The Question of the Year Reempowered

What do Knox Countians expect from their government?


The issue of home rule has been determined for Knox County by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The citizens of the county have wide latitude in determining how they wish their government to be organized and to perform, the court has said.

In that light, and with the public controversy generated by the Knox County Commission's performance earlier this year under court directives, a group of Knox Countians has been formed to measure public sentiment and report, eventually, on how county government might better serve its constituency.

Under the aegis of Knox Countyâ"One Question, the group is staging forums this week and next to encourage other citizens to share their opinions on county government and its workings. The question it asks is: â“What changes, if any, do the citizens want to make to the form of government in Knox County?â”

Joe Johnson, the former University of Tennessee president who is chairman of the group's 68-member steering committee, emphasizes that the group was formed to listen, not to preach. That's just what it's doing. Its first forum at Halls High School attracted nearly 100 persons, who voiced a variety of opinions ranging from opposition to nepotism in any form in county government to proposing that county and city governments be merged here. Another forum at Bearden high School Tuesday, May 15 was well attended, and a third is set for this Thursday, May 17 at Carter High, followed by a May 21 forum at South Doyle and another May 22 at Fulton. All begin at 7 p.m.

Besides the forums held at those schools around the county, the group is soliciting comments online through its website, . The opinions gained at the forums are to be posted on the website after May 22.

The process is a healthy one. It is being monitored by the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at UT, which is compiling the results and researching best government practices elsewhere across the county.

The Baker Center research is being funded through a $43,000 grant from the Seven Islands Foundation, whose previous grants have been exclusively devoted to the promotion of the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge in southeast Knox County. Pete Claussen, chairman of the Knoxville-based Gulf & Ohio Railroad, created the foundation with his wife, Linda. He says the reasons behind his foundation grant were to â“help the Baker Center and promote good government,â” and â“to expand the interest of people in government.â”

Indeed it is a good cause. The Baker Center study will result in a report to be presented in a countywide forum this coming August, in time to have an impact on next year's county elections.

There's no better independent institution than the Baker Center to conduct an unbiased study of government as seen through the eyes of Knox Countians and filtered through the lens of government structures and practices in other jurisdictions.

The study and report is expected to produce a set of suggestions that could be employed by civic-minded citizens in determining how the county's offices and its legislative and executive functions might be improved. It might even encourage some highly qualified people to run for county offices. It should stir up petitions to change the ways government is organized and run.

How can anyone rationally argue against such a broad look at county government, particularly when a majority on county Commission has acted with such a public-be-damned attitude in filling its own vacancies and those that opened up in elected county administrative offices following the validation by the Supreme Court of voter-imposed term limits?

The city of Knoxville's urban center, designated an â“Empowerment Zoneâ” through a federal program to stimulate economic development in urban cores, is getting back on track after months of misdirection and indecision.

It's a program to which $25.6 million in federal funds were allocated, and it had precious little to show for the city's efforts after the first few years it was in place.

Last year, when frustrations came to a head, Mayor Bill Haslam hired his former election opponent, Madeline Rogero, to straighten the program out. The city partnered with the Knoxville Urban League to administer a small-business loan program, and the city, with about $2.5 million left to use, began lobbying for more federal money in the EZ Program's yet-to-be-funded Round Two.

â“We're moving forward. I don't want to overstate this. There is still lots to be done, but we have some stuff that's moving along,â” Rogero says. She says the Urban League has been examining the kinds of loans that have been successful in order to continue lending to people likely to succeed and who understand that the EZ loans are loans, not grants, and are to be repaid.

She also says a façade improvement project around the Central Avenue-Broadway intersection has been implemented with a high expectation that it will stimulate business development in that key EZ location and that other projects, including Vestal and Lonsdale development initiatives, are getting back in focus.

If the revampment of the EZ program here continues to forge steadily ahead, we hope it qualifies for second-round funding so that the potential that it offered from the outset can be fully realized.


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