franktalk (2008-05)

Metro on Ballot

Frank Talk

County Charter changes a step-by-step plan

by Frank Cagle

The Knox County-One Question batch of Charter changes seem to have one thing in common: Together they create metro government. Not that there is anything wrong with thatâ"but letâ’s be honest about it.

One change will be to reduce the size of County Commission, to provide one commissioner from each of the nine districts and have two elected county wide. That takes 19 Commissioners down to 11. It resembles the Knoxville City Council, which elects from districts and also has citywide members. (In the real world, can anybody really afford to run countywide for a part-time commission seat? Countywide is twice as big as citywide. It also makes the combination of City Council and Commission easier by reducing the number of seats.)

The amendment also abolishes the elected officeholders in the courthouse. The Trustee, Clerk, Register of Deeds, Property Assessor, Law Director and all other department directors would be appointed by the County Mayor. This also mirrors city government in that the mayor appoints his department heads. (If such a system were already in place, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale would have appointed all county department heads in addition to John Warner, Mike Arms, and Cynthia Finch.)

Should these changes be made, voters would elect a city mayor and a county mayor, City Council and County Commission. Other than the sheriff, there wouldnâ’t be any other elected officials in city and county government.

Another change would be creating an Independent Commission to eliminate duplicate functions within city and county government. This commission would study combining codes enforcement, tax collection, senior services, business licenses, parks and recreation, and solid waste management. Once this is accomplished, Knoxville/Knox County would have a metro government in all but name.

If the good government crowd continues its â“involvementâ” in the public process, we can just forget elections. In recent years we have abolished elections for utility regulators, state Supreme Court justices, and school superintendents. Dissatisfaction with the kinds of people who get elected to office leads many â“community leadersâ” to decide the best thing to do is take the decision away from the voters. It might be a better solution if some of them ran for office and served. But who wants to take a part-time position for little money and take all the grief you get from the public and the press? Well, you get the kind of people weâ’ve hadâ"those for whom government service is important and county government is â“a lifestyle.â”

If, come Tuesday, the â“wrongâ” people get elected to office, we will then have a clear choice to make. The voters wanted people the â“Gang of 500â” didnâ’t want. So the solution is to prevent the voters from making such decisions again by abolishing as many offices as possible. The other choice is to decide the voters didnâ’t want change and to just drop the whole thing.

People hate Congress, if recent polls are to be believed. Yet they love Jimmy Duncan. Knox County voters liked term limits in the abstract enough to vote a charter change. But while it was in abeyance, they continued to vote the same people back into office. Ask them if they want to prevent county employees serving on County Commission and they will say yes. But they elected Craig Leuthold, though all his campaign literature plainly said he worked for county government. The News Sentinel has endorsed Mark Jones for commissioner in the 6th District, though he makes no bones about being a county employee. (I agree with the endorsement, by the way.)

Ivan Harmon got term-limited off City Council and then got elected to County Commission. Does anyone doubt that term-limited Diane Jordan, who left County Commission, will succeed City Councilman Mark Brown when he is term-limited?

Voters have a disconnect between what they believe in the abstract and the choices they make in the real world of the voting booth.

When they speak, will you listen?

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

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