The future of County Commission remains in question(s)
Wednesday, Aug. 2
May it Please the Court
Seldom, if ever, has a general election produced such clear results yet left its constituency so deeply in the dark about the future makeup of its legislative body as did the Aug. 3 election for Knox County Commission.
Incumbents won all but one of their races for reelection, but the status of eight of those incumbents, who have served two or more terms in office, won’t be known until the state Supreme Court determines whether and how the County Charter and its 12-year-old term-limits amendment apply.
“We just don’t know,” says Mike Arms, county Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s chief of staff and a former commissioner himself. “And we won’t know until the Supreme Court rules. Not until September, at best.”
What is known is that there are 11 commissioners, including six single-term holdovers and five who are new to Commission, who will be allowed to serve. If the high court rules that the term limits approved by 80 percent of the county’s voters in a 1994 referendum—but then held in abeyance under a state attorney general’s ruling—should be applied, and that eight commissioners must step aside, it will be up to those 11 remaining members to elect the successors to those vacated seats. Six votes would establish each new commissioner.
The problem, in that event, is finding what the process to nominate those successors is going to be. Will each commissioner be permitted to place a name or names in nomination? Will the nominees be determined by political party affiliation and loyalty? Will they be picked to augment the power of a six-member coalition? Or will they be picked to best represent the districts from which their term-limited predecessors were elected? Arms says the last option would be the best approach, and he points out that, in the mid-1990s, when Commission was to make an appointment to a vacant school-board seat in the 2nd District, then-Commissioner Madeline Rogero, who represented that district, objected to the nominee from the floor by suggesting that a neighborhood forum be held to allow people interested in the position to make their cases.
The League of Women Voters conducted the forum, 17 of the 19 commissioners attended, and a nominee was selected from among those who sought the post in that open forum, Rogero remembers. Would such a process be one the current Commission should consider if it is tasked with filling out its ranks? “That would be great,” Rogero says.
The “details of the Supreme Court ruling,” says newly elected Commissioner Mark Harmon, an associate professor in UT’s College of Communications, “may have more to do with determining that process than anything we might do.” That’s if the Supreme Court upholds term limits under the Knox Charter, as amended. Harmon says he believes the court will affirm the term-limits referendum, because of its Memphis ruling. “We’ll work with what’s given to us,” Harmon says.
If the election stands as it was recorded, there will be only one female member, the fewest in its 26-year history, since the old County Court was replaced by the Commission. At one point in the early 1990s, there were six women among the 19 Commission members.
“It’s unfortunate,” veteran Commissioner Wanda Moody says of the sudden dearth of women on Commission. She was defeated in the Republican primary when her campaign was interrupted by a Supreme Court decision in Memphis that held that term limits were applicable in counties with municipal charters, such as Shelby and Knox.
“I think if term limits had been established last fall, there would have been a lot more candidates who could have gotten into the races in time to conduct a full campaign, including a lot more women,” Moody says.
Rogero agrees with that assessment, although she points out that there were more women actually running for Commission this time (six) than in any election cycle she remembers. The group included some women among candidates who got into the election campaign late, following the Supreme Court surprise, and who subsequently lost.
Rogero says she feels that term limits will eventually be upheld or re-instated and that having limits in place will encourage many more candidates to run for Commission. “We’ve proved that in the city,” she says, “With term limits, lots more people are willing to come out and run, knowing there is no incumbent with that advantage. We’d see more women running then.”
In the meantime, pending the Supreme Court’s decision, the Commission will go about its regular routine business, not knowing how its membership will shake out. Diane Jordan, the 1st District Commissioner, who is the remaining woman on Commission, won’t know whether she will be term-limited out of office.
Arms, however, says no matter who is eventually seated for the next four years he believes that “Mayor Ragsdale has shown he can work with any commissioner, one on one,” and that the progress begun under the Ragsdale administration in its first term of office will continue unhindered in the second.
“We’ll play with the cards that are left on the table,” Arms says.
Wednesday, Aug. 2
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