Let The 287(g) Contract Between ICE And The KCSO Expire On June 30, 2020

[UPDATE: Unfortunately, yesterday, May 13, 2020, Sheriff Spangler renewed for another year Knox County’s involvement with the ICE 287(g) program. You can read about it here. This is one of the many areas where Knox County government needs some oversight from County Commission. I am committed to helping to provide that oversight as the Commissioner from District 4. Vote August 6!]

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. The current Sheriff of Knox County, Tennessee, Tom Spangler, renewed the controversial 287(g) partnership between ICE and Knox County last summer. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the two parties “delegates some federal immigration enforcement powers to local agencies.” In this case, to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO).

There is a local organization which has been fighting the Sheriff’s office on this – Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN). A member of the AKIN Steering Committee, Sarah Margaret Hutchison, wrote an op/ed with some interesting facts about this program. She noted that the KCSO is one of only two law enforcement agencies in Tennessee participating in this program. She also pointed out that “jurisdictions participating in 287(g) engage in practices that target Latino residents at higher rates. In Knox County, Latino residents are frequently targeted and arrested on offenses that non-Latino residents receive only citations for.”

Aside from this, the KCSO has been rebuked by the judge in a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s office for its lack of cooperation and disclosure of arrest records related to the 287(g) program.

It turns out that you can see a copy of the Memorandum between ICE and the KCSO on the ICE website. I’ve given this 20 page agreement a once over. I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert in immigration law and I’m sure there are lots of details that I don’t know about how this agreement between ICE and the KCSO works. But there are a few things I find interesting in the agreement.

First, in Section V, it talks about Inter-Governmental Service Agreements whereby the KCSO “will continue to detain, for a reimbursable fee, aliens for immigration purposes, if ICE so requests, following completion of the alien’s criminal incarceration.” It appears that the KCSO does have such an agreement. AKIN has a copy of the contract on their website, so we have some details. But, how can we know how whether this fee makes up for the full cost of keeping extra prisoners in our already overcrowded jail? Does it make up for the extra man hours that KCSO officers (who are deputized ICE agents under this agreement) spend dealing with these extra prisoners? ICE doesn’t pay the salaries of KCSO ICE deputized officers. Does that mean they take on extra ICE duties in addition to their regular duties? Do they need to pay overtime to make up for the extra work? Or do they have to hire more officers to make up the slack?

Second, in Section XII it says, “the KCSO will be responsible and bear the costs of participating KCSO personnel with regard to their property or personal expenses incurred by reason of death, injury, or incidents giving rise to liability.” So, if I’m reading that correctly, Knox County is on the hook to be sued and potentially have to pay damages for any negligent or unlawful actions taken by their ICE deputized officers. I note that Nashville had to pay almost $500,000 for their treatment under the 287(g) program of a pregnant woman who was shackled while she gave birth after being arrested under the 287(g) program. Is this really an expense we want to incur on behalf of a federal agency? In general, I question why we’re OK in Knox County with expending the time and resources of our local law enforcement officers to do the job of federal law enforcement.

Third, I’m troubled by the KCSO’s secrecy on this program. It’s clear that Sheriff Spangler signed the extension to the MOA on May 14, 2019. News reports show that the KCSO did not announce the extension until a “news dump” on Friday, June 28, 2019. The Addendum to the MOA extended the term of the agreement until June 30, 2020.

I am opposed to this program for all of the reasons above and so many more. But I’m equally troubled by the lack of transparency by the KCSO in dealing with their involvement with ICE. I assume that the KCSO believes in this program. But they hide and delay and don’t cooperate with requests for information. It’s a bad look for the Sheriff’s office.

Now, in Spring 2020, there’s another reason to be rid of our involvement with the 287(g) program in Knox County. I saw a news item in my email last Friday about how Washington County in Arkansas had suspended their participation in the 287(g) program because of the strain of COVID-19 on the county jail. This is evidently at least the second jurisdiction to halt the program because of the coronavirus. Florida’s Monroe County did the same in April. I understand we have pretty bad overcrowding in our county jail. This fact is made worse (I assume, but don’t know because the KCSO won’t release data) by the number of 287(g) detainees in there. Why do we put our residents in more danger of infection by COVID-19 for the sake of this optional federal program?

The list of reasons to be against the 287(g) program are long:

  • It harms the relationships between law enforcement and minority communities;
  • It leads to increases of racial profiling;
  • It does not improve community safety or prevent crimes from occurring;
  • It leads to more overcrowding in our county jail;
  • It does not save Knox County taxpayers money;
  • It may even cost us more money if you count man hours lost;
  • It means that our local law enforcement is distracted from their local duties in order to perform federal law enforcement duties

The list of reasons to be in favor of the 287(g) program is…incomplete. Since the KCSO won’t provide information to the public and won’t come out publicly to defend the program and refute criticism with actual data, I can’t come up with a single thing to put on the list in favor of this program.

So, here’s my bottom line pledge as a candidate for County Commission. I oppose Knox County’s involvement in the 287(g) program. I believe it is bad for the country and bad for Knox County. I hope that Sheriff Spangler does the right thing and lets the agreement expire without renewal on June 30, 2020. If Sheriff Spangler continues Knox County’s involvement with this program and I am fortunate enough to be elected to the County Commission, I will be a voice and vote for transparency on this program. I will be an ally of AKIN and any other residents of Knox County who oppose this program. I will do everything I can as County Commissioner to end our involvement in the 287(g) program. #end287g #spanglerend287g #knoxvilleunited


Political Action Committees In Knox County Politics

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not taking big money donations and I’m not taking donations from Political Action Committees (PACs). While I’m not really taking any donations to speak of, when I talk of “big money,” I mean the $500 and $1,000 checks that a lot of the candidates for Knox County Commission receive from their donors. In a local race such as mine, the donation per election is $1,600 (the limit for statewide races is higher). Primary and general elections count separately for these purposes.

On the other hand, PACs can donate more per election than can individuals – up to $8,100 per election. When I started this campaign, I was surprised by the number of PACs which donate to candidates for the Commission. Most don’t come close to the limit (with one exception), but there are a fair amount of players. I looked back through the last couple of election cycles and found:

The biggest players in the County Commission races from the above PACs (as best I can tell) are the Building Industry PAC and the Tennessee Realtors PAC. They have given to many of the Commission candidates’ campaigns in the last couple of cycles. The biggest donor in money looks to be the Making a Reasonable Stand PAC, which gave $5,000 each to two different candidates for Commission and to Mayor Jacobs. The Commission candidates won if you were interested. McPAC, Farris Mathews Bobango, PLC PAC and BWSC PAC gave to Mayor Jacobs’ campaign, but not to any of the Commission candidates as far as I can tell.

I’ve written about PACs before. You can read that post here. I’ve also done a couple of interviews with PAC affiliated organizations. I wrote about the interview with the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors here. This organization seems to help direct Tennessee Realtors PAC money to candidates in the Knoxville/Knox County area. I also sat down with the Knox County Education Association, which has given PAC donations in the past. I was looking back in the archive and don’t see where I wrote about that interview. It was a pretty good interview and I think I’m in line with their ideas, but, again, I’m not doing PAC money.

The reason I’m coming back to this is twofold. First, I found out some additional information about the PACs. I probably just didn’t dive deep enough before. And I know more of the players now. But, second, in the latest financial disclosures, I saw that my opponent – Kyle Ward – received his second $250 donation from the Building Industry PAC for the primary election. I previously talked about how the Republicans in my race have gotten a lot of their campaign donations from moneyed interests and people with an interest in the outcome of the development that the Commission often votes on. You can read that here.

Since the Building Industry PAC is back on my radar, I thought it might be worth a little deeper dive to see what they’re about. Based on the data available with a simple search at the Tennessee Online Campaign Finance website, this PAC seems to be an arm of the Home Builders Association of Greater Knoxville (HBAGK). They also seem to have some connection to the Housing Industry PAC in Nashville (based on how much money they send to them). The database has reports from this PAC back to 2004, so they’ve been around a while. They have given donations to plenty of Commissioners and other politicians, including $1,500 to Mayor Jacobs during his 2018 campaign.

As I’ve said before, this stuff is legal. I don’t like it. I’d like to see it change, but this is the system we’ve got. I’m not alleging anything nefarious on the part of Kyle Ward or any other recipients of big money or PAC money in their campaigns. But what this money means is access to the candidate and access to the representative. Or the Commissioner. Or the Mayor. Or the fill in the blank. I saw it in the fact of the interviews I went to with the KAAR and KCEA. I knew I wasn’t taking their money, but that’s not the case for everyone. And, after the election, do the representatives of these PACs get a direct line to you in order to talk about their pet issue? Do you feel like you have to take the call from the guy or gal who wrote you a $1,500 check during your campaign? I think money skews how it works. And the big money donors and the PACs have an agenda. Obviously. Maybe everyone has an agenda. But, if it’s the people with the money that get access to the candidate or the Commissioner, then it’s their agenda that gets heard. That’s not how it should work.

So, here’s MY pitch. I’m not taking big money and I’m not taking PAC money. There is a clear difference between me and my opponent in this regard. YOUR agenda is my agenda. I’m taking a stand against the influence of money in Knox County politics. I’m here for the people of Knox County who can’t afford to write $500 or $1,000 checks to a candidate’s campaign. Remember, the election is August 6. Please vote, even if you’re not voting for me. And stay safe out there!

My Campaign Financial Disclosure – 1st Quarter Report

Even with Covid-19 shutting us down for a while, the requirement to submit financial disclosure reports has not been quarantined. I got my letter around April 6 and sent it off by the end of last week. The deadline was Monday, April 13, 2020 and almost all of the candidates had their reports in on time. I’ve waited to write this post because I wanted to see what other candidates had submitted – in case there was something interesting to report. So, below you’ll find my details for the 1st Quarter report. You can find my previous posts here and here. And since I’m probably the only candidate throwing financials out on the ol’ campaign website like this, you can check out everyone else’s reports at the Election Commission website. This period covers February 23, 2020 to March 31, 2020.

My Donations:

I didn’t receive any donations during the period of this report.

My In-Kind Contributions:

A lot 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. The Facebook ad payments went through PayPal, for example. We also paid cash for the T-shirts and car magnet (thanks to Kreations by Kelly). The campaign buttons were from Speedy Buttons and I bought the postage at the Post Office on Cross Park Drive out here in West Knoxville.

  • Postage – $165
  • T-Shirts/Magnets – $411
  • Campaign Buttons – $67
  • Facebook Ads – $215

My Expenditures:

You can probably say that many of the items in my in-kind contributions count as expenditures. But I figured since I paid for them from my funds, rather than campaign funds, they fit better in the in-kind. The below items, though, came from campaign funds.

  • Envelopes (Envelope Superstore) – $61
  • Postcards and Address labels – $132

I didn’t have any outstanding obligations or loans.

The Summary page shows that I had $436.55 on hand last report. I had disbursements of $193 and that leaves me with $243.55 balance on hand. My in-kind contributions were $858.

Since the time of my last report, we’ve had the primary election and I know who my opponent on August 6, 2020 will be – Kyle Ward.

Mr. Ward took in an additional $1,325 on top of his $14,422 balance on hand, but he spent it all except for about $26. So, based on all of his reports, it appears Mr. Ward raised $30,041 and spent $30,014 in defeating Scott Broyles for the honor of taking on little ol’ me in the general election. He also gave himself a loan of about $3,400 which he paid off at some point during this period. Loan repayments count as part of your disbursements, therefore, the loan repayment is included in the $30,014 I noted that Mr. Ward spent.

As of the writing of this post, Mr. Broyles’ most recent financial disclosure has not been posted at the Election Commission website. In his first two financial disclosures, Mr. Broyles raised about $32,500 and spent about $25,000 in the primary race. I assume these numbers would have been higher counting the funds raised and spent after February 22, which is when the last report before this one ended. Mr. Broyles also gave himself a loan of $5,000, which has not been repaid as of the end of the last statement. [UPDATE: Soon after I posted this, Mr. Broyles 1st Quarter Financial Disclosure was posted to the Election Commission. He had no receipts and spent an additional $3,112. He did not pay his loan off, so the $5,000 loan is still outstanding. He has about $4,200 balance on hand.]

On the other hand, I’ve spent about $2,174 of my own money. No loans. So, I won’t be raising money to pay myself back.

I wanted to point out this disparity in the fundraising and spending to emphasize what I think is a problem in Knox County politics. The two Republicans in my race raised over $60,000 combined for their campaigns. They spent almost that much. And that’s just in the primary election. If you take a look at how they raised the money (and I have), they did it from a relative few donors. The kinds of donors that can write big checks. They gave themselves loans which they can turn around and raise money in order to pay off.

This is the purest example of how money in politics gives certain people access to our elected representatives. But, I’m trying to do it differently. I’m taking a stand against this kind of politics. It’s bad enough that Mayor Jacobs raised over $300,000 and spent over $240,000 in his race to be County Mayor. Or that the spending in the last Tennessee gubernatorial race was in the millions. Or that the next presidential race may top a billion in spending. I feel like in the race for 1 of 11 County Commissioners, we shouldn’t be focusing on how much we can raise and spend.

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. If you’re 60 or over and want to avoid the crowds at the polls, you can request an absentee ballot with no excuse 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.

Vote By Mail In Tennessee

As a Democrat, I stand for the idea that we should improve our representative democracy. It’s in the name after all. One of the main ways to do this, in my opinion, is to make it easier for citizens to vote. I believe voting should be considered a right, rather than a privilege. I don’t agree with the idea that only certain people should be entitled to vote or that whatever obstacles are put up in the name of eliminating voter fraud are OK, because people should have to put in some effort to get to vote. And this isn’t just a straw man argument. Back in my early arguing on Facebook days in 2015-16, I encountered many people (almost all of whom were Trump supporters) who made these arguments or reasonable facsimiles thereof.

We live in a world of: Voter ID laws (your gun license is an acceptable ID, but not your student ID?); various forms of voter suppression, including some which are specifically and expressly targeted at people of color (I’m looking at you North Carolina); and increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering. As a rule, red states tend to try to make it harder for people to vote and blue states make it easier (although, what’s up New York? Get your act together). Really egregious gerrymandering tends to happen more in red states than blue, but this tactic crosses party lines (I’m looking especially at you Maryland). If you happen to disagree with my characterization of which side engages more in voter suppression and gerrymandering, hit me up on social media and let’s discuss. I can get on board with criticizing the Democratic Party where they fall short in these areas. I just think Republicans do it more.

Tennessee is generally considered a red state. Reliably goes for the Republican nominee in Presidential years. Pockets of blue near the cities, but otherwise fairly red. As far as gerrymandering goes, I think there are issues, but it’s not as bad as in other states. I want to dive into gerrymandering at some point here. Not just as an academic exercise, but because the County Commission will be doing a line drawing exercise in Knox County after the census – in or about 2021. I hope to be on the Commission at that point, so I want to take a harder look at the process to make sure I know how it’s been done in the past and how it ought to be done this time. Stay tuned for that.

Today, though, I want to focus on how Tennessee handles voting. From what I can tell, as far as red states go, Tennessee isn’t terrible. We have some early voting before elections. We don’t seem to be in the headlines, like some other red states, for egregious purges of voting rolls. Voting by mail (absentee voting) isn’t no excuse for everyone, but if you’re 60 or older, it is no excuse. You can see the full list of authorized reasons for voting by mail (absentee) at the Tennessee Secretary of State website. Besides the 60 and over excuse, some other excuses are:

  • the voter will be outside the county of registration during the early voting period and all day on election day
  • the voter’s licensed physician has filed a statement with the Election Commission stating that the voter is medically unable to vote in person.
  • the voter is hospitalized, ill or disabled
  • the voter is a candidate for office in the election, is an election day official or an employee of the election commission.
  • religious grounds
  • member of the military or overseas citizen

It’s interesting to me that, as a candidate, I can request an absentee ballot. I’ll do early voting, I’m sure, but good to know it’s an option.

Since I’m immersed in my campaign, I am acutely aware of the various voting related dates that apply to my general election day (August 6, 2020) and also the national general election day (November 3, 2020). One of the things that I’ll be focusing on in my online campaign is to try to let as many people know if they can vote by mail and when they can request that ballot. The dates are:

  • First day to request an absentee ballot – May 8, 2020
  • Final day to request an absentee ballot – July 30, 2020
  • Early Voting Period – July 17, 2020 – August 1, 2020
  • Election Day – August 6, 2020

The other thing that’s on my mind is how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect people’s ability to cast their votes on August 6 and November 3. In an ideal world, I think Tennessee ought to direct that all registered voters be sent ballots to vote for August 6, 2020 and November 3, 2020. Unfortunately, though, I don’t see that happening. But I hope at least that the state can see a way to make voting by mail (absentee voting) more accessible for anyone who doesn’t otherwise qualify for an absentee ballot, but fears that going to the polls will put their health in danger. It seems like the state could take away the requirement that a licensed physician submit a statement and just state that anyone who fears for their health because of the pandemic can request an absentee ballot. Keep the rest of the process the same (although you might need to modify the absentee ballot request form to include the pandemic as a reason).

Considering the slow response to the crisis by Governor Lee and Mayor Jacobs, I’m not optimistic that the State will take this step. After all, they’re Republicans and they probably adhere to the conventional wisdom on voting, that less restrictive voting procedures make it more likely that Democrats will win. I hope they can see past their partisan bias and enact voting procedures that make it easier for all Tennesseans to vote this year.

A Little About Me – The Intersection of Music and Covid-19

During this time of social distancing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we still try to keep to some of our normal routines. As much as we can anyway. One of those things for me is getting ready to sing at a wedding in June. Yeah, really. Let me explain.

Over at the ol’ Facebook campaign page, I’ve been doing some additional writing about my views and about me. In one of those posts, I talked about my time in the Navy as a Russian linguist and how, when I was studying Russian in Monterey, I was also in a Russian Choir. You can see the blurb and pics here. I’ve also done some other singing over the years. This includes the fact that I’ve been the lead singer in a few garage/basement bands over the years. The most recent one of those is a group called The White Hot. When I was living in Northern Virginia, I hooked up with some guys and we played around a bit. A few gigs. Mostly learning songs in the basement. After I left Northern Virginia and moved to Knox County, some friends of the band asked if we’d play a wedding. I was already here in Tennessee, but I had reason to go back to Virginia occasionally, so I agreed. The gig (which we played for free) went well. The family had a good time and so did the band.

I thought that might be my swan song on stage, but then, in March 2019, some other friends of the band were scheduling a wedding for June 2020. They had a great time at the other wedding. Would we be willing to play their wedding? After much discussion, we said yes. Fifteen months should be enough time to put together some songs, especially if we relied mostly on the stuff we’ve done before. So, for the last year I’ve been flying into town and practicing with the guys to get ready for this coming wedding. I’ve written here and here about those practices, if you care to get some more details.

But now we’ve got a pandemic that has shut down almost everything. I was going to fly up for a practice in April, but, uh, no thank you. Now, sensibly, the family has put off the wedding from June 20 to August 15. So we’re still a go. At least for now. And that means that I’m still doing my homework on this end, even with the pandemic. We’re a cover band, so I listen to the songs, work on my phrasing, make sure I can still hit the notes. Things like that.

Then last night, I heard the news that Adam Schlesinger had died from complications due to Covid-19. In case you don’t know the name, you might know some of his work. He was one of the members of the band Fountains of Wayne. He was a prolific songwriter. He did a lot of the songwriting on the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He also wrote (or co-wrote) the song, That Thing You Do, from the movie of the same name.

All of the deaths from this pandemic are tragedies. By focusing on the death of this moderately famous songwriter, I don’t mean to diminish any of the other deaths that have occurred or will occur. But this one hit me pretty hard. And for the silliest of reasons. He wrote two of the songs that we play or have played in The White Hot.

Our current setlist includes That Thing You Do…

And we have previously done Stacy’s Mom, by Fountains of Wayne. I’m gonna post a live version here because this is a family friendly blog. If you’re a guy of a certain age, though, you probably know the official music video which includes Rachel Hunter and a lot of pop culture references.

So, since last night, I’ve been checking out songs by him, including the ones we’ve done in the band. There’s lots of good stuff out there.

But, Mr. Schlesinger’s death is probably not going to be the last death from this pandemic that hits close to home for me. And there are many people out there who are losing loved ones or fearing for their own safety or the safety of others. This thing is bad and is probably going to get worse. Please stay safe out there. Listen to what the experts are saying. Let’s do everything we can to save as many lives as possible. This is a time for us all to pull together. Metaphorically, of course. If we meet out at the grocery store, though, don’t be offended if I stay six feet away.

Down at the bottom of the homepage of this blog is all of my personal contact information, including my personal cell phone. If I can help you with anything, don’t hesitate to call me.

Checking Out Knox County Parks #indiwalksknox

Campaigning in the time of Covid-19 requires one to think outside the box. In terms of traditional campaigning (until door knocking can commence), I’ve got some ideas. Stay tuned for more on those in the coming weeks. But, it came to my mind that I previously made a campaign pledge to walk the neighborhoods of District 4 and to bike as many of the neighborhoods and greenways as I can. I think I’m going to add something to that pledge.

My yellow Lab, Indianna, and I will walk around as many of the Knox County Parks as we can. The goal is to get some exercise and get outside. But also, I want to see the state of the Parks system. Maybe highlight places that are hidden gems or in need of some help. I do this with the idea of being more informed about the County I’m trying to represent on the Commission.

I’m going to dive into Knox County administered parks for the most part, but also want to see some of the parks that are in District 4, but administered by the City of Knoxville. For instance, I started this project #indiwalksknox this morning at Lakeshore Park, which is listed among the parks administered by the City and is located in District 4. We did the outer loop (about 2.3 miles according to my Apple watch) at a leisurely pace. It was cool out, but nice for a walk.

You can follow along with our progress on social media – @fro4knox4 on FB/Twitter/Insta. Hope to see you out there!

Yeah, and we named the dog Indianna.

Another TV Opportunity

Last week before the Covid-19 quarantines really kicked in, I taped a 15 minute segment on local cable – Democratic TV Live. This is my second opportunity to be on local TV here in Knox County in conjunction with my campaign. I wrote about the first time here.

A couple of notes about the taping.

  • There’s a reason I wear t-shirts almost exclusively. That collared shirt with tie made my neck look really fat. I’m not saying that TV adds 15 pounds, because those pounds are all mine. I have the appetite to prove it. But the shirt and tie were not flattering. If you watch and want to comment, please be kind.
  • I came out of the taping thinking I had done a little too much “um-ing.” When we were talking after the fact, they reassured me it wasn’t as bad as I thought. They were right. Still, too many “ums” for my taste, though.
  • My section is the last 15 minutes of the show. The first 15 minutes is another of the Democratic candidates – Courtney Durrett – from the 2nd District. She was excellent and really made a good case for her candidacy. She’ll be an excellent rep on the Commission. If you’ve got the time, give her segment a watch.
  • Just as with my first time on the local cable, I was advised not to mention my campaign website. This time they explained that the reason for that is because of fundraising. Campaign websites usually have donate buttons. I pointed out that I’m not doing that and they thought maybe I could mention my website since I don’t do fundraising that way. But I really didn’t want to cause DTV to have any issues, so I just avoided mentioning the website and went with the email addresses like I did last time.
  • The show aired the first time at 7:30 p.m. this evening and then was put up online. To be honest, I was dreading watching it. I came out not sure how I did and was worried it was going to look bad. I just finished watching it and, aside from the fat neck issue, I think I did OK. OK enough that I’m going to share the link on my social media. It’s 15 minutes of your life, but with the virus raging outside, maybe you have a couple of minutes to spare.
  • I’m gonna share the link here. I’m not able to embed at this point, so please click below.


Knox County Charter Review Committee – At-Large Members

I attended the meeting of the Charter Review Committee last night. They were reviewing Articles I and II of the Charter. Those cover the Powers and Functions of the Commission (Article I) and the Legislative Branch (Article II). Pretty much the discussion stayed within Article II.

The main issue that was discussed was what to do about the at-Large members of the Commission. There are nine Commissioners tied to 9 districts and two at-large Commissioners, which are elected through county-wide vote. The proposed changes would affect the language in Article II, Section 2.03(A)(1).

The evening started with public forum. One of the current at-large members of the Commission, Larsen Jay, spoke out against any of the proposals which would eliminate the at-large members. His argument was, essentially, that the at-large members offer a second avenue to which residents of Knox County can appeal, beyond the Commissioner from their own district.

Commissioner Busler – 7th District – made a proposal to eliminate the at-large members and stick with just nine commissioners, one per district. His argument was that having two at-large members of the Commission who can come from any district might give certain districts greater representation and more votes than the other districts. He stressed 1 vote per district is how it should work.

An appointed member of the Committee – Barry Neal – suggested that the at-large members should be eliminated and, instead, there should be two commissioners per district for a total of 18.

During discussion of the matter, someone suggested expanding the number of districts to 11 and keeping the at-large members. Based on the comments I heard last night, I doubt there are enough votes for any proposal which would eliminate the at-large members. While some agreed that the idea of one vote per district is laudable, no one could point to an example of when the extra votes for a particular district came into play. The arguments in favor of the at-large members, that they serve a valuable function being able to look at issues county-wide and provide a second avenue for constituents to get assistance, seemed to win the day.

The Committee decided to get some legal questions answered from the Law Director over the next month and try to come up a proposal to vote on at the next meeting in April. They want to see how changing the districts will affect the School Board districts. Most agree that they currently match exactly and don’t want to go back to the time when they didn’t. But the question is can they make the same change to the School Board districts that they’re contemplating for the Commission districts. They also want to look into the fact that the county is growing and how that could affect the decision they’re looking at.

If I were sitting on this Committee, I would be inclined to vote against any proposal which would eliminate the at-large members. I agree with the idea of Commissioner Busler’s argument that each district should have but one vote. But, in practice, this doesn’t appear to have been an issue. The positive benefits of having Commission members who look at the whole county, not just at a district, outweigh the issue raised by Commissioner Busler.

I would also be inclined to vote against any proposal which increases the number of Commissioners per district. More than one voice speaking for a District could be problematic. Better to have one elected voice per district. I also think that doubling the number of Commissioners is a problem because it makes the number of Commissioners even and adds the complication of tie votes.

I am neutral on the idea of increasing the number of districts, as long as we also keep the at-large members too. I think I can be swayed by the idea of dividing up the county into 11 districts, plus 2 at-large members. I would wait to see that proposal before deciding what to do.

But, at the end of the day, the best option is probably just to leave it alone. It’s only been about 10 years with the current configuration. A little continuity for voters might be the best thing overall.

The Knox County Commission Needs Some Different Viewpoints

I’ve been attending Knox County Commission meetings since I got into this race. As I’ve said before, I think a candidate for office should be familiar with what he or she would do if elected. So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do the last few months.

In watching how the meetings go and reviewing the Commission agendas and their attachments, I can see that the Commission’s work is concentrated mainly in a few areas. You can see some of what they do here. Budgets and appropriation of taxpayer money and taxing power. Zoning issues/changes. Implementing new laws or changing or eliminating existing laws. This includes being involved in the review and potential revision of the Knox County Charter (which is going on right now). I would say that’s at least 75% of the job. Probably more.

I like to make the comparison between the County Commission and the United States Congress. The Commission is smaller, of course, but the same principles apply. The Commission writes and changes laws. It has committees that focus on certain areas. The County Charter gives the Commission some oversight over the actions of the County Mayor. Likewise, the Mayor can veto acts of the Commission and the Commission can overrule that veto. The Commission even has subpoena power.

Suffice to say, there is a lot going on at the Commission and the Commission has a lot of power to affect the lives of Knox County residents. So, considering my view that the process for getting development approved in Knox County doesn’t seem to include everyone in the process, I thought I would take a look at the backgrounds of the Commissioners who are sitting there. I saw that there are people who have genuinely been involved in public service. A retired educator, a police officer. People involved in giving back to the community, either through volunteering or through their jobs. You know what I also found? Seven of the eleven Commissioners have extensive experience in the business world. And, while there are some with local government experience (Register of Deeds; Trustee’s office), no one with legal training.

I think this shows that the Commission doesn’t have enough community diversity in the perspectives and backgrounds of its members. Commissioners who can speak to the needs of the business community? Sure, plenty of that. But where are the other viewpoints?

In addition, there is no one on the commission with legal experience. I’ll admit that people in business probably have a lot of experience in areas that have legal implications. Like with contracts, for instance. And certainly there are people on the Commission who have worked in local government and had to deal with laws and regulations in their jobs. But there is no one on the Commission whose job it was to argue about, interpret and write about laws and regulations.

So, there’s an election coming up – August 6. The voters of District 4 will choose a new County Commissioner for their District. The choice is yours truly and the winner of the Republican primary – Kyle Ward. Kyle is an Air Force veteran. I’m glad he chose to serve and I’m glad that, no matter what else happens, there will be a veteran as Commissioner from District 4. Kyle is also a small business owner. I have nothing but praise for Kyle as a business owner. It’s a really hard thing to do – to start a business.

But, honestly, we’ve got enough business perspective on the Commission. We need someone who can stand up for the little guy. While I haven’t started a business in my life, what I have done is dedicate my adult life to public service. I served 20 years in the military and am a retired lawyer. I worked as the military equivalent of a public defender and stood with Airmen who were facing criminal charges and/or in danger of having their careers cut short. I also worked for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where I worked with individual consumers and helped them fight back against big banks and other consumer financial companies. I will use my experience in public service and standing up for the little guy in my position as Knox County Commissioner, if I am fortunate enough to be elected in August. That’s the perspective that is needed on the Commission.

As for legal experience on the Commission, I admit that it’s not a need to have. The Commission works closely with the Law Director’s office and gets excellent legal advice from them. But I have seen the documents that the Commissioners have to review in the course of their work. Just recently, the Mayor’s unfortunate TVA Tower deal included contracts and legal documents that are 100s of pages long. I will be able to use my experience and expertise in legal matters to ask the right questions and drill down into the details of matters like this. I believe my legal experience is going to give me a headstart in being ready to take on the very important job of being a legislator in Knox County this Fall.

The Post About Taxes And Spending Cuts and County Debt

I’ve been asked the question in a couple of places about whether I would consider raising property taxes. I have said I think it’s irresponsible for a County Commissioner (and Mayor) to take a pledge against raising taxes. You can never tell what needs the County might have in the future and the options are limited for what the County government can do to make sure the budget is balanced every year. I mean, Knox County is not the federal government, which can run an annual budget deficit.

So, when the question has been asked about taxes, I have answered generally that I would consider raising property taxes, under the right circumstances. But I wanted to write a longer piece on this subject, because it’s too easy to demagogue the issue of raising taxes. I want to make it clear where I stand so that no one can mischaracterize my position. And I suspect this may come up in my race, since my newly minted Republican opponent has said he “will not support an increase in property taxes.”

First, I pledge to vote no to any increase in sales taxes. The tax system in Tennessee in general and in Knox County specifically is regressive. There is no state income tax, which can be made progressive and impose a lower level of taxation on the people with lower income. That’s what we have at the federal level. Sales taxes hit hardest the poorest among us, because they have to spend a larger percentage of their incomes on items that have a high sales tax rate. I would prefer to see sales tax go down if taxes could be lowered. I will not vote to raise sales taxes.

Second, I place a priority on ensuring full funding for schools, to include teacher pay increases, walkability projects (sidewalks and greenways), and assistance programs for the indigent and needy. Last year, the Mayor’s budget included a cut to the indigent care program. I will fight against any such cuts in the Mayor’s budget when I am Commissioner. I’ll get to raising property taxes in a second, but to my mind, there may be other areas ripe for cuts that should be considered before cuts to the programs I mentioned above. I recently spoke out on a $200,000 appropriation for the Knoxville Chamber’s “strategic vision.” If elected, I would closely review the Mayor’s budgets for those kinds of appropriations which could be cut before programs like I described above. I pledge to look into balancing the budget in this way before I would consider voting for a property tax increase.

But, third, it may not be possible to balance the budget and fully fund priorities without considering a property tax increase. Now, here’s where it gets wonky. And I encourage you to read this article from the Compass where they discuss this issue in some detail. Mayor Jacobs has pledged not to increase taxes. If you’ve read this far, you know I think that’s irresponsible. And has led to a misguided goal of balancing the budget on spending cuts alone. Knox County has not had a property tax increase in 20 years. In fact, because of the Tennessee Certified Tax Rate law, the property tax rate has gone down from $3.32 per $100 of assessed value to the current $2.12 per $100. Property values have gone up and taxes have stayed essentially the same. Sounds great, right? Well, the problem is that Knox County has grown significantly over the last 20 years. And the revenue from property taxes, as a percentage of the budget has gone down. So, that means you either borrow (more on that in a sec), cut spending or find other revenue. Now, I don’t want my taxes to go up any more than any other homeowner. But at some point, running a county of about 460,000 people starts to get expensive. I don’t know if that point will come in the next four to eight years when I could be in office. But I believe the politicians, like my opponent and the Mayor, who pledge not to raise taxes are doing us all a disservice. So, here’s my pledge. I will do everything I can to ensure the Knox County budget is not balanced with spending cuts to essential programs. I will look for any reasonable option to balance the budget that does not include property tax increases. If I believe a property tax increase is necessary to ensure programs are fully funded, though, I will advocate for the lowest possible property tax increase that will make sure the programs are funded and the budget balanced.

At this point, I should note that I realize that I would be one Commissioner among 11. And the budget is put together by the Executive (the Mayor and his staff) for review and approval by the Legislative Branch. I can strenuously object until the cows come home and I may be the lone voice and no vote on many of these issues. But if that’s the case, so be it. I pledge that I will not be afraid to be the only one to speak out against the Mayor’s budget or to be the sole “no” vote on the Commission.

Finally, Knox County seems to have a sizable debt burden, which part of the budget has to account for. The County seems to have a good rating with the credit rating agencies. And there is theoretically no limit to the amount of debt the county can take on for its larger projects and needs. With new debt for the County, I would take a measured approach. I am neither categorically against new debt if it serves the priorities I think the County should have, nor do I think it’s a good idea in and of itself to finance new County spending with debt, as opposed to finding appropriate spending cuts or raising property taxes. New debt should not be a crutch for the Mayor or the Commission to avoid having to deal with the question of raising property taxes. I pledge not to make a specific pledge with regard to new debt or paying down old debt. I will study the budget presented by the Mayor and draw my conclusions at that time. I will pledge to follow the guidelines I have set forth in this post in deciding how to speak out and vote on this important issue.