Government Watchdogs

Local groups find plenty of reason to growl at County Commission

Feature Story

by Barry Henderson

"There's a lot of interestâ"more than I can ever rememberâ"in local government, especially county government,â” says former Knox County Executive Tommy Schumpert. It may be an understatement.

The county's government has been in turmoil since a state Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County last year validated term limits there. The immediate upshot was that Knox County's overwhelming referendum victory for term limits was likely valid as well. Two-term limits had languished unenforced under a vague and questionable state Attorney General's opinion that the results of the referendum were improperly filed with the state. The opinion wasn't challenged in court, and it stood for more than 12 years until it became the central point of 2006 suits and countersuits.

The term limits were ultimately called into play last January by the state Supreme Court, ruling that county voters have a right to limit the terms of elected county officials and to shape their own government.

Then a set of Jan. 31 Knox County Commission appointments to fill out its own ranks and replace longtime holders of the county's fee offices evoked wide controversy that is yet to die down. The Commission majority appointed a commissioner's son, a commissioner's father, a commissioner's wife and the Commisssion chairman's former campaign manager to fill four of the eight open seats. A term-limited member of Commission was appointed to head one of the fee offices, and other shaky deals were cut.

In the ensuing brouhaha, it was revealed that five of the 19 current commissioners work in county jobs and eight others have family members working for the county, in all accounting for $1 million a year in county pay.

A multi-faceted challenge was thrown at a Commission majority that had awakened a watchdog mentality among many of the county's civic-minded citizens.

The News Sentinel sued the county, asserting that the dealings conducted by commissioners in the back hall of their assembly room violated the Open Meetings Law.

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale sought the appointment of a Knox County Ethics Committee and one was appointed, with members named by the mayor and Commission. Schumpert, who says he learned he'd been appointed to the ethics committee when he read it in the newspaper, turned that appointment down. He and former state Sen. Ben Atchley had already been talking about forming a political action committee to assist qualified candidates for county offices to raise campaign money. Atchley and Schumpert lead a seven-member Public Trust PAC board that was formed to administer the program.

A larger group of 68 persons joined together in a steering committee for a new organization called Knox Countyâ"One Question. The question is: â“What changes, if any, do the citizens want to make in the form of government for Knox County?â” The group held a series of five public forums, utilizing the skills of veteran facilitator Lynn Fugate and a cadre of trained volunteers, heard ideas from more than 300 people who attended the forums at county high schools, and collected comments via a website, www.knoxcountyonequestion.org .

City Councilman Joe Bailey was also spurred by the January events, he says, to renew the call for merging city and county governments, an idea that has failed in either the city or the county in four previous referendums. He says he decided the timing was right to try again.

The leaders of each of the above movements concede that their efforts were at least in part stimulated by what Commission detractors describe as â“Black Wednesday,â” when the Commission appointments were arranged in secret.

Knoxville city government once attracted some of that kind of negative attention that eventually produced positive results. Back in 1963, an organization called the Good Government Group was formed to influence younger, more progressive candidates to run for City Council to break up the bloc beholden to the legendary reactionary and power broker Cas Walker. It worked. Thirty-five candidates, including Dwight Kessel, the former councilman, county clerk and county executive, turned up on the ballot for four Council seats, and Walker couldn't control them all. Kessel and other newcomers won, and the power on Council began to slip through Walker's fingers.

Today's perceived villain, corrupted by his own power and that of his allies, is Commission Chairman Scott â“Scoobieâ” Moore. He is openly incensed by that Black Wednesday characterization.

â“You've got to look at the appointment process. It exactly followed the law,â” Moore says. â“These were short-term appointments. We wanted people who could keep stability in government, where the pubic wouldn't see a big difference until the next election [the February 2008 county primary].â”

He dismisses the assertion that back-room politics determined the appointments or the accusation that the Open Meetings (Sunshine) Law was violated in the process, reserving specific comment because of the pending lawsuit.

The News Sentinel suit is proceeding in Chancery Court, where a parallel suit filed by attorney Herbert Moncier has been dismissed. Depositions are being taken in the NS suit, according to the paper's attorney, Rick Hollow, but it is not expected to reach the trial stage until this August.

The outcome may hinge on whether the intercourse between Commission members outside the public purview amounted to â“deliberation,â” which is prevented by the law, or â“discussion,â” which has been admitted by some commissioners, and whether there is any substantial difference between the definitions of the two words.

It is understood from sources touched by the suit that the plaintiffs have subpoenaed both the video tapes from the security cameras in the back hallway of the Commission chambers for that Jan. 31 meeting, and also the tapes from the cameras outside the office of then-Sheriff (and potent political force) Tim Hutchison, to see which commissioners went in an out of that office during the impromptu recess and â“discussionâ” periods. Commission Chairman Moore formerly worked for Hutchison, and Moore's wife works in the Sheriff's Department as well. Nepotism? Yes, but nepotism as usual, apparently.

One accusation of nepotism in county employment was formally presented to the county's ethics panel early this month, but it was recommended for dismissal by county Law Director John Owings, who told the committee it did not contain an allegation specific enough to pursue and that no violation was involved.

The Rev. Ron Stewart, pastor of Grace Baptist Church and chairman of the committee, disagreed and still does. He says the panel â“tabled,â” rather than dismissed the complaint, and has at least one similarly general complaint to take up at its next session June 6.

Knox County has a written rule against conflicts of interest governing its employees and officeholders, but no rule against nepotism, although the county mayor's office policy does prohibit nepotism among its own employees.

â“Feelings about nepotism are so strong, it should be looked at,â” says Stewart, who acknowledges that the practice is â“not illegal, not unethical. The problem is the lack of trustâ” on the part of the public. â“I'd like to discuss it and perhaps come up with some recommendations.â” The nepotism and cronyism features of the Commission's appointments were â“a slap in the face to the voters,â” Stewart says.

Mike Hammond, like Stewart a mayoral appointee and one of two commissioners on the ethics committee (Paul Pinkston, a Commission appointee, is the other) says the committee is â“not a policy-making group.â” But he says he's asked that the committee â“take up the issue of independent counsel. John Owings is an elected official,â” and therefore his office might come under ethics committee scrutiny.

â“We're still feeling our way through this. We're ready and willing to take up any [ethics] issue. There's enough will on the committee to take up any specific ethics complaint,â” Hammond says.

â“I think the next election is going to be very telling,â” says Hammond, whose term runs until 2010. â“We won't really know what the reaction is to all this until the people go to the polls in February,â” he says.

As far as the Public Trust PAC is concerned, it is a part of the reaction. Atchley says it grew from â“a combination of people who were concerned with the impression being left [by the Commission's actions]. Government should be transparent, and elected officials should put county interests ahead of self-interest, policy instead of politics.â”

He says more than $15,000 has already been raised, but the group has no particular candidates in mind. â“We're still developing a questionnaire,â” he says. Both Atchley, a hide-bound Republican and Schumpert, a Democrat, say their motivation was to help qualified candidates raise money. They both hated having to ask for money in their own election campaigns, they say.

Once people have qualified, through petition filings, for county offices, they may seek help from the PAC. The questionnaires, Schumpert says, will then be issued, â“asking specific things about them and why they want to run and key issues as they see them. Then we'll call some in for interviews.â” Atchley, who says the PAC board is strictly bipartisan, says, â“There's nothing to keep us from endorsing incumbents, but who we're looking for are the best people, incumbent or non-incumbent.â”

â“We hope some good leadership comes forward, and we can help them,â” Schumpert says.

Knox Countyâ"One Question's organization is trying in its own way to pique public interest and encourage county leadership to emerge.

Backed by research from the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at UT, the group has conducted its public forums and is assimilating the responses.

Originally accused of fronting for the segment of the county's political establishment in advancing the idea of consolidated city-county government, Knox Countyâ"One Question is â“not promoting anything,â” says its chairman, retired UT President Joe Johnson. â“We do not have an agenda,â” he says, indicating that the accusation was a red herring posited by defensive commissioners hoping to dilute the forums' impact.

He says the group was initially â“stimulated by [Supreme Court Justice] Gary Wade's unanimously endorsed opinion on Knox County's home-rule Charter.â” It essentially says county voters may determine in every way how they are governed.

â“The appointing process [as conducted by the Commission majority] was also a factor,â” Johnson says, in motivating the One Question effort. He says it was â“a good time to raise the question. It's a very simple question. But answers can be very complicated.

â“I'm impressed with the range of the proposals that's come out of it,â” he says, citing some examples: â“We heard everything from merging the county into the city or the city into the county to having more elected officials and having more appointed officials and [bringing] an end to nepotism.â”

Johnson says the group's steering committee, of which he is a member, â“will get with the Baker Center to make a report this August and then go out of business. Whether we will recommend changes, we don't know, but if we do, it will be up to the Commission or voter referendum to make any changes.â”

Alan Lowe, executive director of the Baker Center, says the One Question leaders â“came to the center and said they'd need some research assistance. It sounded like it was right up our alley, a living, breathing civics lesson.â”

The research, including identification and examination of â“best practicesâ” in local governments across the country, is being paid for by a $43,000 grant from the Claussen family's Seven Islands Foundation. Railroad magnate Pete Claussen said the idea appealed to him and his wife Linda because â“good government is a good cause.â”

Lowe says the money was used to assemble a team, mostly from the UT Political Science faculty. â“We knew we needed several people to make such a short deadline. We're driving to make our August report.â”

Lowe declines to describe the center's work on this project or the One Question group itself as part of a â“watchdogâ” effort, preferring, he says, to think of it as a â“civic involvement/civic engagementâ” undertaking.

Once the report is issued, Lowe says, â“It's in the hands of the people. We just hope we're giving them good information,â” he says.

Another civic engagement initiative has been arranged by the Baker Center and the Leadership Knoxville organization in the form of a workshop this coming weekend for candidates or potential candidates for public office. The 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 2 event in the Hermitage Room of the University Center at UT features a luncheon address by Baker himself, plus remarks by U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan and state Sen. Jamie Woodson.

Other officeholders and former officeholders will help conduct the workshop, called Campaign 101, with topics including: making the decision to run; getting information on your constituency; elements of   a successful campaign plan; budgets and raising money; using technology in the campaign; and how to draft and deliver your message.

Co-sponsors of the workshop are the Urban League of Greater Knoxville, the Hispanic Chamber of East Tennessee and the League of Women Voters.

The Baker Center's Lowe says 80 people registered to attend the workshop by the May 21 deadline. He says that number is â“approaching capacity,â” and the sponsors are pleased at the turnout. Atchley says such a workshop â“should be healthy, as it encourages public participation.â”

Joe Bailey, the city councilman in the vanguard of the freshly revamped government consolidation movement, says less formalized public involvement will be the key in preparing for the formal creation of a unification charter to be put to the voters.

â“We're going to work this as a grassroots campaign, to gain the support of as many ordinary voters as possible before any referendum is considered,â” Bailey says. He says his allies in the movement include â“former commissioners and former fee-officeholders whom he declined to name.

â“About two-and-a-half years ago we started looking at all the issues surrounding government unification, but we decided at the time that the timing wasn't right,â” Bailey says. â“We decided we were going to lay low and get our ducks in a row,â” he says.

In light of the interest raised in county government this year and â“because Scott Moore himself brought it up,â” Bailey says, â“we decided to come out in the open. We want to get a charter commission appointed by the mayors of Knoxville and Knox County.

â“There's nothing to fear in that. There's nothing on paper. It's a blank sheet,â” Bailey says. He says the issues that dragged down prior efforts at unification, such as the size and configuration of the governing body and the appointment or election of the top cop, will have to be carefully handled to assure voter acceptance in both the city and county. He doesn't think that will be impossible this time because of the efficiencies that will arise from the end of duplication of services. Jobs, Bailey says, will be eliminated â“only through attrition. As people leave departments, they won't be replacedâ” until an established personnel table is reached.

Commissioner Hammond, who says he won't seek reelection in 2010 although he's eligible for another term, says he expects changes to be made in the future. Charter amendments through referendum to address government openness or nepotism or other ethics questions or even government unification may be needed, Hammond says, whether initiated by Commission or by voter petition.

Chairman Moore says he brought up the idea of government consolidation because, â“I think it's a good time to talk about it.

â“If we can save the county money, if we can save the people money, it's a good idea,â” Moore says. He says, â“All this bickering we've got going on right now doesn't do anybody any good.â”

One who has been bickering since the beginning of the county's term-limits controversy is John Schmid, the ex-commissioner who supported the Supreme Court's ruling on term limits even before the court ruled. He's been the most outspoken of the former or present commissioners in criticizing the way the appointments were handled. Schmid says he wanted a public process to identify the best candidates for appointment to the open Commission seats and to the open fee offices, and says Moore at first backed that idea and then changed his mind â“or had his mind changed for him the next week.â”

Moore brushes aside such assertions with the statement: â“There are people out there pushing an agenda that they couldn't accomplish. They didn't get what they wanted in January, and they're still complaining about it,â” Moore says.

â“That's right,â” says Schmid when told of the Moore position. â“We wanted an open, transparent meeting to decide on the appointments, so we didn't get what we wanted, and it's because of [Moore] and his cohorts.

â“The idea we had was to let the public speak to whom they wanted in office. The majority spit in the face of the public,â” Schmid says.

He's still angry about it, but he's heading for a training conference in Seattle to help prepare him to resume a teaching role. He'll be instructing an advanced placement course for high school students at Webb School this fall.

The subject? Political science. How will he teach it? â“Not like I just saw it at work,â” he says, â“but to educate good, knowledgeable citizens.â”

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