Against the Odds

Knox Accountability has kicked off its petition drive, but it still faces some obstacles—money, time, and maybe county law itself

If the deadline for the Knox Charter petitions were today, Knox Accountability would need just over 36,000 signatures on each of its two petitions to get its seven proposed amendments on the November ballot. In accordance with state law, the group needs to get 15 percent of the total number of registered voters in the county to sign its petition for it to make it on the ballot.

But the group will probably need many more than that 36,000 for its actual deadline of Sept. 2. With an upcoming presidential election, Knox Accountability member Brad Hill is expecting a few more county residents to register by that time. There are now 240,926 names on the county's list of registered voters.

"We're shooting for 40,000 [signatures]. That's our goal," says Hill.

That's 40,000 per petition, of course. There are two petitions, the "White Petition"—which contains the proposed amendments that relate to County Commission—and the "Orange Petition"—which contains the amendments that relate to the County Mayor's office. The charter changes include amendments banning nepotism, shrinking the size of commission from 19 to 11, and changing four elected county positions into mayoral appointments, among others, all with the aim of increasing efficiency and accountability in the government.

It's a daunting task, and an expensive one. The petition drive was approved by the Knox County Election Commission on June 20. That gave Knox Accountability just 75 days to get those 80,000 signatures, at an average rate of 1,066.66 per day. Now there are just 68 days left. Knox Accountability's Gary Drinnen says that, while the group hasn't counted yet, he thinks it has about 3,000 signatures so far.

If the law were still the same as it was 15 years ago, of course, they'd only need 18,376 signatures for each petition, 15 percent of the total number of Knox County residents who did vote in the last gubernatorial election (122,504). The law was changed by the state in 1997.

"Nobody has ever done this since they changed that law," he says.

There is a county ballot initiative to change back to the old law on the August ballot, but it wouldn't go into effect until after the group's deadline.

Knox Accountability, which claims nearly 200 volunteers in its ranks, has hired a Washington-state-based company that specializes in gathering petition signatures, Citizens Solutions. The company charges $1.65 per verifiable signature, so assuming it, rather than volunteers, collects all 80,000, it would cost the group $132,000.

But Drinnen says that isn't going to be the case.

"I just handed out 198 volunteer packets," Drinnen says. "That's 6,000 signature lines that are going to be filled by next week."

Then, of course, there's the cost to the county. If Knox Accountability reaches its goal, the signatures will still have to be verified by the Knox County Election Commission at a rate of $1 apiece. Hill says that cost to the county's taxpayers upsets him and could have been avoided had commission voted to move the amendments to the ballot in its April 28 meeting.

"That wouldn't have cost taxpayers a thing," he says.

Cost, both to the group and to the public, says Hill, is why the group is going with two petitions rather than seven, one for each proposed amendment, even though it meant having to group them together and possibly turning off voters who, for example, would like to see an anti-nepotism policy but don't want commission shrunk from 19 to 11 members. Verifying 40,000 signatures on each of seven separate petitions would cost the county $280,000, and could cost the group as much as $462,000.

One of the amendments being proposed by the organization is to have a county policy barring nepotism in county employment.

Here's the exact language of the amendment:

"No elected or appointed official or employee of Knox County shall advocate, recommend, supervise, manage or cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer, or advancement of his or her relative to an office or position of employment within the Knox County government."

In its Monday meeting, commission approved moving forward a measure to institute strictly merit-based civil-service protections to county employment. But Hill says that's "too little, too late."

"My favorite part of that story in the News-Sentinel, turn to page B7: ‘The civil service system would not cover employees of the Sheriff's Office or the school system,'" Hill says.

Of the approximately 2,500 people employed by Knox County and who are overseen by commission and the mayor's office, over 1,000 work for the Sheriff's office, according to officials from the Knox County Department of Human Resources. Then there are the schools, a separate office overseen by the Knox County Board of Education. According to the Knox County Schools Human Resources website, there are more than 4,400 certified personnel in the school system.

"So a majority of the county's employees wouldn't be under civil service protections," says Hill.

But Commissioner Elaine Davis says that both of those departments have enough existing protections to guard against nepotism and cronyism.

"The Sheriff's Office already has its own program," she says. "For the schools, you have the educational certification system already in place, which is entirely merit-based."

Davis says that isn't the only place where the group has been short-sighted. Another one of the amendments deals with changing several elected positions—County Clerk, Trustee, Register of Deeds and Law Director—to mayoral appointments. It has received some criticism because it gives more power to the mayor.

"This is actually about accountability," says Hill. "Each of those positions will have to go up for a vote before County Commission, and the mayor will have to defend his choices." And, he adds, it will stop any potential problems with those position-holders using their offices and staff members to campaign.

Davis says that there's another problem, though.

"Sure, they have to go before commission to be hired," she says. "But if the mayor wants to fire one of them, he'll be able to do that for any reason he wants entirely on his own."

She says that "every single one of those amendments has a serious legal flaw" that will conflict with the rest of the charter.

One example she gave involved an amendment to shrink the size of County Commission from 19 to 11, wherein voters would vote for one, rather than two, representatives from each district and two-at-large.

"‘Tank' Strickland asked the charter petition group if they had contacted the Department of Justice to see if shrinking the size of commission was even legal," she says. "They hadn't. They never did. If these changes go through, we could have some major inconsistencies in our charter."