Monday, March 21, 2011

Fee office proposal: one big mess

I don’t even know where to start with this post. Of course I usually don’t know where to start with any of them.

So how about: The sheriff is an instigator. The mayor, a puppet. The criminal court clerk is sue happy. The trustee, a chicken.

Yeah, figured that’d get your attention (to all three of my readers).

Here’s the deal: The county commission during its work session today talked about forcing the six fee offices to submit budgets – rather than file salary suits – to the mayor’s office. Probably sounds pretty boring. But what it does is it actually gives the administration a little control and the county commission a lot of control over how those officials – trustee, county clerk, circuit court clerk, criminal court clerk, clerk and master, and register of deeds – staff their offices.

In other words, they’re taking away the pocket book.

If they get the six votes needed.

If you watched this on TV (does anyone really do that?), then you pretty much missed the animosity going on in the background. The commissioners talked about the issue briefly, then listened to a number of fee officers tell them why they opposed it.

In the end, the commission forwarded the proposal to next Monday’s agenda without a recommendation. (No recommendation doesn’t mean anything. Just a formality. I’ll tell you how they’ll probably vote in a second.)

Meanwhile, county officials not on the dais were all over the place, forming factions, and trying to figure out just what was going on and why.

A little background for those who haven’t read the story (click right smack here for it):

County Mayor Tim Burchett, who constantly reminds everyone that he campaigned on transparent government (just ask him), recently asked county Law Director Joe Jarret whether it was possible for the commission to somehow take total control over the fee offices’ budgets.

(Right now, the offices do submit small budgets that cover minimal costs, like some contracts, supplies and Crayons. But, not the big bucks – not the coin that pays for all those employees who are somehow related to everyone but you and me. Kidding. That scratch is determined in the salary suits. Read the story. I’m not explaining again what a salary suit is.)

Anyhoo, Jarret said: “Yes, it’s possible.”

Now, what happened next is not exactly clear, because some of these stories are somewhat contradicting each other. The sequence of events, I mean. You see, the administration is saying this is a commission deal. Commissioners are saying this is an administration deal.

I’m saying it’s both. The driving forces, though, are the mayor, Commissioner Richard Briggs (who was absent today for reasons I cannot remember) and commission Chairman Mike Hammond (the two commission co-sponsors).

So, why are they doing it?


Depends on who you are talking to and when.

It’s for transparency. No, it’s for the money. No, it’s for the power, No, it’s for governmental consolidation.


I, personally, think it’s for the entertainment of the home viewing audience.

All arguments have merit, and there’s probably some truth to each side. (Even mine). No matter what they say. (Remember, the glass is always half-empty.)

Anyhoo (damn, used that word twice in this post), you probably want to get to some of the more gossipy-gossip stuff. Which is kind of unmanly, but whatever. (If you claim to not read the tabloid headlines in the check-out line then you’re fibbing.)

Soooooo . . . .

Some behind the scenes action from today’s commission work session.

Here’s some players, what was said about them and a little bit of clarity:

The Commission: My prediction is that this proposal is going to pass. It’s either going to be a close 6-5 or it’s going to be a blow-out, possibly unanimous. I don’t see one or two commissioners trying to make a point here. They’ll test the wind, but – regardless of how they really feel – I don’t believe they want to fall on the sword for this one. That’s no disrespect to the fee officers, but it’s just not the right fight to pick at this time. Here’s the breakdown that I put together from talking to commissioners and observers: Mike Hammond, Richard Briggs, Sam McKenzie, Jeff Ownby and Ed Shouse are for it. R. Larry Smith and Dave Wright are undecided but leaning toward supporting it. Amy Broyles, too, appears to be supporting it (but remember she’s no fan of the administration). Tony Norman is a tough one. People think he’s undecided, too. But the mayor kind of ticked him off on the whole hillside-ridgetop thing a few weeks back. Vice Chairman Brad Anders is another tricky one. He’s a police officer, so a lot of folks think he’ll side with the fee offices, if only because the sheriff is supposedly on that side (more on that in a minute). That leaves Mike Brown. You never know with Brown. At this point, he wants everyone from the Pope to the attorney general to research the proposal before making a decision. (Some say he’s stalling because he doesn’t want to approve it.)

Dean Rice: There were a lot of jokes going around today that the county’s chief of staff is actually the real driving force behind this. That he’s pulling the mayor’s strings. (Dance for me puppet!) I don’t think so. This has the mayor’s fingerprints all over it. But, it’s still funny. (On a side note commissioners in an unrelated matter asked him about 100 times if he bought a new truck.)

Joy McCroskey: No way in heck does the criminal court clerk (a fee officer) support this plan. In fact, when I was in the hallway after the commission mulled over the whole mess, she told some folks near her that if the legislative branch approved the measure, she would sue. Don’t think she won’t do it, either.

Sherry Witt: The register of deeds (a fee officer) also does not support the plan. She said she doesn’t want to wait 30 to 45 days to get commission approval if she needs to hire someone.

Cathy Quist: Go ahead and put the clerk of circuit court (a fee officer) in the “no way in heck am I signing on to this" category.

John Duncan III: Ah, the trustee (a fee officer). Now, Duncan is for the proposal. In fact, he was actually going to get up there today and publicly support it. But then he disappeared. Word going around was that he earned a little enmity from some of the other fee officers because he wasn’t on board with them. He didn’t want to deal with it, they said. He got cold feet. Yeah, well, so what? I don’t blame him. I mean, does anyone really want to be at a commission meeting?

Jimmy “J.J.” Jones: The sheriff! The man with the badge! The top cop! Folks said he was instigating (not the same as investigating) Witt, McCroskey and Quist, because he was in the back of the room, hanging out with them. They said he was stirring up trouble. You see, two years ago – when Briggs first proposed this plan (more on that in a minute) – the sheriff’s office was a target. Folks said “J.J.” hasn’t forgotten. Course he’s untouchable in all this (legal reasons that I can’t remember). And if he’s anything like me, then – heck yeah – I’d stir some stuff up, too. Because entertainment at the expense of others is always the best fun. Honestly, though? Who knows? He always stands in the back.

Foster Arnett: The county clerk wasn’t there today. But, he’s with Duncan on this one. Oddly enough, I’m apparently the only one who knew that. No one else bothered to pick up the phone and call him. On a side note, I talked to him the other day about his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer. Please say a prayer for her. (That’s my good deed request for the day, by the way.)

Howard Hogan: the clerk and master of chancery and probate court (fee officer) was not at the meeting. But he called me after it. Let’s say he isn’t on board with the mayor. Here’s what he had to say: “I’m baffled. No one asked the clerks and the fee offices about this – no one approached us and said ‘you’re doing something wrong and this isn’t transparent.’ Well, we (the fee offices) have more transparency than any other offices in this court house, including the (executive branch). We submit (revenues and expenditure reports) every month to the mayor and commission and we’re subject to annual audits. It’s a little frustrating to have something dropped on us like a bomb without any discourse or discussion. But, it seems to me, anyway, that it’s a power play by the mayor and Mr. Hammond to do what the voters in this county said they didn’t want to have happen, and that’s to make the fees offices under the direction of the mayor.” Hogan then said he didn’t like it that under the proposal the fee offices’ reserve tanks would go into the county’s general fund. “They want to get that money and balance the budget on the backs of our reserves.” He also said that it wasn’t very transparent of the commission and administration to talk about it today without a proper heads-up. (On a side note, it was put on the agenda rather quickly.)

Joe Jarret: The county law director takes a lot of hits. This is mostly because he represents the county – not one office, officer, department, etc. Now I know a lot of people don’t believe this, but if you look back on some of the decisions he’s made, they haven’t necessarily favored one side over the other. I figure if you’re making everyone mad, then you must be doing something right. (Today, I’m getting paid by the cliches. But I digress.) Jarret based his opinion on the county charter and the Tennessee Code. But, he also contacted the County Technical Assistance Service, which was created by the state Legislature and “promotes better government through direct legal and administrative assistance,” and sought an opinion from those folks. They agreed with him. Jarret, it should be noted, told me he has no opinion one way or another as to how the commission should proceed. He did say that if one of the fee officers sues the county, he’d have to step aside. That means outside representation. That means big bucks. That means your dollars.

Richard Briggs: The good doctor and commissioner was not there today. But I talked to him prior to the meeting. He tried this before. In March 2009, he and local attorney Tom McAdams put together a 16-page legal analysis that essentially said a 2007 state Supreme Court ruling that enforced term limits made clear that the county charter created many of the elected offices, which had previously been creations of the state. That meant, the two argued, the county commission could require the other elected office holders to submit all expenses, positions, salaries and other relevant information to the mayor for inclusion in the annual budget recommendation to commissioners.

Bill Lockett: Yes, the former county law director was there today – in spirit. You see, Lockett at the time disagreed with Briggs, saying the offices are creations of the state constitution, not the charter. (In fact, his opinion was announced exactly two years to Monday’s date.) He did not address the state Supreme Court ruling, but rather relied heavily on discussions by the 2006 Charter Review Committee, which crafted the ballot language regarding the offices. Subsequently, the commission voted down Briggs’ proposal.

Charter Amendment: The fee officers who do not support the proposal kept citing a November 2008 charter amendment that voters shot down. It was argued a number of times by a number of different people today that “the voters didn’t want it.” That’s hard to say. The voters did shoot down a proposed amendment that shifted control over the mayor’s office. But what it really did was take away the public’s ability to elect the fee officers. Instead the mayor would appoint them. That’s not apples to apples.

There’s probably a bunch of stuff I’m forgetting, but it’s getting late, and I’ve got to proof-read this mess, which I no doubt have crafted to include lots and lots of typos (this is my longest blog to date). So if you see any mistakes, blame the county for them.

In the meantime, this debate could turn into a real spitting match (they won’t let me say “p---ing contest” on the blog). And both sides could make it real miserable for the other.

The fee offices could sue. And that will cost a lot of money.

And maybe – just maybe – the administration and commission could boot the fee officers out of that big, pretty Knox County Deathstar. And somehow, that, too, will cost a lot of money.

But, remember: In the end, it’s really your money.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of comments. The court clerks are not subject to the Charter, they are created under Article 6 of the Constitution (Judicial Branch)which the term limits suit affirmed. Second, Jarrett missed the boat on his opinion and Quist (a lawyer and former 7 year deputy law director)pointed out that the Commission can do this BUT they must do it right. No matter how they do it, another section of the state law provides that if the fee officers feel that the money budgeted to them is not enough to hire enough people to effectively run their offices, they can still sue to force adequate funding.