editorial (2007-03)

Give Us County Caretakers

Leave a special election open, with no incumbency advantages

Give Us County Caretakers

The state Supreme Court, which has validated the Knox County Charter and its term-limits amendment, could not have ruled any other way and retained the respect of the public. Praise be, the court had the collective wisdom and good sense to remain respectable.

To have tossed out the Charter and its term-limits provision on the basis of any legal technicalities, as Knox Chancellor John Weaver attempted to do, would have resulted in unnecessary chaos in this county’s government.

The ruling last Friday, based on an opinion written by East Tennessee’s newest member of the High Court, Justice Gary Wade, has set the stage for governmental continuity. It relied on the results of voter referenda and state law as the determining factors on how county government has been established and should proceed. It can’t be appealed at the state level and should not be appealed to the federal courts. Further appeal would be an unconscionable affront to county voters.

Details yet to be worked out include the method and timing of the replacement of the eight commissioners and four county office-holders who should have been term-limited out of office years ago, were it not for reliance on a faulty opinion by the state attorney general’s office.

It seems improbable now that the attorney general’s opinion went unchallenged for 12 years or that the 16-year-old municipal Charter itself would be called into question. But the likelihood that the Charter and term limits would prevail was so strong that better preparations could have been made for fulfilling the succession requirements that are now placed on the County Commission. But here we are, and here’s what should come next.

Under Wade’s order, approved unanimously by the justices, state law dictates that commissioners must appoint the successors to both the Commission seats and the offices of sheriff, register of deeds, trustee and county clerk.

Negotiations are underway to determine, in the absence of legal precedent, whether the commissioners who are to be relieved of their posts should participate in the selection of their interim successors and the four office-holders.

Those to leave when their replacements are determined may have a say in that selection process, and that is not unacceptable. We believe, however, that once the successor candidates are nominated, they should be vetted in a public forum to assure us of their qualifications. Such a process should consume not more than a few weeks.

It would be vastly preferable that the nominees be committed to serve on a limited basis, with no intention of running for a full term in the post. The same is true in the case of the four constitutional offices. Caretaker appointees who would not run for the offices would assure an open election, with no candidates having the advantage of incumbency.

A primary election no more than a year away—much sooner if possible—would be the best option for securing the candidates most palatable to the voters, more than 80 percent of whom voted for term limits in the first place.

The irony attaching to the past reelection of commissioners and office-holders who should have been previously term-limited out of office was not lost on the Supreme Court. Justice Wade, however, saw the court’s role as ruling on the de facto nature of the charter form of government and on the legality of the term-limits amendment, not on any implications drawn from irony.

If the voters of Knox County wish in the future to rescind term limits, they are free to do so through another Charter amendment submitted to referendum. There is a prescribed way to get such a referendum item placed on the county ballot.

Meantime, the county’s legislative body and its officeholders are beholden to the voters, not to themselves, their colleagues or their friends.

There is no crisis, as there might have been had the Supreme Court sided with Chancellor Weaver. There is only the need for continuity to be maintained in an orderly fashion. That’s easier than some would make it out to be.

The constitutional offices will be run just fine by the deputies and assistants who run them anyway, regardless of who is named the figurehead, and Commission duties can by carried out by any reasonably intelligent and public-service-conscious persons.

Leave the final selections to the ballot box in a special election, so that cronyism and political back-scratching don’t figure into the appointments, and the entire county will be better off.