Primary Focus: County Commission

Sort of Starting Over

This year marks a seismic shift for Knox County Commission: The body's being consolidated from 19 members to 11, with one commissioner elected from each of nine districts and two elected county-wide.

There have been some herculean efforts to simplify the saga of how Knox County arrived at this point, a process that includes lawsuits, citizen groups disbanding and reforming, orange-and-white petitions, and a Black Wednesday. Suffice to say that a state Supreme Court decision in 2007 imposed term limits on Commission while also giving Knox County citizens the opportunity to reform their government in any way they saw fit. This year marks the first county elections since a reform petition passed.

With consolidation, county government will shrink to something more closely resembling City Council, although with key differences. For individual voters, probably the biggest takeaway is that they now have to keep track of only one district representative instead of two, and therefore can hold one person accountable for what does or does not get done in their own district.

(Sidebar: How Did We Get Here?)

Of course, the vast majority of commissioners interviewed for this story said they were generally against the change. Their arguments boil down to essentially three concerns: One representative per district means too much work for them; there will be less representation for those from outlying, rural districts; and wealthy West Knoxvillians will gain even more influence as the at-large members will likely come from their area, where money and population are concentrated.

Don Parnell, who worked to pass the reforms with the Knox Charter Petition group, doesn't buy any of these arguments. With regard to more work for commissioners, he points out that elected officials at the state and federal level have many more constituents to represent. (Also, if workload's a concern, there's always the option of not running for County Commission.) As far as less representation, he says that each voter can now vote for three out of 11 members—one from their own district and two at-large—rather than two of 19. And as for West Knoxville expanding its influence, Parnell notes the county mayor is also elected county-wide, and that of the past three, only one—Mike Ragsdale—has come from West Knoxville.

Lisa Starbuck, a former member of the reform movement, disagrees. She says the structure now in place violates federal election laws because the two at-large commissioners, despite representing the entire county, will still have one vote each, the same as those representing single districts. She thinks all commissioners should run district-wide in primaries and county-wide in the general elections, as is done on City Council.

She also thinks the consolidation makes it easier for monied interests to buy votes, since they now need sway only six votes rather than 10 for a majority. And Starbuck says the two representatives elected county-wide will require a great deal of money to campaign, likely favoring West Knoxville interests, especially developers, at the expense of rural communities and sustainable development. "I guess we'll see how that plays out in the Bud Armstrong/Ed Shouse race, because that's basically what's happening," Starbuck says.

Of the five candidates running for the two at-large seats, two are from West Knoxville—Mike Hammond, the Republican nominee for the 10th, and Ed Shouse, running for the Republican nomination in the 11th.

More broadly, the maximum number of non-incumbent candidates who could serve in the next Commission is seven—nearly half of whom are running as independents. The number of incumbent commissioners running is twice that, 14, with four of those running in uncontested districts. Because of the high number of incumbents running, the larger impact of the new structure on elections probably won't be felt until the next cycle, when some newcomers run county-wide.

In any case, it's not clear that dust has settled on the structure of Commission. Last week, a judge threw out a provision of the charter amendments that said county employees couldn't run for office, and former lawmaker Pete Drew has said he will file a complaint in federal court that challenges the new structure.

Yet for voters' purposes, this is where we stand, so here's a look at the primary races—all of them Republicans, as Democrats have no contested primaries—you'll be voting for on or before May 4.

The 7th District: Musical Chairs

One of two primaries with current commissioners vying for one seat, the 7th has three candidates: Commissioners Michele Carringer and Larry Smith, and newcomer Lillian Williams.

Insurance salesman and community-member extraordinaire Smith, 56, says he's running to "restore integrity" to the Commission and because he knows the community better than his competition.

Carringer, 48, was appointed to replace ousted commissioner Scott Moore. She says Smith is a glad-hander who's more interested in photo opportunities than working for the people of her district, and that the district needs someone who can work full-time on its issues. With commission consolidation, her last point has become a common refrain from candidates who can claim it.

Lillian Williams, 62, is a newcomer, and has said she wants to focus on cutting the county's financial obligations. She did not return calls for comment.

The 8th District: The Wright Bias

Dave Wright, a retired AT&T manager, was appointed to Commission to fill out a term following Black Wednesday. He says his experience working on the budget, and the fact that he's retired and can devote more time to Knox County's business, makes him more qualified than his opponent, Duane Bias. Bias is a project manager at Y-12, where he's worked for nearly 25 years, and says he wants to address the disparity between East Knox County schools and the rest of the county. He acknowledges that county commissioners can't make school budget decisions—that's left to the school board—but he says they can influence them. He also wants to address storm water runoff from developers.

The 9th District: No Love Lost

In the other contest pitting two current commissioners against each another in their own district, the race for South Knox County's 9th is one of the uglier—and therefore more interesting—to watch.

"A rat in the barn" is how Mike Brown, a 69-year-old retired insurance agent, describes his 71-year-old colleague and opponent, Paul Pinkston. "He knows where the cats play," Brown elaborates, accusing Pinkston of belonging to the good-old-boy network that was so openly displayed during the events of Black Wednesday. "There's still a lot of this old politics around, and I think my opponent's part of it," Brown says.

Pinkston, who worked in auto sales, took over his late brother Howard Pinkston's seat in 2004, then ran in 2006. He faces a lawsuit that seeks to dismiss his candidacy for violating term limits, which allow only two terms. Pinkston argues that because his first term was a partial one, it didn't count, and that he's being singled out by agents of his opponent and by those who want to keep him from exposing corruption in county government. "This is to try to keep people from voting for me," Pinkston says. He is also facing a jury trial on charges of perjury stemming from Black Wednesday in a case that was previously ruled by a judge in his favor.

Both men say they want to increase tourism to historic sites in their district, and say they'll do what they can to mitigate the effects of the Henley Street Bridge closing, scheduled to begin in 2011 and last three years.

The 11th District: ‘W.'

Current Commissioners Bud Armstrong and Ed Shouse, both 59, square off in the Republican primary for the 11th, one of the two at-large seats newly up for grabs. Their race is worth watching for a couple of reasons: Two sitting commissioners from different districts—Armstrong from the 8th, Shouse from the 4th—are battling for a seat that requires the entire county's support; and Armstrong hails from the rural east while Shouse is from West Knoxville.

While the county seat is new, this won't be the first time Shouse has sought support outside the 4th district, where he now serves. As a city councilman for from 1983 to 2003, he ran multiple times for an at-large seat on the Council, and says this uniquely qualifies him to run for the 11th. But he still has mixed feelings about the reform. "I think it will be a much bigger burden on the district people," Shouse says.

Armstrong, who holds masters, Ph.D. and law degrees, and who worked for TVA for many years, says his varied background makes him most qualified for the position. "I understand finance, I think, a little bit better than my opponent does," Armstrong says. He seems to be the more partisan of the two, criticizing Shouse for supporting Democrat Thomas "Tank" Strickland's bid for Commission chairman, and for leaving his current seat in the 4th to incumbent Democrat Finbarr Saunders. Armstrong says he's a social and fiscal conservative and would vote for and appoint people of that philosophy. Shouse says that while he's a Republican, "I view more the issue and the person, instead of the party line. And [Armstrong] is straight down the party line."

As to his scarlet W emblazoned on his chest—for West—Shouse says he can't help where he lives, and that his home in Bearden is demographically at the center of the county.