One Question, Lots of Answers

The recommendations of a citizen panel create controversy

One Question, Lots of Answers

The recommendations of a citizen panel create controversy

T

City Beat

The exercise in assimilating and converting public opinion and academic expertise into recommendations for reforming Knox County government has produced a set of proposals that are appealing to a broad set of citizens and offensive to others.

Knox County-One Questionâ’s final report included the ideas of people who attended a series of workshops organized by the 53-member steering committee headed by former UT President Joe Johnson. The citizensâ’ thoughts were augmented by a compilation of best practices in local government as developed by the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at UT.

Prominent among the recommendations was a series of Knox County Ethics Code amendments that would prohibit any Knox County employee from serving in an elected public office in the county and would address the current prevalence of nepotism in county government by stating: â“No elected official or employee may advocate, recommend, supervise, manage, or cause the employment, appointment, promotion, transfer or advancement of a relative to a position of employment within Knox County government.â”

Those code revisions were the product of public outrage that manifested itself in the workshops, says Johnson, who says controlling conflicts of interest and nepotism could be the first and perhaps easiest county responses to the groupâ’s recommendations. The report itself points out that public trust in county government â“has eroded to the point of crisisâ” and that complaints about nepotism, employment of commissioners by other branches of county government and â“conflicts of interest involving all branchesâ” were the most common concerns raised in the public meetings. Those issues could be addressed by Commission in the short range without resorting to a referendum, Johnson says, and should be, if any semblance of confidence is to be restored in the countyâ’s government.

â“Long-range,â” Johnson says, â“reducing the number of elected officials and making the mayor more responsible for county services, with the County Commission overseeing the mayorâ’s actionsâ” would be the most important of the proposals to follow through on, although that would require amending the countyâ’s home-rule Charter in a voter referendum.

The time was ripe for the organization to form and ask its one question: â“What changes, if any, do the citizens want to make in the form or structure of government in Knox County?â”

Commissionâ’s handling of its appointments on Jan. 31, 2007 in response to the state Supreme Courtâ’s ruling to uphold term limits for most county office-holders raised sand among the voters, who saw political back-scratching and deals being cut outside the public purview as evidence that the Commission majority paid no heed to the idea of citizen involvement in procuring replacements.

The heaviest of the proposals in the One Question report is item B., labeled, â“Amend the Knox County Charter to make government more cost effective, accountable and responsive by:

â“1. Restructuring County Commission beginning with the election of 2010 by reducing the size from 19 to 11, with one member each elected from nine districts and two elected countywide; by elections that are nonpartisan; by terms being staggered; and by electing both the County Commission and School Board from districts that are aligned to have the same geographical boundaries.

â“2. Restructuring the Executive Branch beginning with the election of 2010 so that the newly elected Mayor appoints and is held accountable for the Trustee, Register of Deeds, Property Assessor, Law Director, and all other department directors; with checks and balances provided by giving the Commission the power to advise on the appointments, approve the appointees (by majority vote), and remove any appointee for misconduct (by two-thirds vote).

â“3. Establishing an Independent Office of Inspector General with the responsibility of conducting audits and reviews of all offices of Knox County government to recommend how to improve costs, efficiency, and citizen responsiveness, and to expose waste, fraud and abuse. This new office would be a stronger and more independent replacement for the current Office of Internal Audit.â”

The report provides a lengthy rationale for those recommendations, based on the best practices turned up by the Baker center and on the groupâ’s conclusion that the executive branch structure is â“a remnant of the frontier era,â” in place since the 1790s, and that the â“elected administrative functions create unnecessary separate fiefdoms that increase costs, inefficiency and the potential for nepotism and political patronage.â” Changing those offices from elected to appointed would save millions of dollars, the report suggests.

Commissioner Frank Leuthold, who was retired from Commission after serving for two decades but was appointed to hold a seat in January, says heâ’s not running for office again, but has strong opinions against some of the recommendations.

â“Removing the elected offices,â” he says, â“would create a strong executive, weak legislative bodyâ” at a point where the executiveâ’s leadership is under vigorous questioning in the light of spending scandals.

The fee offices, Leuthold says, perform state functions. â“Especially the Clerkâ’s and Assessorâ’s Offices,â” he says. â“Would you like the person responsible for setting the tax rate also responsible for assessing your property?â”

Leuthold also opposes reducing the size of the legislative body, which he says would concentrate legislative authority into a few hands, and believes that making elections nonpartisan would favor candidates â“who can command the biggest bucksâ” if party organizations werenâ’t around to raise campaign money on a more even-handed basis. Likewise, making any Commission seats countywide would be cost-prohibitive, Leuthold says, because running for countywide office requires a $250,000 campaign chest.

The creation of an independent office of Inspector General is a good idea, though, in Leutholdâ’s opinion, if it can be given the authority to conduct investigative work and the clout to see its investigations though to good effect.

As to the ethical conflict and anti-nepotism recommendations, Leuthold, whose son Craig is a commissioner who holds a county job at the same time, is non-committal. He says that state law provides that county employees can hold office on legislative bodies. â“I donâ’t know how theyâ’ll get around that,â” he says.

Johnson, who says there is â“nothing in the report that I would oppose. I voted for [all the recommendations],â” also says that the steering committee voted unanimously for the report.

One potential sticking point on the proposal to prohibit county employees from running for county office, he says, arose when the school system came up. â“We had some discussion of exempting the school system or the teachers, but we decided against that. They are county employees, and we decided that no county employee should hold elective office.â”

The report has generated praise and grumblings in and out of government circles, but the rough consensus on Commission seems to favor ignoring most of the recommendations. â“They handed it to us, sort of like, do these things or else,â” Leuthold says, and itâ’s his opinion that neither the mayor nor Commission will initiate a referendum, which would then be left up to a voter petition requiring thousands of signatures. â“Weâ’ll see,â” Leuthold says. â" Barry Henderson

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