People seem happier with the operation of the Knox County Commission these days so you might wonder why there is a proposal out there to change its structure once again.
Are people happier with the present structure, or have term limits and turnover made the difference? Did people vote to change to nine district commissioners and two at-large because they think it is better, or were they voting against the 19-member commission and reacting to Black Wednesday— the day term-limited commissioners were replaced in a massive secret horse-trading session.
Getting rid of some of the 19 commissioners was an appealing idea.
Can we discern any advantages to having two at-large commissioners now, elected countywide? Has the perception of the Commission changed because of the people now serving? It is inevitable, given that the at-large commissioners have to live somewhere, that two districts will have two commissioners in residence while the other seven only have one.
It is certainly a reasonable argument that the present structure hasn’t had enough time and history to determine if it is the best system to have. But the process of changing it is so long and convoluted, it comes down to whether a vote for change would be effective in 2018 or in 2022.
County residents would vote on whether to change the at-large system to one of 15 districts in 2014. It could not take effect until 2018, because it would not be effective until the end of current commissioners’ terms. So it’s either take a vote and change in 2018 or kick it out another four years.
But the question still remains, why change it at all?
Living out east, maybe I have a different perspective. You might assume that east Knox County is East Knox County, a homogeneous largely rural part of the county. Tell that to the Carter community on one side of the Holston River and Mascot on the other. Carter versus Gibbs. What does Kodak, near the French Broad River, have in common with Corryton, the other side of the Holston and the other side of House Mountain?
Commissioner Dave Wright, who represents the 8th District, can make the case that his sprawling district of very distinct communities would be better served divided into two districts.
Other areas of the county might not be as diverse. Halls and Powell. Farragut and Cedar Bluff. Karns and Hardin Valley. But the smaller districts in geography also have more people.
Mike Hammond and Ed Shouse, the at-large commissioners, are very capable and experienced. But they would be term-limited by the time the new structure would be in place, if the voters approve it.
I generally supported the idea of reducing the Commission from the old 19 commissioners, with two commissioners in each district (except heavily populated West, which had three). But I did have a concern about reducing the power of minority and poorer districts.
In East Knoxville, two black commissioners were able to split their votes on issues and play one side against the other in order to get parity with other districts. Two of 19 is a higher percentage and has more flexibility than one of 11. It is also unlikely that any at-large commissioner will ever be elected from a black neighborhood. Thus, minority power on Commission is lessened by fewer commissioners.
Fifteen commission districts might provide more minority representation and smaller districts could focus a commissioner to pay more attention to neighborhoods.
I still think the problem with the old 19-member county commission was the lack of term limits and the entrenched decades-long tenure of some of the members. Commissioners out east or north, who never traveled west of Bearden Hill, paid little attention to the over development of west Knox County, which created traffic snarls and necessitated closing schools in Knoxville and building new schools out west.
It is entirely possible that if put to a vote, the present structure will be retained. So be it. But as long as the voters get to make the decision, and it isn’t a costly special election, where’s the harm?