franktalk (2007-50)

Whoâ's in Charge?

Frank Talk

J.J. is the sheriff; everybody knows it except the Knox County Commission

by Frank Cagle

During his 16-year tenure, Sheriff Tim Hutchison was involved in numerous political battles and was often controversial. But even most of his critics will acknowledge he made the Knox County Sheriffâ’s Department into an efficient and praiseworthy law-enforcement organization. If you donâ’t believe it, ask the sheriffs in neighboring counties who call Knox County when they need a helicopter or a SWAT team or other special expertise in a crisis. Hutchison was named a national Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffâ’s Association.

When Hutchison was term-limited, he and his senior staff were faced with a decision. Who should they support to replace Hutchison?

Jimmy â“J.J.â” Jones once ran against Hutchison. When he lost the Republican primary he supported a Democrat against Hutchison in the general election. He then went to work for the Knoxville Police Department. At some point he and Hutchison reached a rapprochement and Jones came back to work in the Sheriffâ’s Department.

Leaving office, Hutchison was in a perfect position for payback. He could have gotten his staff together, called on them to support one of the other members of senior staff, like Tom Spangler or Bobby Waggoner. But Hutchison and his staff decided Jones was the best man for the job of keeping the team together and continuing the legacy they had created. It was an extraordinary decision. The strong support for Jones by his colleagues prompted the Knox County Commission to appoint him to the post last January.

When a judge voided the appointments, primarily because of the shenanigans surrounding the appointment of eight County Commissioners, the order also voided Jonesâ’ appointment as sheriff. Spangler has stepped in as acting sheriff and Jones is working in the department, in limbo.

Jones has a six-figure campaign account and no opponent in the Republican primary in February. He has no Democratic Party opponent for the general election (though Randy Tyree picked up a petition this week.) Neither Tyree nor anyone else will be able to raise any money to run against himâ"heâ’s a formidable candidate. Should the faction-ridden Rump County Commission now in power put it to a vote, Jones would be re-appointed.

Meanwhile, District Attorney General Randy Nichols has told Commission there are good and valid legal reasons to fill the office of sheriff. The deputies in the department are carrying warrant cards having sworn to serve Sheriff Jimmy â“J.J.â” Jones. There is a serious legal issue involving arrests since Jones was removed from office and it was turned over to an acting sheriff.

Spangler is a fine operations officer and is doing a good job running the department, but morale in the department is suffering. The lines of authority are confused. Everyone knows J.J. is the once and future sheriff. If you get an assignment, do you need to check with J.J., or not?

Jones has been approached about his being re-appointed, while letting the other offices remain vacant. Jones has refused, arguing that all the appointments should be made, or none of them should be made. Should he be appointed without any representation for the 4th District, the legality would be suspect. He has refused to be appointed despite having suffered a pay cut of over $70,000 by being removed from the sheriffâ’s post. Every day of delay costs him in pay and pension.

Meanwhile, over in the Trusteeâ’s office, Mike Lowe was term-limited and removed from office. His deputy, Fred Sisk, was appointed, without controversy, to replace him. He hired Lowe as his deputy. Sisk was also removed by the court decision. So the term-limited Lowe is now back in charge of the Trusteeâ’s office in an acting capacity. He is, essentially, an incumbent using the post to run for Property Assessor.

The decision to delay appointing new office holders for another three months has focused on County Commission, and some argue itâ’s no big deal to have eight vacant seats. But itâ’s not just the legislative body of the county thatâ’s affected.

Knox County Commission needs to do its job and fill the posts, as a judge has ordered them to do.

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

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