Featured

My Background and Platform

RETIRED LAWYER AND 20 YEAR MILITARY VETERAN

In 1986, I enlisted in the Navy and spent 8 years as a Russian Linguist.  I did my language training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.  My first assignment was at a small listening base on the Black Sea in Sinop, Turkey.  

My final assignment in the Navy was at the On-Site Inspection Agency.  There I was an interpreter on Arms Control Inspection and Escort Teams.  When the Russian teams would come here or we would go to the former Soviet Union, I would help interpret, escort, and inspect under the auspices of the START, INF, and Nuclear Testing Treaties.

After the Navy, I used my GI Bill to go to law school.  I got my Juris Doctor (J.D.) at Salmon P. Chase College of Law in Northern Kentucky (where I was born and raised).  I also received a Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Economic Law at the University of Houston Law Center.

I went back into the military in 1999, this time to the Air Force, where I was a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG).  I was stationed in Missouri, Florida, California, Japan, Maryland and Washington, D.C.  

While in the Air Force, I deployed to al Udeid AB in Qatar where I was a judge advocate in the Combat Operations Division of the Combined Air Operations Center. I also deployed at to Baghdad, Iraq, where I was the Interrogations Law Attorney at Camp Cropper.

I retired as a Major from the Air Force in 2012 and went to work at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  At the CFPB, I worked in the Consumer Response Division, where we handled consumer complaints about banks, mortgage servicing companies, credit card companies, debt collectors and more.

BUILDING A LIFE IN KNOXVILLE

I left the CFPB and moved to Knox County in 2015 to marry the love of my life – Susan Beth Frommeyer.  She was my college sweetheart whom I let get away so many years ago.  Susan is an OB/GYN at Fort Sanders Women’s Specialists and has been practicing in East Tennessee since the early 2000s.  We have a blended family.  My son is a rising Sophomore at UT and my step-daughter is a rising 6th grader, about to start at West Valley Middle School.

WHY I’M IN THIS RACE

I’m in this race because I’ve seen how many of the races in Knox County end up in the general election with a Republican running unopposed.  I wanted to make sure that voters would have a choice in 2020, which I think is the most consequential year for elections in my lifetime.  Susan told me, though, that she wasn’t going to support me just to get my name on the ballot.  I had to try and win.  And so that’s what I’ve been doing.

WHAT KIND OF RACE I AM RUNNING

I determined early on that I wanted to run a different kind of race.  I think money is a big part of what’s wrong in politics and that includes Knox County politics.  So I decided to draw a distinction with the Republicans in my race who have raised 10s of thousands of dollars.  I take no big money, by which I mean PAC contributions or the $500/$1000 checks that monied interests give to candidates.  I don’t put a donate button on my website on purpose.  I don’t make calls asking for donations.  I think the big money in politics tends to provide SOME with more access to the candidates.  Those who have money get their issues heard first and most.  I want to be open to all – no one gets special access with me.

REASONABLE AND RESPONSIBLE DEVELOPMENT

I’ve been attending Commission meetings since I got in the race.  I’ve seen that development in Knox County seems to be dictated by the developers.  I think Mayor Jacobs and the current Commission have enabled that way of thinking.  I’m for Reasonable and Responsible Development.  That means that I want to give more of a voice to the people who are affected by the development than they currently have.  I want the Planning Commission to live up to its name and make sure there’s some planning in the process.  

I WANT TO BE A VOICE FOR THE LITTLE GUY

Most of all, I want to be a voice on the Commission for the people who traditionally have not had a voice in Knox County politics.  In the Air Force, I worked as the military equivalent of a public defender.  I stood with the Airmen who were having the full force of the Air Force brought down upon them.  At the CFPB, I was helping individual consumers fight back against big banks and other consumer financial companies.  I want to continue that mindset on the Commission and help the little guy as much as I can.

To Elect or Appoint The Knox County Law Director

The Knox County Charter Review Committee finished up their work last night. One of the amendments they proposed to the Charter is to make the Law Director a position appointed by the County Mayor. This position is currently an elected position.

I was there again last night to speak at the last public hearing before the final vote. That marks the third time I have spoken before the Committee on this issue. Not to toot my own horn (but what am I writing this for but to do a little tooting), but the Committee actually acted on one of the things I brought up in my remarks last night. I pointed out that the line “this amendment shall become effective September 1, 2024 or upon vacancy of said office” was included in several sections of the amendment, but not in the section having to do with the Mayor’s duties. This made it look like the Mayor could fire the elected Law Director prior to the effective date. The Committee did a change to the amendment to add that line to the section on the Mayor’s duties to remove ambiguity.

Someone last night asked me for my bullet points against this amendment. I haven’t actually put together bullet points on this issue. I’ve just prepared remarks each time I’ve spoken. But I guess I’ll take that request as an opportunity to put my arguments against the amendment in bullet point form. I’m also going to copy and paste all of my prepared remarks at the bottom of this post. That’ll probably make this post tl;dr for most people. I apologize in advance.

I’ve also given some thought as to why this issue has gotten me fired up so much that I felt the need to speak three times at public forum. I’m sure part is my opposition to Mayor Jacobs. He and his appointees on the Committee have walked in lock-step on this issue. I saw how the TVA Tower deal played out. Having an elected Law Director in that case made sure that it was fully vetted in public. I’m convinced we wouldn’t have known as much about that deal if the Law Director had been appointed by (and could be fired by) Mayor Jacobs.

In addition, as a JAG in the Air Force, I worked for commanders who expected their military lawyer to go find a way to make some thing or another legal. To my mind, this resulted in decisions that came too close to the line between legal and illegal. I think that’s what you get with an appointed Law Director, as opposed to one who answers to the voters.

Anyway, here are the bullet points of the arguments I will use to oppose the amendment which will now go to the voters in the November election.

  • This amendment takes away the right of voters to elect their Law Director. This position was not intended to be the Mayor’s lawyer. The decision should stay with the people.
  • This amendment will cost taxpayers more. If the amendment is approved, in addition to the Law Director and staff, Knox County will be paying for a lawyer and staff for the County Commission and a lawyer for the School Board.
  • An elected Law Director can be more independent and can provide unvarnished legal advice because he or she answers to the voters.
  • An appointed Law Director is more likely to succumb to political pressure because he or she can be fired by the Mayor (with the agreement of the Commission).
  • Knox County having an elected Law Director is not an outlier among Tennessee counties that have a charter and the position of County Attorney/Law Director.
  • And, so what if we are an outlier? Who says Knox County has to change just because other counties do it differently?

First remarks

I am here to speak in defense of keeping the Law Director position as elected, rather than making it a position appointed by the County Mayor.

As I’m sure you know, but for the benefit of those who are listening.  Section 3.08 of the Knox County Charter says that the Law Director is directly accountable to the qualified voters of Knox County by standing for election every 4 years.

If the Law Director leaves his or her position before the end of the term, the vacancy is filled by the Commission, not the County Mayor, until the next general election.

I’ve seen it written somewhere that most counties in Tennessee have attorneys appointed by a county mayor or commission. I don’t believe, though, that we should change our Charter based on the idea of being like all of the other counties in Tennessee.

The Attorney General of the state of Tennessee is not appointed by the governor.  He or she is appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court for a term of 8 years.

So, I come at this from the perspective of a retired lawyer.  Almost all of my lawyering time was as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the Air Force.  You know, like the the show JAG or the movie a Few Good men, except I wasn’t also a fighter pilot and I didn’t get to cross-examine Jack Nicholson.

In my time as a JAG, I had the opportunity to give legal advice to a number of different commanders.  I found there were two basic types.  The first, better type, was the commander who wanted his legal advisor to give him or her plain unvarnished legal advice on a matter.  The second was the commander who said, here’s what I want to do.  Go to the UCMJ or the Air Force regs and figure out how I do it.  Give me something to hang my hat on, I don’t care how dodgy.

Obviously, as a lawyer, I preferred working for the former, rather than the latter, if for no other reason than it ensured I wouldn’t face any ethical issues.  One felt like being a legal advisor.  The other felt like being a fixer.

The Law Director’s duty, according to the description on the knox county website is to execute and administer the legal affairs of the county.  The law director, his deputies and staff provide legal advice to county officials concerning their offices, serve as intermediary between other offices and departments of government, and litigate on behalf of the county in civil actions.

Based on that description, I think the drafters of the Knox County charter got it right to make this position accountable to the voters of Knox County, rather than the choice to be hired…and fired by the County Mayor as he or she sees fit.

Now, I have heard some on my side of the political aisle come out in favor of appointment of the Law Director based on the state of elections in Knox County.  The idea being that all elected party affiliated positions in county government except one are held by Republicans.  So, better to take this position out of the world of partisan elections.  Or so the argument goes.

My response to that is, one, I hope there are a few more Democrats in County government after the coming elections.  And, 2 –  that the Mayor, a Republican, is just as capable of putting a partisan hack in the job as are the voters of Knox County.  If we can get a partisan hack in either case, I think the job of choosing that person should rest with the voters, rather than one single person.

Another argument against changing how the Law Director is selected played out over the last year in the drama that was the TVA Tower deal.  The current Law Director, Bud Armstrong was elected by the voters and is a Republican, just like the County Mayor.  The Mayor and his administration put together a complicated deal to buy/lease the TVA Tower.  Law Director Armstrong didn’t just roll over and give the green light. He raised legitimate legal questions about the way the deal was structured.

To my mind, I don’t think it mattered that Law Director Armstrong was in the same political party as the County Mayor.  I think the Law Director felt he had independence enough to raise those questions because he was elected by the voters of Knox County to be their Law Director.  I am not confident that a different Law Director who was appointed by the County Mayor would always be able to be that independent.

I want a Law Director who gives plain, unvarnished legal advice.  I think the best way to get this is to keep this position accountable to the voters of Knox County.

Second remarks

I’m here to speak on the issue of Law Director.

As you may recall, I’ve already spoken on this issue.  I’m for keeping the Law Director as an elected position.  I believe the Law Director is the people’s lawyer and the position should not be viewed as the Mayor’s lawyer, as some have argued.  I also dismiss the idea that Knox County should change its charter on this issue just because many or most other counties in Tennessee have appointed Law Directors.

But I don’t really need to repeat my previous extended comments.  I wanted to speak today in response to something that was said at the last meeting.  The individual, who was arguing in favor of changing the Charter and who eventually voted for the change, used the following tortured logic in support of that position.  It went something like, I am in support of this change to the charter because I support the people’s right to choose.

I want to make clear to that individual and any other person who might try to play this particular game of political fence-sitting that that is nonsense.

If you support the people’s right to choose, then you vote against changing the Charter, because the Charter already allows the people the right to choose.

Just because the result of the vote of this body tonight means that the change to the Charter will have to be put on the ballot in November does not mean you are coming down on the side of the people’s right to choose.  If you are voting tonight to change the Charter, then you are coming down against the people’s right to choose.  

Now, I disagree with this change and will definitely be voting against it if it turns up on the ballot in November.  But I’m at least willing to say that reasonable minds can differ over which side you might be on here.

But what you should not be able to get away with, and the reason I’m speaking here tonight, is to pretend like your vote tonight in favor of changing the charter is somehow in support of the people’s right to choose.  It is not.

I urge you to vote no on this proposed change.

Third remarks

I’ve been here a couple of times as you may recall.  My view is still that the Charter has it right in keeping this decision with the voters.  If you vote to send this amendment forward, you’re not on the side of letting the people vote.  You’re on the side of taking the vote away from the people.

I think the idea that the Mayor should get his own attorney runs counter to the idea that the Law Director is the people’s lawyer, not just the Mayor’s.

I also reject the idea that Knox County needs to make this change because other counties have an appointed Law Director.  I was looking at the County Technical Assistance Service description of County Attorney/Law Director for counties in Tennessee.  They noted that a few counties, like Knox County, elect the county attorney or law director.  In a few more, the position is elected by the county legislative body.  And in some others it is like what you’re proposing here – the office is filled by executive appointment under a charter.  They also say that most counties in Tennessee don’t even have an office of county attorney or law director.  The county executive in those cases just hires an attorney when an attorney is needed.  So, it seems to me that the argument that Knox County is far out of sync with other Tennessee counties is disingenuous.  Most counties don’t have a charter or an office similar to Law Director.  I think the better comparison is to those counties that do have a charter and such an office.  It appears to me that we’re not really an outlier at all if you take that into account.

I wanted to bring up another thing I noticed when reviewing the proposed amendment.

When I read the amendment, in Sec 3.08C, it says this amendment shall become effective September 1, 2024 or upon vacancy of said office.  That qualifier is also included in Section 2.02J and in Section 6.02H, the sections having to do with the Commission and the School Board.

However, when I get to Sec 3.03O, The Mayor’s duties, there is no such qualifier.  So I ask, is that a drafting error and the effective date was meant to be included?  Because if not, here’s how it looks to me. If this amendment is approved, starting November 4, the Mayor can fire the Law Director.  

How do I get to that conclusion?  Well, that section says that the Law Director serves at the pleasure of the Mayor and describes how he can be removed with no effective date.  So if the amendment is approved on November 3, then Mr. Buuck’s job is in jeopardy.

Here’s an example. Say another situation like the TVA tower deal comes up where the Mayor and Mr. Buuck are at odds.  Section 3.03O would seem to say that the Mayor can fire the Law Director by proposing a resolution to the Commission and getting a majority +1 to approve that resolution.  I mean, he’s serving at the pleasure of the Mayor, right?  Thinking back to the TVA Tower deal, where the Commission was on board 11-0, it’s not hard to imagine that the Commission could go along with that.  So, in that scenario, I guess Mr. Buuck could end up being record holder for shortest term of a Law director in Knox County history.

Or even worse, what if Mr. Buuck, having been elected by the people, but knowing he could be fired by the Mayor and a compliant commission, decides he can’t make waves and just goes along to keep the Mayor happy.  At that point, we’re getting a yes man, rather than an actual legal advisor.

And all of this is potentially happening well before the supposed effective date of 9/1/24.

You’re fooling yourselves if you say that would never happen, because it happened last year.  So, are you really intending to give the Mayor this power to fire from day one?  I think the Jacobs bloc here on the Committee should explain the exclusion of the effective date from the section on the Mayor’s duties and defend why the Mayor should be able to fire Mr. Buuck immediately.

Finally, I want to point out for the public who might be voting on this amendment come November that approval of this amendment means that we as taxpayers are going to be paying for 3 equivalents of a law Director, instead of one.  The Mayor’s law director, the Commissions’s and the School Boards.  Plus we’re going to pay for two staffs.  One for the actual law director and one for the Commission.

As taxpayers and elected officials, what’s your response to the accusation that this is not exactly a fiscally responsible move – to double or triple the legal staff of the county.  Just so the Mayor can say he has his own attorney

Who I Would Vote For In Knox County – August 6, 2020 Edition

Aside from my own race, there are a number of interesting races on the ballot on August 6. I pulled the Democratic primary ballot, which comes with the Knox County general election ballot. I think there are also some interesting races in the Republican primaries. So why not weigh in?

In the case of the Democratic primaries, I have already voted, so I’ll be telling you how I voted, rather than for whom I intend to vote.

Democratic primary for Senate. I like Marquita Bradshaw, but Mackler is both a veteran and a lawyer. In fact, it looks like he was a JAG. Maybe he stole my schtick, but I had to vote for him because of that.

Democratic primary for TN-2. Renee Hoyos, of course.

State Senate District 6 – I opted for Jane George. She was kind enough to have me on her FB live once. I think she’s a solid candidate. And I’ve never met her opponent.

State House District 14 – Justin Davis was unopposed, so Justin. Zachary needs to get gone.

In the County general election races, I would vote for any of the Democratic candidates. I also voted for Sherif Guindi and Jackson Fenner, the independent candidates.

In the Republican race for Senate, between Hagerty and Sethi, I’ll go with Hagerty. Hagerty feels like he’ll be a run of the mill Republican once Trump is gone, while Sethi would be a true believer. Between the two, I’ll vote Mackler in the general.

I want to weigh in on TN House District 15, even though it’s not my district. I think Rick Staples is taking PAC money, so that leaves him out. I don’t know Sam McKenzie except what I’ve seen on the Charter Review Committee. There, he’s been a solid vote for the Jacobs Bloc. Matthew Park, on the other hand, is a solid progressive. He’s the Elizabeth Warren of that race (and you know how much I admire Warren). Pick Park!

In the Republican primary for TN House District 18, it’s between Gina Oster and Eddie Mannis. Oster feels like a Trump Republican and the Republicans think Mannis is basically a Democrat. In the general, I’m for Victoria Couch, but in the Republican primary, go Mannis.

In the Republican primary for TN House District 16, it’s between Michelle Carringer and Patti Bounds. Bounds is from the School board and Carringer from County Commission. I’ve seen Carringer in action on the Commission and at the Charter Review Committee meetings. Here’s the thing about Carringer. If it’s a contentious vote, she’ll pass first time through to see which way the wind is blowing and then, only after everyone else has voted, she’ll change her vote to match the winning side. Lacks the courage of her convictions. Bounds is the better choice here, with a vote for Elizabeth Rowland in the general.

My Campaign Financial Disclosure Report – Pre General

It’s time for the final financial disclosure before the election, which is on August 6. This one is the pre-general report and runs from July 1, 2020 through July 27, 2020. I used the mail to get mine in and it didn’t make it by the deadline, which was July 30, 2020. It was picked up from my mailbox on July 29 in the early afternoon and arrived at the Election Commission at 1:30 p.m. today, July 31.

I really don’t like being late and that includes with things like this. Other candidates have been late in getting their reports in other periods with, seemingly, no repercussions. Plus, it was a short turnaround from close of the period to the deadline. Still, no excuse. I could’ve driven the form downtown or gone to the post office and paid for next day delivery. I opted not to do that and that’s all on me. I apologize.

You can see my previous posts about financial contributions hereherehere, and here. You can also go see the documents I’ve filed at the Election Commission website.

My Donations:

  • 7/1 – $500 from me
  • 7/6 – $500 from me
  • 7/7 – $50 from a nice couple who mailed me a check out of the blue. I’m not going to put their names in here. They’re disclosed on the form, as required, if you absolutely must know.

Total – $1050

My In-Kind Contributions:

Some of the spending I did for this report I just ended up paying for, rather than making a contribution to my campaign and having the money come from there. As with some of the expenditures last month, I used my personal PayPal account for the Facebook ads. That’s why I’m counting them as in-kind contributions

  • 7/21/20 – Facebook Ads – $37.69
  • 6/5/20 – Advertisement with Knoxville Focus – $335.88

Also, interesting side note. The card from the account I use for the campaign got compromised and I found one fraudulent charge on there. Evidently there were other attempts at charges that First Horizon blocked. I worked through the fraud process and had to get a new card. That’s the reason these Knoxville Focus charges are listed as in-kind contributions. I had to give them one of my personal cards for the weekly charges while I was waiting for the new campaign account card.

Total – $373.57

My Expenditures:

The below items came from campaign funds.

  • 7/2 – postage – $275
  • 7/1-8 – Knoxville Focus advertising – 223.92
  • 7/6 – Hustle app – $224.80

Total – $723.72

I didn’t have any outstanding obligations or loans.

The Summary page shows that I ended the last period with $419.31 on hand. I had contributions of $1050 and disbursements of $723.72 and that leaves me with $745.59 balance on hand. My in-kind contributions were $373.57.

As I’ve done before, I’ll add a little sunshine to the race by doing a summary of my opponent’s Financial Disclosure. At this point, there’s nothing surprising. It’s much of the same.

My general election opponent is Kyle Ward, who won the Republican primary on March 3, 2020. During the pre-general period, Mr. Ward raised $9,100 and spent almost $7800. He has about $8000 balance on hand with a week to go in the race. His loan of $214 is still outstanding. This brings his total fundraising in the primary and general elections to over $47,000. He’s spent almost all of that, except, of course, the $8,000 balance on hand that he had as of July 27.

On the other hand, I’ve donated $4,500 to myself, none of which was done as a loan. I’ve also spent money on things from other than my campaign account and I’ve been calling those in-kind contributions. So, another $1,700 or so from the Frommeyers in that way. That brings the total amount I’ve spent on this campaign to be about $6,200.

I’ll also update here the totals for the big donations taken by my opponent. Add another 5 donations of $1,000 or more this period (including two donations which maxed out at $1,600) and that brings the total to 17 big money donations during the course of the primary and general elections.

Or put it another way, there are about 14 individual donors (some of the big money donors gave twice) who account for $18,950 dollars in donations to my opponents campaign. Or 40% of the $47,000 my opponent raised came from only 14 people.

If that bothers you like it bothers me, I hope you’ll consider giving me your vote on August 6. Early voting runs through August 1.

If there is anything I can do to help in these uncertain times, don’t hesitate to reach out via social media, email or give me a call – (865) 850-1894.

A Little About My Appearance On WBIR’s Inside Tennessee

This morning at 9:30 a.m. EST, I was on TV for the 4th time in my life. That I know of. I spoke about the first time I was on TV during my second appearance. That was this past February when I recorded my “Equal Time” segment on Community Television here in Knoxville. That was during the primary election, so I also did an “Equal Time” segment for the general election. That was number 3, although it was done via Zoom, so I didn’t go into a studio like I did with number two. Or act as a Russian interpreter like in my first television appearance back in the 90s.

This time, number 4, was also done by webcam (not Zoom). We recorded on Friday, July 24th and it was on the local NBC affiliate here in Knoxville this morning. As with all of these things, immediately after I was critical of myself, figuring I had messed up or stammered or something else. Upon rewatch, I thought it wasn’t too bad. I got to hit the main points of my platform – money and development. I talked about how we need to make sure we’re fully funding schools. I’m actually pretty happy with how it turned out. There is a clear difference for voters in the candidates in this race. It’s not just a choice of names on the ballot, but a clear difference in ideas.

Here are my main takeaways from the 30 minute show. Down below I’ll provide a rough transcript of my parts of the show along with some parts of what my opponent said. Hey, if my opponent wants a full transcript, he can put that up on his own website. I think the following takeaways are fair. If you want to check me, I’ll be posting the WBIR online clips from the show as soon as they put them up on their website.

  1. If you were doing a drinking game during this show and had to take a drink every time my opponent name checked Mayor Jacobs, a member of Mayor Jacob’s Administration or some other prominent elected official [cough, Jason Zachary], you would be sleeping it off the rest of Sunday afternoon. Just kidding about the drinking game, of course, please drink responsibly. Unofficial count was 3 Mayor Jacobs and 1 Jason Zachary. At least one mention that I recall of a Jacobs administration member, but I’ll keep his anonymity for purposes of this article. So, I guess when my opponent said in that podcast we both did that he talks to Mayor Jacobs on a weekly basis, he wasn’t kidding.
  2. I thought my opening was strong and I hit on the idea of how developers are dependent on Commission votes for rezoning and how they also give big sums to Commission candidates. John Becker (host and moderator for the show) asked my opponent to comment on the (his words, not mine) quid pro quo and rubber stamp issues that I raised. My opponent said, obviously, he doesn’t agree and then, in the course of his response, he highlighted the fact that he is a member of the home builders association and his background is in construction and real estate. No mention of the $38,000 in donations he’s taken so far or the developers who have donated to his campaign.
  3. Our internet should not be as slow as it is. I got hung up in the middle of one of my answers and it affected the flow for the rest of the show. Also, my feed was not as clear as others on the show. Susan keeps saying we need an upgrade. I’ll try bumping up our level on Xfinity, but I may need to look into other providers.
  4. Susan jumped in after my opponent’s answer to the roads question and asked the same thing that I was thinking. It’s great that we’re scanning the roads. But how does that address John Becker’s point that only 1-2% of roads are getting fixed when it should be 10%.
  5. A couple of my opponent’s answers (Schools and roads) rely heavily on the typical Republican fairy dust of paying for priorities by finding cuts to “wasteful government spending.” Delusion.
  6. The last question was what is the biggest issue you’re hearing about from voters in District 4. My opponent mentioned the economy and the pandemic, but he named the number one issue in the district as flooding. Now, I agree that flooding is an issue. It’s rolled into my push for reasonable and responsible development. It’s something we definitely need to work on. I suspect my opponent had come into this wanting to tell the story of how he’s worked with Jason Zachary on getting the flooding issue taken care of. He told the same story on the podcast he spoke on. So, maybe he just figured that was his opportunity. Because, if it’s not that, I really question how many people in the District or Knox County he’s actually talking to. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Cases and hospitalizations are spiking in Knox County. Plus, we’re a month away from sending our teachers and a large majority of our kids back into school buildings where they will literally be in harm’s way. But flooding is the top thing on the minds of voters in District 4? My answer was Schools and Covid.

Here’s the transcript/summary of the show.

My Opening

Thank you for having me on.

I’m Todd Frommeyer and I’m a retired lawyer and 20 year military veteran.

Last year about this time, I came to the realization that 2020 was going to be a pretty consequential year for elections and I decided I needed to do something more than just vote.

So I set out to make sure the voters would have a choice on August 6.  And I succeeded in that.  But my wife Susan told me that it wouldn’t be enough just to get my name on the ballot and leave it at that.  I needed to try and win.  So that’s what I’ve been doing.  

I did my research and saw how much money was flowing into campaigns for County Commission.  I saw the $1000 checks and the names that gave them.  I saw that County Commission was very involved in rezoning for development in Knox County.  I also saw that some of the people who benefitted from those rezoning decisions were also some of the donors writing big checks to Commission candidates.

So I decided that I was going to do my campaign differently.  I don’t take big money or PAC money or really any donations. I don’t put a donate button on my campaign website and that’s on purpose.   I’m not taking that money because I don’t want the perception of special access to me.

I’ve also spent a lot of my campaign focusing on how development happens in Knox County.  I’ve seen that there’s too much focus on giving developers what they want and not enough focus on the needs of the people who are affected by that development.  I want to be a Commissioner who stands up for the little guy.  That’s been my career in the Air Force as the military equivalent of a public defender and at the CFPB, where I helped consumers fight back against big banks.

I look forward to talking about these issues and more today.

Follow up question from Susan Richardson Williams (R)

It sounds like you’re not pro development.  How do we make progress in Knox County now that we collect property taxes and all the things that help us be a great county if you’re not going to have development through the county.

My Answer

I’m for reasonable and responsible development.  And what I would say is that since I’ve been in this race I’ve been going to the Commission meetings. I’ve been watching how development occurs in Knox County and what I’ve seen is with Mayor Jacobs and the Commission that a lot of deference is given to the developers and not enough consideration is given to the other parts of what I would call the planning – it’s the planning commission for a reason.  They don’t take into account the roads, the infrastructure, the floods, the schools.  And I think they put the cart before the horse and the developers just get the ok and it should be the other way around.  So I think the Commission’s role is, there’s a reason those rezoning decisions are left at the Commission level.  To make sure that the Commission has the oversight.  We don’t just take the developers at their word, oh yeah sure, I’ll talk to the people, we’ll handle all of that.  The Commission needs to play a part in that.  I haven’t seen that.  I think that’s been the problem and I hope to provide a little oversight at the Commission of that.

Summary of Kyle Ward’s response

I don’t agree.  We have a planning commission that oversees flooding and traffic flows and gives their recommendation to the Commission.  At the Commission, we go and take a deeper look and take what the recommendation is and everything else.  I’m with Mayor Jacobs on the need to do smart development. Do town centers.  Smart development.  Grow tax base.  

I’m a member of the home builders association, my background is in construction and real estate.  I know this industry and I know it well, so I feel very confident that when different construction projects come up I’ll actually have highest education level when it comes to construction and real estate and development and ways to do it smarter and better and the impacts it has on our community in general.

Question from Don Bosch (D)

Knox County has educational disparity.  4th district is maybe the crown jewel.  How do you further involve the Commission in strategic educational decisions to partner better with the School Board rather than just being a funding source?

Summary of Kyle Ward’s response

Really interested in trades and technical programs being introduced into schools and work with School Board on those programs.  Open to idea of Commission being more involved.

Follow up from Don Bosch (D)

How do we do that?  Commission has no authority to make these things happen

Summary of Kyle Ward’s response

We don’t have any pull.  I would refer to the Law director or Charter Review Committee.  Our education dollars aren’t being spent well.

My Answer

I think you point out a good issue that definitely exists in Knox County.  We do have really good schools in District 4.  That’s one of the reasons my wife and I moved here.  But you can see that is not the case in all of the other districts.  There is definitely some inequality of access and just level of education.  I think there is not a good answer to the question of how the Commission gets a little more say in fixing issues like that.  I mean you start with relationships.  I think there is a Joint Committee with members of the commission and the school board.  That’s one way that you can do things.  But I think we’re in a time where the funding for the schools is very important and so you point out that the Commission is just writing the check.  But maybe the check is the way that we help influence what the School Board does.  We’re getting ready to do this reopening. It’s very controversial.  Some people are going to do virtual.  Some people are going to do in person.  The kids and the teachers are going to be put in harm’s way, to be honest.  Let’s have the Commission step up and, instead of saying you’re going to have to cut 4.4 million from your budget, let’s give them the money they need. I think that is the way you engender a back and forth between the Commission and the School Board in getting other issues taken care of. Make sure that we’re fully funding the schools.

Question from John Becker

We should be paving 10% of roads instead of 1-2% like we are now and we’re going to have 100k more people coming into the county in the next 15-20 years.  How do we tackle that problem without raising taxes or investing in some major project for infrastructure?

My Answer

I think this goes along with the point I’m trying to make about reasonable and responsible development.  I understand there’s a certain thought that we want to get the development in there that helps to expand the property tax base and it helps bring in more revenue to the county.  By the same token, sometimes the infrastructure is not there and the county owes it to the people of the county to make sure that we’re not pushing ahead on the development before roads and schools are taken care of. [screen froze – rest of answer below]

Summary of Kyle Ward’s answer

County is doing a scan of roads.  Instead of guesstimate, plan the money out strategically.  Get to roads before they get to a critical point.  More conscientious with money to make the dollar go further.  A lot of things Mayor Jacobs is trying to do is grow the commercial development in the county to generate more tax revenue.  Budgets are tight.

My Follow Up

What I was getting to and implicit in your question is whether we can do it without raising taxes. I think raising property taxes is a real taboo that needs to just go away.  We have skimped and cut corners.  For the last 21 years the property tax rate has gone down 120 cents.  We short the schools, we short infrastructure by doing that.  I think there needs to be a discussion about what the appropriate rate of property tax is in order to fund schools and roads, which are not where they ought to be, certainly for the level of development we want to see with 100k people moving into Knox County over the next decade.

Question from Susan Richardson Williams (R)

What are you hearing from people in the 4th district? What is their number one issue?

Summary of Kyle Ward’s answer

Economy and coronavirus are a problem, but the real number 1 in the 4th is the flooding.  Working with Mayor Jacobs and Representative Zachary.  Pump system.  #1 issue for our district.

My Answer

Schools and Covid.  Those are the two big things. We’re getting ready to have this reopening.  It’s a really tough decision for families whether they’re going to send their kids to school in person or whether they even have the ability to keep them home and do it virtually.  And then what has been the response of Knox County to the pandemic.  We follow very closely all of the numbers that come out of the health department and just across the county.  The numbers are spiking in Knox County and these are the two things by a large margin that people care about that I’ve talked to in District 4.

I Was Endorsed By The Sierra Club!

I’ve done a lot of cool things during the course of this campaign. Met a lot of great people. This ranks right at the top of the list of the positives from my campaign experience. I’ve avoided seeking endorsements because that process sometimes goes hand in hand with the Political Action Committee donations that I’m against and haven’t taken. I’ve gone through the process with a couple of PACs, but not to take their money. Rather, I think I learn about the process by doing so. And hopefully that has made me a better candidate and, eventually, a better representative for the District come September 1.

The process for the Sierra Club endorsement was similar to some other things I’ve done. Receive questionnaire. Answer questions on questionnaire. Return questionnaire. Wait. Sometimes these questions/answers show up in a local paper. or on a website. Sometimes your opponent bothers to answer the questions. And sometimes he doesn’t. I’ve responded to all of these questionnaires except one (the Fraternal Order of Police sent one that was tone deaf to the extreme. I politely declined.)

The questionnaire from the Sierra Club has been the most detailed of any of the questionnaires I’ve gotten. I had to do some significant research on some topics to be able to give an answer. The answers I gave were the best I could give, but I guess that was enough.

The Sierra Club’s goals are to:

  • Protect wild places and endangered species
  • Keep our air and water clean
  • Ensure a clean energy future
  • Curb climate change
  • Keep the pressure on politicians and corporations to ensure safe and healthy communities

In receiving the Sierra Club endorsement, I’m proud to say that those goals are my goals as well. If I am fortunate enough to be elected on August 6, I will do what I can as Knox County Commissioner to make sure those goals are also Knox County’s goals.

I’m including, in slightly edited form, the questionnaire I received from the Sierra Club and my answers thereto.

  1. What do you consider to be the top environmental issue facing Knox County? What actions would you take to address this issue?

The top environmental issue facing Knox County is the top environmental issue that faces the country and the world – global climate change.  As with many of my answers to these questions, I understand that I am limited in my ability to effect change in the area of climate change.  I would be, after all, just one of eleven votes on the County Commission.  That being said, there are a number of local issues that have impact on the environment or are impacted by climate change.  

For instance, I am critical of Knox County’s current direction with regard to property development.  I am for reasonable and responsible development.  My voice and my votes will be used to influence the how, where and how fast development proceeds.

I will place a priority on funding all programs which will ameliorate the effects of climate change, such as the flooding we have experienced the last couple of years.

2) On August 13th 2009, Knoxville City Council passed a resolution to adopt these climate goals:

   Cut city government emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030

   Cut community-wide emissions 80% by 2050

Do you feel these goals could be applied County-wide?  If yes, how do you plan to start reducing county-wide emissions on an appropriate timeline?

I was not fully aware of the details of the City of Knoxville’s plan for 2020/2030/2050 until I had a chance to read through all of the materials in preparing to answer this question.  I like a lot of what I see in those materials, but I’m just not sure what the right targets for cutting emissions would be for the County.  

Here’s what inspires me to think we can start to pursue something like what the City is doing at the County level.  In their brochure, they describe the goal of reducing emissions 80% by 2050 as a “bold aspirational goal” that the City can adopt to help “motivate cross-sector leadership.”  Even though I may be skeptical that a partially rural county such as ours can actually meet such an ambitious goal, I don’t think that means you don’t set yourself the goal at all.

It seems to me that the County could easily piggyback on to some great programs and plans that Knoxville has already shown will work to great benefit.  Specifically, the LED streetlight retrofit ought to be expanded beyond the limits of the city into the county.  Likewise, the county should also phase-in electric, hybrid and alternative-fuel County vehicles.  I also support the idea of adding solar panels to County buildings wherever possible.

3) Will you pursue actions to hold polluters accountable, and will you seek and provide funds for adequate monitoring and enforcement of clean air and water standards?

I support providing sufficient funding in the Knox County budget for adequate monitoring and enforcement of clean air and water standards.  When talking about pursuing actions to hold polluters accountable, I support this, but I think such actions really lie with the executive or judicial branches, rather than within the domain of the legislative branch, i.e., the County Commission.  Where I believe the Commission can make a difference in this area is appropriate oversight of the Mayor and his administration in making sure that they follow through with their mandate in this regard.  I have already pledged to provide such oversight of Mayor Jacobs and his administration in other areas, notably the budget and land development.  I would plan to provide the same level of oversight in this area as well. 

4) YWill you support and actively promote policies that address racial, economic, social, and environmental justice?

If yes, what support are you envisioning for under-privileged communities especially
in creating green jobs, improving energy efficiency, roof-top or community solar panels, car chargers, etc.

The short answer is yes.  I will both support and actively promote policies that address racial, economic, social and environmental justice.

I have already pledged to oppose KCSO’s involvement in the 287(g) program where Knox County officers act as ICE agents.

I support taking steps in police reform, including:

  • A ban on the use of knee holds and choke holds as an acceptable practice for police officers.
  • Tennessee’s Open Records Act should ensure officer misconduct information and disciplinary histories are not shielded for the public.  
  • A working citizen’s review board for KCSO to hold them accountable and build public confidence.

I believe in developing a green workforce for the future.  Retraining and career opportunities to help fuel a transition to a clean energy economy.  Such retraining programs should be made available to under-privileged communities and people of color.

6) Will you support better representation by environmentalists, neighborhoods, and people of color on local boards?

I think this is an under appreciated role that the County Commissioner plays in local politics.  There are a number of boards to which Commissioners make nominations of residents of their respective districts.  I’d like to see some more diversity and progressive voices on these boards and, as Commissioner, I’ll be in a position to help make that a reality.

7) How would you encourage the city and county departments to work with the conservation community and other community groups?

To be honest, this is a question for which I’m not sure I have a good answer.  Until I’m actually in office, I can’t say how great or insignificant my influence as one of eleven commissioners will be in this regard.  The short answer here is that I will be a voice and advocate for the conservation community on the Commission, but I just don’t yet know how much impact I can actually have.

8) Are there particular aspects of environmental protection that you believe Knoxville and Knox County have under-invested in, and if so, what are some examples?

Two examples come to mind.  First, protection from the environment, in the way of flood mitigation efforts.  I believe there is money in the current budget to help mitigate this issue, especially since we’ve seen some pretty major flooding the last two years.  But the fact that it has gotten to this point is an indication that we’ve gotten behind in addressing this issue.  Clean up after the fact is just not enough and I would support increased funding to help us get ahead of this issue.

Second, protection of the water.  We are blessed in Knoxville/Knox County with water everywhere – rivers and lakes and more.  But I don’t think we’ve done enough to keep our water clean.  As I understand, the Tennessee river was found to be one of the most plastic polluted rivers in the country.  That’s just unacceptable.  KUB has a role to play here and I’d like to see the Commission push KUB on this issue.

9) A healthy tree canopy has numerous benefits, including better air quality, moderating temperatures, sequestering carbon, reducing crime, increasing property values, and reducing stormwater runoff.  Knoxville’s urban forester and Trees Knoxville are developing a canopy assessment and master plan for Knoxville’s urban tree canopy. Would you support and adequately fund such a plan for Knox County’s urban forest canopy?

Yes.  It’s important.  I like trees.  This is a worthy inclusion into the Knox County budget.

10) The vast majority of Knox County’s streams are listed by the state as polluted by sedimentation and/or coliform bacteria. What would you do to clean up these streams and turn them into community assets?

11) The Tennessee River ranks as the 4th most polluted river in the country, largely due to storm water runoff.  What can county policy do to help clean the river up?

For both of these questions, the answer might be elect Renee Hoyos and support the Tennessee Clean Water Network.  Also, see my answer to #8 above.  But, generally, as with many of the issues on this questionnaire, I believe I am an ally and would be a voice on the Commission for making positive change with regard to pollution in our lakes, streams and rivers.

12) What funding and procedural strategies will you promote to increase the development of solar energy at various scales (household, neighborhood, and large scale)?

13) What funding and procedural strategies will you promote to encourage more energy efficiency in commercial, government, and residential facilities?

For both questions 12 and 13, I think the strategy for advocates on the Commission will be to work to borrow ideas from the City of Knoxville as much as possible.  It’s inevitable that they will better be able to blaze a trail in these issues than we will at the county level.  But as the projects in the city start to show some success, it will make it easier for allies on the Commission to make arguments about the cost-effectiveness of these programs and the long-term cost savings to the residents of Knox County.  Slowly build out from the center of the city would be my recommendation for strategy in this area.  As far as funding goes, if you can make the pitch for a program that has shown long term success in saving money, it will make the more conservative members of the Commission more likely to vote for a large outlay of tax dollars in the budgets over the next four years.

14) KUB has “frozen its fees” and also promised to not raise rates for another three years.  Some folks think they should go farther and adopt a tiered rate structure to incentivize conservation and efficiency, and also to reduce the energy burden for low-income ratepayers.  Do you agree they should move in this direction?

If so, how would you influence them?  

Just as I support generally a more progressive system of taxation, I would support such a structure within KUB’s rates.  To be honest, though, I am skeptical of how much influence the County Commission might have in this area.  If groups came to the County Commission to discuss this issue, I would be receptive to the idea and would be willing to help facilitate such discussion.  But if I have to prioritize my opportunities to influence KUB on environmental issues, I would focus on improving the water quality and conservation program and also making it easier for people to install their own solar panels and connect that to the grid.

15) If elected, would you support the adoption of an all-electric county vehicle fleet?

I would give a qualified yes to this question.  I’m not sure the technology is available and practical to make all types of county vehicles all electric.  I support transitioning as much as possible to electric or hybrid vehicles in as short a time frame as possible

16) Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) operates bus routes throughout Knoxville. Would you support partnering with the city to expand KAT routes to Knox County locations to serve commuters and others traveling to and from Knoxville?

Yes.  Increased bus service not only can help the environment by reducing miles driven by cars, it also can reduce congestion and help people get to work.  If you don’t have a car, then you can only take a job that is within walking distance of where you live or where the bus goes.  An expanded system of public transportation would be a huge benefit for the residents of Knox County.

17) Electric motorists notice a glaring lack of chargers in Knox County, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.  What will you do to address this imbalance?

If I’m being honest, I don’t think there is much to be done at this time at the county level.  There is probably a place for the state or the federal government to implement regulations that would mandate more chargers around the country.  I don’t think I would support at this time regulation at the county level to do so.  On the other hand, by encouraging the local government to adopt more electric vehicles, I think that would help bring the market along for private companies to build the infrastructure for chargers in Knox County.

18) If elected, would you support legislation to expand public transportation, biking and walking as alternatives to driving?

I absolutely support extending public transportation as far as possible around the county.  I also support making it easier for people to bike and walk to work.  

I strongly opposed the Mayor’s change to the sidewalk ordinance (approved by the Commission) and I support the plan that the Commission approved to improve and increase greenways in the county.  I would support legislation to return that ordinance to how it was before and I will support funding for the greenways.

I’m for reasonable and responsible development.  It’s one of the main pieces of my platform.  I think walkability (and bikability) should be major considerations in the planning process for future development in Knox County.

19)  Would you support the addition of HOV lanes on I-40 and I-75?

Since I don’t drive during rush hour on I-40 or I-75, I don’t have a good appreciation for the need for HOV lanes.  I also suspect there would need to be major coordination at the state or federal level for such a change.  I’m not against it, but I would need to hear more before I would back such a proposal.

20) Do you think the city and county should have more community centers and parks than they have now?

I am in favor of as many parks and recreation facilities as the space and budget allow.  I would definitely support a study to determine if more were needed and, if so, where.

21)  Knoxville has developed a new greenways plan called the “Greenway Corridor Feasibility & Assessment Study” designed to “serve as a guiding document for connecting Knoxville’s greenways and parks.” Would you support the development of an equivalent companion plan for Knox County and work to expand greenways in Knox County?

I believe that the Knox County Commission approved a Greenway Corridor Study in January of this year.  I support their decision to approve the study and I also intend to advocate for and support following through on that study.

23) What strategies will you support to increase the amount of recycling with less contamination and reduced demand for landfills?

In many areas, such as with the County buying electric cars, the County government can show some leadership in an area with the hope of having people emulate their actions.  Just as some leaders have made sure that they wear masks in public as a sign to everyone else (although, unfortunately, not Mayor Jacobs), actions by the County government can make a difference in the rest of the county.  In the area of recycling, I think this is the best way forward for the County.  Try to implement better recycling in government.  Highlight the issue at Commission hearings.

24) Are you familiar with Sevier County’s solid waste composting facility, which reduces the volume of solid waste going to landfills by 75%?  Would you support the installation of a Commercial Composting Facility in Knox County to reduce the amount of methane producing organic materials entering the landfills?

I had not heard of this facility before you mentioned it in this question.  I would support the installation of such a facility in Knox County.

25) Will you support conversion of county diesel vehicles to zero-emission technologies?

My answer to this is essentially the same as #15 above.  I support as much conversion as possible. 

26) What are your specific ideas to improve air quality, to reduce asthma, bronchitis, & COPD?

I came across an article while researching this topic and found that Knoxville was lauded back in 2017 for the improvement in the “state of the air” here.  I think the best strategy for air quality is the same as it is in many other areas where the city can lead the way and the county can build upon the city’s successes.

My Campaign Financial Disclosure – 2nd Quarter Report

It’s time to put together the 2nd quarter Financial Disclosure, which will include all of the contributions received and expenditures made from April 1, 2020 through June 30, 2020.

You can see my previous posts about financial contributions here, here, and here. You can also go see the documents I’ve filed at the Election Commission website.

My Donations:

  • 4/15 – $500 from me
  • 5/6 – $500 from me
  • 5/26 – $500 from me
  • 6/3 – $500 from me

Total – $2000

My In-Kind Contributions:

Some of the spending I did for this report I just ended up paying for, rather than making a contribution to my campaign and having the money come from there. As with some of the expenditures last month, I used my personal PayPal account for the below items. That’s why I’m counting them as in-kind contributions.

  • 4/21/20 to 6/21/20 – Facebook Ads – $129
  • 6/5/20 – Advertisement with BrianHornbackdotCom – $380

Total – $509

My Expenditures:

The below items came from campaign funds.

  • 4/17 – Envelopes from Envelope superstore – $47.97
  • 4/17 – Copies from FedEx – $152.95
  • 4/20 – Supplies from Office Depot – $46.84
  • 5/7 – Return address stickers from Vistaprint – $61.27
  • 5/7 – postage – $110
  • 5/11 – Hustle app – $200
  • 5/26 – Yard signs from Super cheap signs – $483.24
  • 6/2 – postage – $275
  • 6/4 – postcards from Vistaprint – $70.45
  • 6/5 – Hustle app – $19.60
  • 6/22 – postage – $275
  • 6/30 – return address stickers from Vistaprint – $81.92

Total – $1824.24

I didn’t have any outstanding obligations or loans.

The Summary page shows that I ended the last period with $243.55 on hand. I had contributions from myself of $2000 and disbursements of $1824.24 and that leaves me with $419.31 balance on hand. My in-kind contributions were $509.

I did a quick summary of the fundraising of the Republicans in my race in my 1st Quarter post, so I figure I should do the same here in the 2nd Quarter post.

My general election opponent is Kyle Ward, who won the Republican primary on March 3, 2020. In the 2nd Quarter, Mr. Ward raised a little over $8,600 and spent almost $2000. He has about $6,600 balance on hand for the last month of the campaign. He also gave himself loans totaling about $214. His total fundraising in the primary and general elections has been over $38,000. He’s spent almost all of that, except, of course, the $6,600 balance on hand that he had as of June 30.

On the other hand, I’ve donated $3,500 to myself, none of which was done as a loan. I’ve also spent money on things from other than my campaign account and I’ve been calling those in-kind contributions. So, another $1,397 from the Frommeyers in that way. That brings the total amount I’ve spent on this campaign to be $4,897 (geez, is it that much?).

I guess I could have given my campaign a $5,000 loan and then I could have gone and done some fundraising so that I was not out of pocket. But that’s the point, I think. I’m trying to show that you can do this, at least at this level, without the fundraising. And, heck, I think I’ve been pretty frugal in keeping to $5,000 so far. I’ve taken no PAC money and no big money. In fact, I’ve only taken two individual donations (spoiler alert – the second one of those is going to show up in the next financial disclosure, due at the end of July).

On the other hand, in the course of the primary and general elections (so far), Mr. Ward has taken 12 separate donations of $1,000 or more. There’s one individual who has given to Mr. Ward’s campaign three times for a total amount of $2,250. I’m not going to name anyone, but if you look at the financial disclosure documents, you can figure it out for yourself.

Mr. Ward has also taken donations from three different Political Action Committees (PACs). The Building Industry PAC has donated to his campaign three times for a total amount of $1,000. The Tennessee Realtors PAC donated $500 to his campaign. And an organization I’ve never heard of, the Knox Liberty Organization, donated $300 to his campaign. Interesting side note, I found the Knox Liberty Organization has a page on Facebook. You can check it out here. It appears to be a pretty new page/organization. And the only listed team member is the same person that Mr. Ward credited as being his campaign manager on the podcast where he and I were both interviewed. Check them out. I’m not going to call him out by name, but if you’re interested, you can find out.

While there’s, obviously, an implicit criticism in my publishing the amounts and sources of contributions to Mr. Ward’s campaign. I’m trying to show a difference between his campaign and mine. But Mr. Ward and the contributors to his campaign are following the rules as they are. All the data that is supposed to be on his financial disclosures is right there.

So, maybe I should focus my criticism of the system itself. Knox County Commissioners play a big part in the process of rezoning land for development in the county. So, maybe, just maybe, the problem is that the rules for fundraising in campaigns allow a single person (a developer perhaps) to give up to $3,200 ($1600 for primary/$1600 for general) to a candidate for a single campaign. Or a system that allows Political Action Committees (with an interest in development) to hand out big checks to their preferred candidates (in my race, the limit is $8100 per election).

I stand for the idea that, while these type of donations may be legal, that doesn’t make them right. I don’t take the big money or PAC money donations so there is no question but EVERYONE has equal access to me.

If you agree with me, I hope you’ll consider giving me your vote on August 6. Early voting runs from July 17 to August 1. You can also request an absentee ballot and vote by mail. Go to the Election Commission website for more details.

If there is anything I can do to help in these uncertain times, don’t hesitate to reach out via social media, email or give me a call – (865) 850-1894.

Two Cents

It’s been a busy couple of weeks of budget talk in Knox County.

First, Knox County Schools put out their proposed budget. You can read about it here in the local media. The Knox County Schools page also has some info. The headline is about $4.4 million in cuts, including some job losses, furloughs, and a huge cut in the allocation of money sent to the schools for supplies and materials.

Then Mayor Jacobs announced his proposed budget on June 1. He put out a video highlighting various things, good and bad, in the budget. And he definitely wanted to make sure you know that there is no tax increase in the budget. It’s right there in the title of his YouTube video. The Mayor described the budget as “not pretty.” He said this is an “unprecedented situation.” He said the last couple of months were “anything but normal.” But he also wanted to make sure that we all remember his pledge during his campaign not to raise taxes.

Oh, yeah, he also said that he wants the Commission to approve this budget with the understanding that it is a working document. He said they may come back to the Commission multiple times over the coming fiscal year to seek to amend the budget. If their projection of sales tax revenues proves to be too conservative, then they can come back and perhaps undo some cuts. Likewise, if things get worse, he might also seek to amend the budget down further. In this latter situation, it didn’t need to be said, but clearly, based on the Mayor’s pledge, he would seek to fix things with more cuts, rather than consider any tax increases.

The Commission had their first public meeting on the budget on June 15. I was there to watch and I also spoke at the public forum part of the meeting. I followed three different speakers who were advocating for fully funding the schools. One of the speakers also mentioned the question of why property taxes aren’t on the table. It was the perfect setup for the remarks I had prepared.

I’ll throw the actual remarks I gave at the end of this piece, but here are the questions I raised and the points I made.

As I said above, the Mayor has described the situation as not pretty and unprecedented. He presented a budget that he tried to portray the budget as a shared sacrifice. Except, since he’s bound himself to this pledge of no tax increase, property owners seem to be excluded from that sacrifice.

I pointed out that property values in Knox County have gone up over the last 20 years and Tennessee has a certified tax rate law that says local jurisdictions can’t increase their revenues because property values go up. So, as a result, property tax rates have to go down. In the last 20 years, the property tax rate in Knox County has gone from $3.32 to $2.12 per $100 of assessed value. It’s gone down 120 cents.

I also pointed out that the Mayor’s budget document says that one cent of property tax equals $1.274 million in revenue. So, if you were to raise property taxes from $2.12 to $2.14 per $100 of assessed value, you would gain an additional $2.5 million in revenue, which could be used to offset the decline of revenue from sales taxes. If you own a $200,000 home, that would mean your property taxes would go up $40 annually. And, obviously, if you own a more expensive home, it would go up more.

My proposal would be to do the two cent increase in property taxes and let that extra revenue go to fill some of the holes in the Knox County Schools budget. I’ve made the same pitch in the answer to some questions from the Knoxville Focus (which I’ll write about later) and on Renee Hoyos’ Knittin’ and Politickin’ Facebook Live show.

I also asked the question in my comments whether it might also be appropriate to dip into the rainy day fund further to make sure that the Schools are taken care of. I suggested that the Mayor says these are unprecedented times and, maybe, that’s the exact use for a rainy day fund.

After I finished my comments, the Commissioners called up various officials to discuss the issues we four speakers had raised. There were a lot of excuses for why the rainy day fund couldn’t be touched. On property taxes, they noted that they projected the same amount of revenue this year as they did for last year. Even though there is more property on the rolls, because of the economy, they project they’ll have a harder time collecting.

I’m going to give some credit to Commissioner Larsen Jay, but maybe I’m damning him with my praise, since he’s a Republican. He was the only Commissioner to raise the question of why we are dependent on sales tax revenues, which are subject to the vagaries of the economy, to fund our schools. He didn’t come out and ask the same question I’m asking – why are property tax increases off the table – but he was in the ballpark.

I’ve said before, but it bears repeating. I think it’s irresponsible to make a pledge not to raise taxes. You never know when you’re going to face a global pandemic and have the economy shut down for two months. If you make that kind of pledge, you’re tying one hand behind your back. And, as the executive of a pretty big county, when things get tough, you’re stuck with using cuts or taking on debt to fix things.

The Schools budget is the biggest and most important part of our county budget. To my mind, it should be the last place you’re looking to cut corners. The Mayor shows what his true priority is when he allows huge cuts from the Schools just because he’s ideologically inclined to stick to a pledge which just hurts everyone in the county.

On the Facebook Live with Renee Hoyos, I was asked what would be the one thing I will want to take with me onto the Commission. I have a number of issues that I care about and which I think need to be addressed in the short term. I’m for Reasonable and Responsible Development. The lack of transparency at the KCSO. But I think the Schools is going to have to be my first priority. The Mayor says they may come to the Commission multiple times to amend the budget. I hope it means sales tax revenues are better than expected. In that case, I will advocate for the Schools to be first in line. But if the Mayor comes back and wants to amend the budget down, then I’m going to raise this issue again. It can be two cents or whatever level we can all agree on. But this is discussion that needs to happen. Under the Knox County Charter, the Commission has the power to adopt and amend the budget. And the Commission is not bound by the Mayor’s campaign pledge.

It is not lost on me that being the candidate in favor of a tax increase can make it hard to be elected and reelected. This is why I don’t expect this Commission to come anywhere near this idea. I also know that my opponent has pledged the same as Mayor Jacobs not to raise taxes. I wouldn’t blame him if he tries to hit me on this. As a matter of fact, I note that he’s added a post to his campaign Facebook page describing himself as “fiscally responsible.” At the end of the day, one of the main tenets of my campaign is to be transparent and stand for transparency in others when it’s called for. I’m for fully funding the Schools and I would raise property taxes in order to do that. You, as a District 4 voter, know where I stand on this issue. I think that’s important.

Mr. Chairman/Commissioners

The Mayor in his video announcement of the Knox County budget described this budget as “not pretty.”  He says the last couple of months have been “anything but normal.”  He also described this situation as “unprecedented.”

The Mayor said there is some good and some bad in the budget.  And maybe the sense of this budget is a little bit of shared sacrifice.  Some items maybe stay the same as last year.  But many items get a little cut here and there. 

So First, look at the Schools part of the budget, which has some serious holes.  To the tune of about $4.4m.  It looks like they’re cutting 20 jobs.  They say they’re saving $700k on 5 day furloughs.  There’s a $1m cut from school allocations that supplement costs for supplies and materials.  And they’re reducing funding for professional development plans.

To me, the schools part of the budget is not only the largest chunk of knox county’s budget, but it’s the most important.  To my mind, this Commission should seek to amend the Mayor’s budget to fill in those holes from the Schools budget.

And it seems to me you can do it one of two ways.  The first option is to draw down the rainy day fund some more.  Now here’s where you can maybe answer questions for me.  In his video, the Mayor said that they would be drawing down the rainy day fund by $3.7m and that would leave 3 months of operating funds.  There’s a chart on page 38 of the budget document which seems to show the rainy day fund from 2008 til now.  And if I’m looking at the right chart, that means that the rainy day fund was at about $39m in 2008 and got up to $68m in 2019.  The proposed budget would take the rainy day fund back to about $62m this year.  If I’m looking at the wrong chart there or misunderstanding, I hope the Commission or the Mayor can explain.  But if that chart does reflect the rainy day fund over the years, I’d like some better explanation for why more of that can’t be used to offset the current $4m cut.  I mean, we’re calling it a rainy day fund after all.  When you describe the situation as not pretty and unprecendented and you say you might need to come back for multiple amendments to the budget over the course of the fiscal year.  That feels pretty darn rainy.

Of course, we don’t really need to touch the rainy day fund if it can’t possibly go below $62m.

There’s another way to fix this.  You raise property taxes.  Yeah, I know the Mayor’s got this pledge not to raise taxes.  But how about some reality here. 

The mayor’s budget document states that 1 cent of property tax is equivalent to $1.274 million dollars.

In the last 20 years, property values in Knox County have gone up, but Tennessee has something called the certified tax rate law.  This says when your local property assessor says your property is worth more, that can’t mean that the county gets more revenue from you.  So the property tax rate has to go down to compensate.  

So, in Knox County over the last 20 years, the property tax rate has gone down from $3.32 to $2.12 per $100 assessed value.  In different terms, It’s gone down 120 cents.

So Here’s my two cents.  Pun intended.  Increase the property tax rate from $2.12 to $2.14 and use those funds to fill in the holes in the school budget.  That’s about $2.5m.  Maybe let the teachers have their professional development funding back.  That seems like an important thing to help attract and keep quality teachers in Knox County.  Or how about you put back that $1m for supplies and materials so that schools aren’t having to scrimp and run fundraisers and teachers aren’t having to pay for things out of their own pockets.  Or maybe 20 people don’t have to lose their jobs.

So, just 2 cents.  If you’ve got a $200,000 house, that’s an extra $40/year if my math is right.

This Commission is not bound by the Mayor’s pledge not to raise taxes.  It says in Sec 2.01 of the Knox County Charter that the Commission has the legislative power to amend the county budget and fix all county tax rates.  I think this Commission should do just that and send that extra money to the Schools.  

The Knox County Charter Review Committee And The Law Director

Geez, that title sounds like a boring cozy mystery or something. But, no, it’s where I was speaking and what I was speaking about on this past Thursday.

The Knox County Charter says that a Charter Review Committee must be constituted every eight years in order to determine the desirability of amendments to the Charter. There are a few ideas that seem to be getting attention for possible Charter amendments, but the biggest one I’ve seen is the idea to change the Knox County Law Director from an elected position to appointed by the County Mayor.

Due to the pandemic, the monthly Committee meetings were put off a couple of months. They finally got back to it on Thursday. I attended the previous meeting and knew that the question of the Law Director would likely be discussed at the next meeting, whenever it happened to be. Once I learned they were going to go on Thursday, I requested to speak at public forum. Doing that proved no problem at all. I emailed the public email for the County Commission and, after a little email back and forth, I was on the schedule.

I will note one thing. I knew this was coming, so I was ready. But the public notice on this meeting was not great. The notifications for the Charter Review Committee are posted on the County Commission website in a similar fashion to how they post notifications for Commission meetings. They provide a link to the agenda so that you can see what the Commission will be discussing. The Charter Review Committee had its agenda up, but it was bare bones, with no real details included. With the Commission, there are sometimes attachments that are linked to the agenda. You can click on the link and see the document in question. The link to get to attachments was there, but there were no attachments. And I think there should have been. They were discussing two proposals for changes to the Charter. Clearly all of the Committee members had copies of the proposals. They talked about them quite extensively. But the public wasn’t given access to the proposals on the website and no one read them for people to hear. Of course, there were only three people in the gallery that stayed til the end of the meeting – one member of the press, Commissioner Larsen Jay, and yours truly. But still. Would’ve been nice if they had just read the proposals out loud.

Anywho. Two people spoke at public forum. I spoke on the Law Director issue (I’m for keeping the position elected) and a representative of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office came and spoke on a different subject. I’m going to add the text of my remarks at the end of this post. Not because they’re especially great, but in the interest of transparency.

It became clear to me that support or opposition to this amendment to the Charter was a pretty decent proxy for whether you’re a strong supporter of the Mayor or not. From what I could tell, most of the Mayor’s appointees to the Committee were in favor (although one abstained). The Commission appointees seemed to vote in lockstep with the Commissioner who appointed them. And the Commission broke Nystrom, Smith and Anders for the amendment and Gill, Carringer, Schoonmaker, Busler, Beeler, and Dailey against. The amendment went down 12-10 with one abstention. I note that Chairman Anders (who voted in favor of the amendment) thought the amendment needed work and probably would have liked to postpone a vote until the amendment could be worked on. There is an outside chance the amendment could make another appearance I guess, but, for now, it’s not going to appear on the ballot in November. That’s the outcome I was hoping for (as you’ll see in a moment), so I’m relieved.

So, here are my comments. I can’t attest that I didn’t stumble and skip certain things in here when I actually spoke. But this is essentially what I said and what I think on this issue.

Mr. Chairman.  Members of the Committee.

I am here to speak in defense of keeping the Law Director position as elected, rather than making it a position appointed by the County Mayor.

As I’m sure you know, but for the benefit of those who are listening.  Section 3.08 of the Knox County Charter says that the Law Director is directly accountable to the qualified voters of Knox County by standing for election every 4 years.

If the Law Director leaves his or her position before the end of the term, the vacancy is filled by the Commission, not the County Mayor, until the next general election.

I’ve seen it written somewhere that most counties in Tennessee have attorneys appointed by a county mayor or commission. I don’t believe, though, that we should change our Charter based on the idea of being like all of the other counties in Tennessee.

The Attorney General of the state of Tennessee is not appointed by the governor.  He or she is appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court for a term of 8 years.

So, I come at this from the perspective of a retired lawyer.  Almost all of my lawyering time was as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the Air Force.  You know, like the the show JAG or the movie a Few Good Men, except I wasn’t also a fighter pilot and I didn’t get to cross-examine Jack Nicholson.

In my time as a JAG, I had the opportunity to give legal advice to a number of different commanders.  I found there were two basic types.  The first, better type, was the commander who wanted his legal advisor to give him or her plain unvarnished legal advice on a matter.  The second was the commander who said, here’s what I want to do.  Go to the UCMJ or the Air Force regs and figure out how I do it.  Give me something to hang my hat on, I don’t care how dodgy.

Obviously, as a lawyer, I preferred working for the former, rather than the latter, if for no other reason than it ensured I wouldn’t face any ethical issues.  One felt like being a legal advisor.  The other felt like being a fixer.

The Law Director’s duty, according to the description on the Knox County website is to execute and administer the legal affairs of the county.  The law director, his deputies and staff provide legal advice to county officials concerning their offices, serve as intermediary between other offices and departments of government, and litigate on behalf of the county in civil actions.

Based on that description, I think the drafters of the Knox County charter got it right to make this position accountable to the voters of Knox County, rather than the choice to be hired…and fired by the County Mayor as he or she sees fit.

Now, I have heard some on my side of the political aisle come out in favor of appointment of the Law Director based on the state of elections in Knox County.  The idea being that all elected party affiliated positions in county government except one are held by Republicans.  So, better to take this position out of the world of partisan elections.  Or so the argument goes.

My response to that is, one, I hope there are a few more Democrats in County government after the coming elections.  And, 2 –  that the Mayor, a Republican, is just as capable of putting a partisan hack in the job as are the voters of Knox County.  If we can get a partisan hack in either case, I think the job of choosing that person should rest with the voters, rather than one single person.

Another argument against changing how the Law Director is selected played out over the last year in the drama that was the TVA Tower deal.  The current Law Director, Bud Armstrong, was elected by the voters and is a Republican, just like the County Mayor.  The Mayor and his administration put together a complicated deal to buy/lease the TVA Tower.  Law Director Armstrong didn’t just roll over and give the green light. He raised legitimate legal questions about the way the deal was structured.

To my mind, I don’t think it mattered that Law Director Armstrong was in the same political party as the County Mayor.  I think the Law Director felt he had independence enough to raise those questions because he was elected by the voters of Knox County to be their Law Director.  I am not confident that a different Law Director who was appointed by the County Mayor would always be able to be that independent.

I want a Law Director who gives plain, unvarnished legal advice.  I think the best way to get this is to keep this position accountable to the voters of Knox County.

Campaign Miscellany – Middle Of May Edition

I’ve got a few little blurbs I wanted to get out, so I thought I would just throw them down here.

  • I was really disappointed to see that Knox County Sheriff Spangler renewed the KCSO’s involvement in ICE’s 287(g) program for another year. I strongly believe this program is bad for the country and for Knox County. I’ve posted about this on Facebook a couple of times and wrote on this blog at some length. Ironically, I made that post here on the same day that Sheriff Spangler announced the renewal. I’ll note with interest that last year, Sheriff Spangler signed the renewal on May 14, 2019, but didn’t actually announce it to the public until June 28, 2019 – two days before the agreement was set to expire. This time, at least, he didn’t wait til the last second to announce. Small consolation, though. I’ll repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere. I oppose this program and, if elected, I will work to provide oversight and anything else I can do to help end our county’s involvement with this odious program.
  • Speaking of the 287(g), there was a small protest, followed by a parade of cars on Friday. I went down to the protest site in solidarity with the protestors, but did not take part in the parade of cars. There was some coverage on the local news. You can see those here and here. And if you want more information about the program, go check out AKIN’s website.
  • I had another edition of #indiwalksknox #crocs4knox this morning. We decided to try out IC King park. I missed the entrance on first pass coming north on Alcoa Highway. When we got there, it was clear this part of the park (there’s some mention of trails and a dog park) wasn’t really what the Yellow Lab was looking for. Well, strike that. She would have loved to jump in the water, but it wasn’t super conducive for doing that. I noticed there was a south entrance to the park that was blocked off. Maybe things aren’t entirely opened back up? I’m not ready to write this park off yet, but it didn’t have what I was looking for today. On the other hand, if you’ve got a watercraft of some sort or want to fish off a pier, this might be the place for you.
  • But with a hyperactive lab in the van, I knew I had to go somewhere. I decided to run down to Sequoyah Hills Park. Yeah, I know this is a City administered park, but I had to get the dog out of the van before she blew a gasket. We had a nice 2 mile or so walk and the Lab got to go chase sticks in the water a bit. Dr. Frommeyer is on call today and the 10 year old is with her dad for a week, so it’s just me and the grandmas and the dogs today. It was nice to get out and get some exercise.
  • As of the writing of this, there are 83 days left until election day. And about 63 days left until early voting. It’s coming up quickly!
  • This week, I’ll be doing an online Town Hall with the Knox County Democrats. I’ll make sure to share on social where you can watch. On June 2, there may another big online event that I’ll be involved with. Stay tuned for more on that.
  • Important dates:
    • You can request an absentee ballot from now until 7/30/20
    • Tuesday, July 7, 2020 – Final day to register to vote before election
    • Friday, July 17, 2020 – First day of Early Voting period (Registered voters can vote at ANY Early Voting location)
    • Saturday, August 1, 2020 – Final day of Early Voting period
    • Thursday, August 6, 2020 – Election Day (Registered voters MUST VOTE AT THEIR ASSIGNED PRECINCT)
  • Til next time…