Annual Manual 2001

Government: City-County

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Politics in the city

Knoxville City Council elections are non-partisan, and the nine Council members are divided into six district representatives and three at-large members, all of whom must first get through a primary and then run citywide in the general election. It is this feature that allows a maverick like Carlene Malone to survive, because her constituents are also constituents of her Council colleagues who therefore cannot afford to punish them for her transgressions.

This "see you on election day" feature also gives city homeowners a fighting chance in zoning battles against well-funded corporate interests. County residents sometimes (but not always) do not fare as well, since county commissioners are elected by district only, and homeowners must depend primarily on the good will and influence of the district commissioners who represent them.

Despite this egalitarian election-day feature, city politics and government should not be confused with democracy. Knoxville is run like a monarchy, and the mayor is the king. He is variously described as anything from a despot to a benign dictator, depending upon whom you ask. (This situation predates the administration of Victor Ashe, although he has been exceptionally successful in keeping the majority of City Council singing, as they say, off the same page.) Heads of the various city departments, for example, are appointed by the mayor, and city council has no say-so. Not that they'd exercise veto power if they had it, since the legislative body—with the exception of Malone and, in recent months, Nick Pavlis—is famously submissive to the wishes of the city's chief executive. Ashe's most reliable councilmanic foot soldiers include Vice-Mayor Jack Sharp and the long-serving Jean Teague.

Case in point: Nick Pavlis, who is greatly interested in the tourism industry, had served several years on the tourism board and was in line to be named president of the organization. He even received a letter from Ashe commending him for his service and promising to reappoint him for another term. But that was before Pavlis crossed the line by voting against some East Knox County annexations. Jean Teague got the appointment instead of Pavlis, and Ashe came up with the novel explanation that he has decided to spread these appointments around, so that more can share in the learning experiences. Teague is a lame duck.

Alliances don't shift enough to matter on city council, largely because Ashe is shrewd enough to keep his powder dry and stay out of contentious matters like zoning issues. Teague almost always joins Malone in matters of neighborhood preservation; Ed Shouse, Sharp and Gary Underwood are reliable pro-development votes.

While Ashe generally does not to ask members to take positions that will get them in hot water with their constituents, he does, at times, expect them to take the lead on issues of concern to him. At such times he watches the obviously scripted debate with the detached air of a semi-interested attendee at a one-sided tennis match.

Politics in Knox County

County politics make the city look tame, as does county government, which, in recent decades, has picked up big ticket services like schools, jails and libraries as the city has given them up. This has left the city to concentrate on projects like flood abatement, street paving, waterfront development and expansion of parks and greenways.

While there are only 10 elected offices to fight over in the city, there are almost too many to count in the county. There are judgeships, whose handsomely-paid eight year terms attract swarms of lawyer-candidates; "fee offices," the patronage-fueled strongholds of entrenched courthouse denizens such as County Clerk Mike Padgett, a Democrat who is popular with Republicans, or Trustee Mike Lowe, a Republican who may hold the current county record for most kinfolks on the payroll of various departments; the district attorney general (who, like the judges, is classified as a state employee even though elected locally) and the sheriff, who has both law enforcement and administrative powers and more jobs at his command than any other branch of county government but the schools. Finally, there's the county executive and County Commission, the fractious, quarrelsome, 19-member legislative body that controls the purse-strings for the whole shebang.

Although county office holders fly the party flag while campaigning (except for school board members, who are elected on a non-partisan basis and who appoint the schools superintendent and who are therefore in a separate category all their own), once they are elected, Democrats are virtually indistinguishable from Republicans, and County Commission alliances transcend party loyalty. Fierce partisans on either side do not thrive.

County Commission decisions are most often decided by The Coalition, a group led by Chairman Leo Cooper, Finance Committee Chairman Frank Leuthold and Economic Development Chairman Howard "Nookie" Pinkston, all Republicans. Other members of the Coalition include Democrats Diane Jordan, Frank Bowden and Mark Cawood and the Commission's vice-chairman, Billy Tindell, also a Democrat. They are most often joined by Republicans Larry Stephens, Mary Lou Horner, John Mills and Larry Clark, which gives the group a solid 11-vote majority. Republicans Mike McMillan and Mike Arms are peripheral Coalition members. The Coalition is also generally supportive of Sheriff Tim Hutchison, whose relationships often define the state of county politics.

Case in point: During the 1998 elections, incumbent Attorney General Randy Nichols, a Democrat, was facing a challenge from Republican Jimmy Kyle Davis. Staunch Republican Hutchison, who was also up for re-election, did not favor Davis, and telegraphed his preference to the electorate by inviting Nichols to participate in high-profile media events like announcements of major drug busts. That summer, viewers of the evening news got used to seeing the sheriff and the attorney general posing in front of tables laden with confiscated drugs. They were both re-elected handily. Fast forward to Y2K, and Nichols and Hutchison are bitter adversaries, a rift manifested most publicly in discussions of a justice center project, which Hutchison supports and Nichols has changed his mind about, and now opposes.

The Commission minority is entirely composed of Republicans, and includes Wanda Moody, Pat Medley, John Schmid, Phil Guthe, and John Griess. David Collins, a first-termer who recently resigned his post as city architect, is loosely aligned with this group, which tends to vote for developers in homeowner/developer fights, and in favor of city interests when the two governments clash. This is also the anti-Hutchison section of the Commission.

Annexation issues can cause alliances to shift, however, with Tindell, who represents an all-city district, often switching to the minority, pro-annexation side and Griess and Schmid generally joining the majority who oppose it.

From a citizen's perspective, annexation is one of the thorniest of problems, because it tends to disenfranchise those left in its wake. Those who are unwillingly annexed and neighbors of those who are voluntarily annexed must appeal to an unsympathetic City Council—for whom they have not voted—for redress. It never works.

Case in point: The Halls liquor store. Under state law, only city governments may issue liquor permits. A property owner on Maynardville Highway was voluntarily annexed, and promptly applied for a liquor license. A number of Halls residents objected to having a liquor store in their midst, but they had little influence with a City Council for whom they cannot vote. The first Halls liquor store reportedly is thriving.

Term limits, which the electorate unsuccessfully attempted to impose by referendum on both city and county officials, stuck only with city office holders. County office holders were delighted to learn that state constitutional guarantees thwarted the will of the people and leaves intact their right to an unlimited sinecure.