editorial (2007-41)

Defer to Voters on the 'Hows'


Referendum drives are good signs for democracy

Give us a way to recall county officeholders, as the Knox County Charter makes no provision for it. There should be a process for recalling county commissioners or elected fee-officeholders when the circumstances warrant such drastic action.

An incipient petition drive is underway to get such a provision in force by amending the Charter through a voter referendum, such as the one that put the home-rule Charter in effect back in 1990. Petitioning is a tedious affair, requiring the signatures of about 37,000 voters, whose voter registrations must be verified.

County Commission can also put such a Charter amendment to referendum by a two-thirds vote, and this Commission, or the one that will sit when the eight vacant positions are filled, should do just that. It is the current county government that got voters thinking about the recall idea, and even though neither the sitting commissioners, the mayor, or the fee-officeholders have been proven to have done anything that would support a likely recall by county voters, the option should be there.

A petition may be required, though, given the likelihood that a Commission majority may fear a recall effort, and we wish those who are rounding up signatures every success. A separate petition drive to get some of the recommendations of the citizensâ’ group Knox County - One Question on next August's general election ballot is also in the planning stages and it, too, should be put to the voters, particularly on the questions of reducing the size of Commission from 19 to 11 members and setting in place an Office of Inspector General to review and audit all county offices and probe ethics complaints.

The present movement in favor of a special election to fill the Commission vacancies and the four fee offices is a worthy sentiment, but it was nixed when it might have made a difference, before the appointments that have now been struck down as illegal by a Knox Chancery Court.

As it stands, a special election appears unlikely and perhaps redundant, since the offices are open to primary election voters next February anyway. More important than a special-election gesture is the concept that the 12 county vacancies should be filled with caretakers, who will assure the sitting commissioners that they wonâ’t seek election as incumbents, with the attendant advantages, and will leave the seats entirely open to the electorate.

Although we cringe at the idea that legislative questions should be subject to referenda, à la the California system of ballot propositions for nearly every significant legislative action, we do support the idea of petitioning for referendum questions on the recall provisions and the issues raised by Knox County - One Question. They reflect how the county is to be governed, not what the government shall do with its powers. And that's the way it should be, if we could just convince enough eligible voters to go to the polls. Maybe this coming Februaryâ’s primary and next Augustâ’s general election will attract sufficient attention to provoke a county voter turnout of 50 percent. Given the apathy in recent elections, that would be a triumph in local democracy.

State Street Lot: What a Bum Deal

Knox County commissioners recently decided to keep the county's property interest in the vacant State Street siteâ"once proposed for a public safety complex, then for a city transit centerâ"intact. The rationale, voiced prominently by then-Commissioner Frank Leuthold, whose appointment has since been rescinded, was that the massive, underused parking lot may be of some use to the county later.

Meanwhile, weâ’re in the middle of a downtown property boom that may not go on forever. The idea of maintaining a surface parking on valuable property is pretty dopey, even if the lot were well used. Itâ’s not. Last Saturday's UT home football game crowd was looking for parking opportunities all over downtown, yet the State Street lot was empty, save for five or six cars. The misuse of that site has been dramatic since it was acquired and cleared.

The mayor and commissioners, whoever they may be in the coming weeks, ought to get off the pot on the State Street site and seek some productive private or public development while the downtown market is hot.


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