a gaping hole and Hammond moved to fill it. Burchett has done little to try to resolve the situation and Hammond has made friends in East Knoxville. He once represented West Knox County and he now lives in South Knoxville. As the budget battles continue, as they are likely to next year, Hammond will have other opportunities to appear as the voice of reason and the public official who’s sympathetic to neighborhood concerns.

If this is the beginning of the mayoral race in 2014, Hammond is winning.

Burchett has to present a budget and defend it. Hammond can pick his spots.

As I have written before, I think Burchett showed courage and did the right thing on Midway and on Carter Elementary. But he angered some pretty important people. As his budget creates antagonism among other groups around town, it is not good for his long-term interest. There is an old adage in politics: Friends come and go, enemies accumulate.

If the local economy doesn’t bounce back in the coming years, and if Burchett holds to his position on no tax increases, the budget pain will continue.

Former Mayor Mike Ragsdale was too cute by half when it came to his PR machine and his constant political calculations. His drive to the governor’s office got derailed because he went overboard in the effort—slush funds for receptions, lavish meals in Nashville, bloated staff, attacking perceived political enemies, getting involved in other people’s races.

But Ragsdale did much to drive the news agenda. In fact, can anyone remember anything that happened at one of Mayor Bill Haslam’s City Council meetings as opposed to the ascendency of county government under Ragsdale?

Burchett has gone too far in the other direction. He isn’t making the case for his positions and he is allowing his opponents to drive, what us political hacks call, “the news narrative.” There will be themes that dominate news coverage and events that drive the talk. Burchett hasn’t had control of the message for some time. He has a case to make on the Beck Center. If the county funds it, the county needs to own it and staff it. It is a treasured resource of Knoxville’s heritage, but if the materials are not organized, archived, and searchable by writers and historians, the material may as well be in someone’s attic.

The Knox County Commission has final say on the budget. Yes, there is money in the fund balance, sometimes called the Rainy Day Fund. Burchett proposes to pay down the county’s considerable debt accumulated by borrowing money to fund the sheriff’s department pension plan instead of raising taxes.

Does Knox County take the money and pay the credit card bill, or do they dip into it to satisfy (some very real and worthy) needs?

I suspect the Commission will do a little of both, greasing the squeakiest wheels. Including the Beck Center.

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