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.

Published by Todd Frommeyer for Knox County Commission

Retired Air Force JAG, former Navy Russian linguist, former consumer financial regulator, political junkie

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