It’s hard to imagine a tougher set of circumstances than those under which Joe Jarret became Knox County law director two years ago. Jarret’s predecessor, Bill Lockett, had been charged with embezzlement within a year after his election to the post in 2008 and selection of Jarret as his deputy.
Spurning County Commission’s call for his resignation, Lockett clung to office until a plea bargain admission of a felony forced him out in April 2010. But commissioners wanted nothing to do with him after he’d been charged and insisted on representation by Jarret from that point on.
During the awkward months that followed, Jarret gained Commission’s confidence with his rulings and advice on the array of substantive and procedural issues that arise at that body’s monthly meetings and otherwise. So when Lockett did resign, Commission unanimously selected Jarret to serve as law director on an appointed basis until the 2012 election.
It was fortuitous to the point of being providential that someone with Jarret’s experience and command of what’s required of a local government law director was on hand to pick up when Lockett had his downfall. From 2001 to 2007, Jarret had been serving with distinction as law director of Polk County, Fla. But at the end of that year, he opted to leave that post at age 54 and move to Knoxville without a job. His explanation is that he and his wife, who are both avid hikers, had fallen in love with this area during many vacation visits and wanted to make it home. He had never met Lockett until he applied for and was named chief deputy.
The job of law director is more complicated in Knox County than most places because the director represents not only County Commission and the mayor, but also all of the county’s other independently elected officials including the Board of Education, the county clerk, the property assessor, the register of deeds, the sheriff, and the trustee. Needless to say, their interests don’t always coincide, but they can only retain separate legal counsel if the law director determines there’s a conflict.
For the most part, though, the role demands a mastery of the same broad range of issues that are common to all local governments. These encompass federal and state constitutional and statutory issues, local charters, and ordinances, and how all of them interact. On top of that, the public sector is subject to much the same legal framework as the private sector governing contracts, torts, and litigation of all types. And the law director is also expected to be a parliamentarian who keeps the proceedings of its legislative body on track.
In addition to getting high marks from just about all county commissioners for his handling of all these matters, Jarret has won the praise of County Mayor Tim Burchett, who says “Joe Jarret has been one of my pleasant surprises.” Likening his obligatory representation of multiple officeholders to “being on the razor’s edge,” the mayor goes on to credit him with “doing a very good job of keeping clear of the old boy network.”
Where Jarret lacks experience is in the political realm, particularly in running for public office. Knox County is one of the very few places in the country that has an elected law director, and it’s one of two county offices (the other being property assessor) for which an election will be held this year. Since no Democrats are running, the race will be decided in the March 6 Republican primary for which early voting starts on Feb. 15.
While insisting that “I’m a lawyer, not a politician,” Jarret is running to keep his post. But he wouldn’t appear to have nearly as strong a political base as his opponent, Richard “Bud” Armstrong. Armstrong is a former county commissioner from East Knox County who lost out in a bid for one of Commission’s two at-large seats in 2010 but has the backing of just about all of the county’s GOP party stalwarts.
When it comes to legal qualifications, though, Armstrong’s advantage dissipates. At age 61, he’s only been practicing law for three years after graduating in 2008 from non-accredited Nashville School of Law—a night school to which he commuted two evenings a week for four years. His practice is mainly in the area of juvenile law and estate work—two areas that don’t appear to have much relevance to the work of the law director.
It would be tempting to dismiss Armstrong as the “old boy network’s” candidate, but that would be unfair to him. Before becoming a lawyer, he spent 30 years at TVA in a variety of posts primarily concerned with environmental compliance, on the one hand, and education and workforce development on the other. So he’s conversant with “the alphabet soup of environmental laws” to which TVA was subject and with laws dealing with the impact of the ingress and egress of federal employees on communities and their school systems. Academically, he boasts a Ph.D. from Columbia Teachers College where he did his doctoral dissertation on the role of the community college in economic development.
Armstrong asserts that “I have the knowledge, I have the skills and the experience to be the best Knox County law director.” And to accentuate the fact he’s lived here all his life while Jarret is a relative newcomer, he says “I love the people of Knox County, care deeply for the people of Knox County, and I want to help them achieve their goals... and I can do that by providing the legal direction of our body politic.”
All of that rhetoric may resonate well with voters. But I have reason to believe that while they won’t say so publicly, most county commissioners privately share my view that Jarret is better qualified for the position.