Let the People Vote: Courthouse Office Abuses Cry for Reform, But Abolishing Elections Isn't the Answer

I have always opposed taking away the people’s right to vote and have long advocated that Tennessee elect more people to office—a state attorney general and school superintendents, for example. I still think it is a good idea to elect the department heads down at the courthouse—the so-called fee offices like trustee, county clerk, register of deeds. But it’s getting harder and harder to defend.

Stories have abounded over the years about these officeholders hiring their buddies, people holding ghost jobs, employees being told to get out and campaign for the boss or else. The abuses have been widespread and well documented.

The last trustee, Mike Lowe, is under indictment along with some of his cronies. The current trustee, John Duncan III, had employees plead out and his status is a matter of conjecture.

But I don’t think the solution is an either/or proposition. We don’t have to let these elected officials run wild, but we don’t have to make the positions appointed, either.

The root of most of the abuse in these offices is the ability of the officeholder to hire and fire at will. They are a law unto themselves within their departments. Rather than abolishing the elected officials, what if we put their offices under the county merit system? Make them define positions exactly, conduct proper hiring practices, conduct performance reviews. And fire people only for cause. We might also make it a crime for employees to campaign during office hours. We could go so far as to have a county human resource office to take applications for jobs and have the officeholders pick from a list of qualified candidates.

Okay, if their buddies and political supporters apply and are qualified, let them hire them. But if their only qualification is having been a fraternity brother, or delivering a particular voting box in the election, they would not be acceptable.

Outside contracts should be vetted by the County Finance Department and approved by County Commission.

In other words, put some controls in place to provide some supervision over what now amounts to a little kingdom in which we are depending on a benevolent king or queen to do the right thing. Absolute power is too much temptation for some people.

Most people don’t realize that the county mayor and County Commission have little control of the budgets and operations of these fee offices. They find out things after the fact. Or they read about indictments in the newspaper.

I have no doubt that things go on in the courthouse all the time that everyone knows about, talks about, and maybe even deplores (i.e. Judge Richard Baumgartner). But unless you are given some responsibility for these offices, it appears to be a live-and-let-live atmosphere.

Why elect these people at all? I think people like the fact that when they walk up to the counter in one of these offices they get fast and friendly service. I’ve always found the people at the counter to be unfailingly helpful. The boss knows he needs to ensure the public is kept happy.

Fee officeholders have also been responsive in using satellite offices to better serve the public.

There is also the idea that it is good to have an election and ratify the way things are being run in county government. Having more elected officeholders makes the system more responsive to voters. It also provides a core of experienced elected officials who might serve in another capacity. His years as county trustee made Tommy Schumpert one of the best county executives we’ve had in recent years. He certainly avoided many of the hiring and spending missteps of his successor, Mike Ragsdale.

We forget that the election of these people was a reform over a hundred years ago, when your deed down at the courthouse might be changed without your knowledge or there might be wholesale theft of county tax money. Elections provided a path to control abuse of office. They still do.

Let’s keep officials elected and accountable to the people. But the need for safeguards is readily apparent.

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