Home Stretch?

After placing county charter amendments on the November ballot, Knox Charter Petition encounters organized resistance

During 2008, the grassrootsy Knox Charter Petition group mobilized hundreds of volunteer and paid petitioneers and fired a steady salvo of press releases and media opportunities in its effort to amend the Knox County Charter. One mission accomplished: The proposed charter amendments will appear as referenda on the November ballot.

As with wiffle ball in grade school, however, any time one team shows up with the gear, another team of takers-on will materialize soon enough.

Former County Commissioner Elaine Davis says to expect litigation challenging the legality of the amendments should they pass. Davis is a member of the freshly minted group Citizens Committed to Save Our Right to Vote, which presented itself to the public and media on Monday. (Davis says that the group's website should be up and running, at saveknox.org, by the time this article hits the street.)

"We're going to speak to any organizations and civic groups who would like us to," says Davis. "We want to let people know what these amendments will do."

Davis says that she personally notified the U.S. Department of Justice on the subject of the charter amendments, and that the DOJ is "on notice." Davis sees the amendments as an affront to voters' rights. In her reading, the changes to County Commission (a reduction from 19 members to 11) would entail a violation of requisite minority representation as dictated by the Voters' Rights Act.

And, as you may have heard last week, the manner in which the amendments appear on the ballot has given Knox Charter Petition a new and not altogether small to-do list.

Composing summaries of the referenda to appear on circulated sample ballots falls to the office of Knox County Law Director Bill Lockett. Lockett is on record as an opponent of the charter amendments, and his position is understandable. If the proposed amendments are passed by popular vote and enacted, the position of law director will become a mayoral appointment, as opposed to being elected. (Lockett did not respond to repeated requests for comments for this story.)

Critics say the language of the sample ballot summaries is slanted so as to make them seem negative. For instance, this line which appears more than halfway down in one amendment, as submitted, "All Department Directors of the County shall be appointed by the Mayor, shall be subject to dismissal by the Mayor without cause, and shall be residents of Knox County at the time they assume the duties of their office and at all other times while serving the County in such capacity," is summarized thusly in the first line of the sample ballot: "Shall the Knox County Charter be amended [1] to take away from the people the ability to vote for the County Trustee, County Clerk, and Register of Deeds by changing these elected offices to administrative offices appointed by the Mayor subject to Commission approval effective September 1, 2010..." (And let us refer you again to the actual documents, which are available online in their entirety. The Knox County sample ballot can be viewed and downloaded at knoxcounty.org/election. The exact wording of the two proposed amendments can be viewed at knoxcharterpetition.com.)

The language of the sample ballots was the subject of a legal letter sent last week to the county elections commission and law director's office, requesting that the language be adjusted. The letter was signed by the petition group's attorney, Tom McAdams. McAdams says that there was not adequate time to challenge the law director's wording with a lawsuit. The ballots for those who vote by mail and absentee ballots had to get to the printer.

"We do not plan to file a lawsuit based on the language," says Knox Charter Petition spokesman Gary Drinnen. "Their [the law director's office] response was a letter that basically said, ‘Leave us alone.'"

Says Davis, "They [Knox Charter Petition] are complaining about the order of the summary language. That's because the things that the law director put first are things they wanted to be buried.

"We are losing our right to vote for four county-wide officeholders. Essentially, what you're creating is a mayor-king."

That the finality of that particular issue must first be voted on—by those who would supposedly be surrendering the right to vote for department heads—is no balm to Davis.

"These have not been informed voters," she says. "They [Knox Charter Petition] have used deceptive tactics. They've labeled the amendments as being all about anti-nepotism and conflict of interest. Early voting starts Wednesday. Where's the debate?"

The process for amending the county charter is a fairly cut-and-dry procedure. The initial attempt, in March of this year, to have County Commission place the amendments on the November ballot was unsuccessful. A summer-long petition drive, however, yielded the signatures necessary (more than 36,791 signed the orange petition, which will be question number 3 on the ballot, and more than 36,666 signed the so-called white petition, the contents of which form question number 4 on the ballot), and the charter amendments will be present on the ballot as two separate items. Still, there remains the likelihood that the legality of the amendments will be challenged, even if passed.

Asked if the amendments have any easy targets or chinks in the armor, McAdams says, "No," and "No."

"We studied the state law requirements and the county charter," says McAdams. "The state law gives counties broad discretion over how they govern themselves."

McAdams says the state constitution was amended to allow county charters in 1977, and Knox County adopted its charter soon after.

"They give you some parameters, and as long you follow those parameters—as long as everything required is being done—you comply," he says.

"We have looked into whether or not these would pass muster," says Drinnen. "A lot of people have spent a lot of time and put in their hard-earned money. To do so without researching the legalities would have been a big mistake."

The amendments would enact a drastic reduction of the County Commission, from 19 to 11 members, anti-nepotism and conflict of interest policies, and the conversion of several currently elected offices to mayoral appointments (including law director, county trustee, register of deeds, and county clerk).

"We've always expected opposition," Drinnen says. "People have strong feelings about this. And people are going to come out of all corners to vote to protect their jobs, to protect family members' jobs, to protect the status quo."

Might the creative license taken by the law director's office in the sample ballot summaries serve as an example of why Knox Charter Petition thinks these amendments are necessary?

"Exactly," says McAdams. "The concept of an elected law director is one that makes no sense. His position is to advise his client, which is the county government. Will his advice be swayed by what's popular rather than his client's best interests? That's the problem. An elected professional adviser makes no sense.

"Several of the amendments are aimed at abolishing anachronisms. How can you justify having these large county departments with no oversight that use less discretion than the dog catcher? The county clerk sells license plates and marriage licenses, without discretion. The register of deeds registers deeds, without discretion. Someone brings in a deed, they register it. These are administrative clerical positions."

In summation, more or less, he adds, "People should elect policy-makers."

Drinnen says the ballot language issue gives his group lots of work to do.

"I think things will be very busy during the next few weeks," says Drinnen. "What this has done is make education an even greater issue. We have to educate the public, now, about how to read the ballot. I was talking the other day with a family member and they said, ‘So am I supposed to vote for or against?' Because it's so confusing now."

Likewise, Davis says her group opposed to the amendments plans to have volunteers on hand at polling places to answer questions about the referenda and amendments.

"The most important thing is to actually read the amendments," says Drinnen. "Anybody can go to knoxaccountability.com and read the exact language of these amendments. Since the law director's office changed the language on the sample ballot, it has become especially important that people read the amendments.

"But that has always been true; you should always know exactly what you're voting for."