franktalk (2007-41)

The Problem 4th

Frank Talk

Lack of incumbent creates a mess on Knox Commission

by Frank Cagle

During the Sunshine Law trial, it was often observed that â“the fix was inâ” when Knox County Commission filled 12 public offices by appointment Jan. 31.

Well, not exactly. If you have a proper fix, no one notices. Black Wednesday would more accurately be described as a â“semi-fix.â” Let us recall that the 4th District appointment went through 12 ballots before Lee Tramel prevailed over Scott Davis. In fact, it was this prolonged debate with frequent recesses to resolve the stalemate that tipped the public from suspicion to outrage. Had those 12 ballots not occurred, it is likely people would have shrugged and moved on.

The irony is that the Tramel appointment has been the example of a fixed process when it was about the only appointment that day that wasnâ’t a done deal before the meeting started.

It has been traditional when an opening occurs on Commission for the seat mate in the district to recommend a replacement and his colleagues, who donâ’t live in the district, have respected the choice. That is the Gentlemanâ’s Agreement â“revealedâ” in the trial. The problem on Black Wednesday was one of magnitude. There were eight Commission seats to fill.

But the real breakdown occurred because both commissioners in the 4th District were term-limited (Phil Guthe and John Schmid). There would be no angry incumbent left after the process if the two out-going Commissionersâ’ wishes were ignored. The temptation was too great for either faction on Commission to ignore. County Mayor Mike Ragsdaleâ’s faction backed Davis, and Sheriff Tim Hutchisonâ’s faction supported Tramel. Ragsdale certainly didnâ’t want Tramel because Tramel had been involved in the sheriffâ’s office investigation of Ragsdale and the Tyler Harber affair, producing a report critical of Ragsdale for hiring a political operative to a county job.

Each side was determined to either select Tramel or block him.

The no-holds-barred â“raw politicsâ” (as Law Director John Owings called it) was so intense everyone seemed to forget the public and the media were paying a lot more attention than usual.

The problem of the unrepresented 4th District doesnâ’t stop there. The district, centered in Bearden, is without representation now after Chancellor Darryl Fansler removed both appointed commissioners last week.

When Commission fills the eight empty Commission seats again, the 4th District will not have representation. Under the one-man, one-vote legal doctrine, this is a potential legal issue that could have everyone back in court.

Owings has argued the appointment process should be structured to appoint a 4th-District commissioner, then move to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so forth, swearing in each commissioner as they are appointed.

This has nightmare written all over it. Every time a commissioner is appointed it changes the nature and voting majority of Commission. It will be an irresistible temptation to start gaming the system with votes cast not for the best candidate but in order to insure votes for later appointments. The Commission making the last appointment will not resemble the Commission that made the first appointment.

Commissioner Mike Hammond also raises a good point. If the 11 members of Commission examine resumes, listen to candidates and hold hearings before the appointment process, a new member sworn in will immediately have to vote on the next commissioner without having the benefit of the selection process.

One thing that has to be avoided is appointing the four vacant countywide positions before the 4th District has representation. That would be a clear violation of the rights of people in the 4th to have a choice in the selection. Thatâ’s why Owings has proposed the commissioners be appointed in one meeting and then the other offices be appointed in a later meeting.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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