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

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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