Talk seems to have heated up in certain quarters of the Jefferson County Commission that we should change the number of Commissioners from 21 to 11, and that those 11 Commissioners ought to be term-limited-presumably to two terms. The Jefferson County Post inaccurately reported this week that to make such a change in the way that our county is governed would require “a change in the county charter.”* It wouldn’t require a change in the county charter, it would require Jefferson County adopting a charter in the first place-like 92 of Tennessee’s 95 counties, Jefferson County does not have a charter. The counties with some form of a charter are Shelby, Knox, and Davidson-Tennessee’s three largest counties in terms of population. Knox and Shelby County have, if anything, seen very mixed results with charter government. Davidson County has a combined Metropolitan Government which has all but destroyed county representation and left Davidson County as one of the State’s last true Democratic fiefdoms.
Jefferson County is not Knox County and we are certainly not Shelby County, and the adoption of a county charter would not only legally bind the county, but would open the county to any lawsuits involving a charter and the legal wording of that document. If someone wants to find a good reason to take a county to court, they can probably find it in a well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out county charter system. Knox and Shelby County can afford to withstand legal challenges to their charters which may arise, but anyone on the Jefferson County Commission knows that our county does not have the resources to fight off a charter suit should one come up. Adoption of a charter does nothing to change a county’s budget situation.
One of the biggest reasons that certain individuals-both on and off of the Jefferson County Commission-say that they want to look at adopting a county charter is not because of some burning desire for more autonomy from Nashville, but because those people have another agenda-they want to reduce the number of commissioners from 21 to 11 and term limit those who remain. That sounds like a grand idea, but upon closer examination we can see that citizens will lose representation if such a scheme were ever adopted. Reducing the number of commissioners would mean increasing the workload of those who remain, and it would give citizens less of an outlet to have their concerns heard, whereas our current system gives citizens two commissioners (and in the 3rd civil district, three) who might address their needs. Community representation within county government would be very significantly diminished, because a limited number of commissioners would not reflect the diversity of needs and views within our county. Put more simply, White Pine has different needs than Dandridge, which has different priorities from Strawberry Plains, New Market, or Jefferson City. Siphoning off the number of commissioners in government would give us a system that lends itself to a kind of hegemony that would be less reflective of the diversity of views in our county.
Commissioner Bob Beeler of Jefferson City, and one of this writer’s own Commissioners, Randy Baxley of White Pine, were both said in Tuesday’s Standard Banner to be openly opposed to any such plan to limit commissioners or to cause them to be forcibly term-limited. Beeler and Baxley are both right to oppose any further move in the direction of charterism, commission reduction, or term limits. Those positions may very well be politically popular, but it should be remembered that this is not a case of vox populi vox Dei-just because something is a popular position does not make it good policy. In no way does that mean that the popular will should be ignored, but it does mean that all of those in government need to balance the apparent popular will with what they know in their gut to be the right thing to do-people did not elect commissioners to act as a voting version of the Daleks from Doctor Who (mindlessly declaring “I Obey” and “Exterminate”). Reducing the number of commissioners would also lead to the one thing that is a danger in any free republic, and that is the concentration of power in the hands of fewer people.
Term limits are a problem for one primary reason, and that is that they presume that the voters of this county are too stupid to decide who ought to represent them of their own accord. We can certainly argue about whether the public have always acted with wisdom or intelligence at the ballot box, but Jefferson Countians know from the last election that when we want to throw longstanding elected officials out and replace them with new people, we not only can do it, but we will if we really want to (and we collectively did). It is never true that a policy is acceptable just because “that is the way it has always been done,” but before acting differently it should be examined why something is the way it is. Many of our citizens justifiably complain about the apparent ineffectiveness of the Jefferson County Commission, and they are right that members ought to be willing to act in a more collegial fashion. Our system. however, is not designed so that commissioners sing Kumbuya and pass something just because this official or that commissioner might want it. It is designed to produce gridlock when gridlock is needed to be a check on the power of either the executive or even the County Commission itself.
Our system is far from a perfect one, and there are legitimate ways in which we might reform it-but radical change merely for change’s sake does little good for the county and will create a lot of headache and likely regret later on.
*NOTE: (9/22/11 10:23 AM) I spoke this morning with Jeff Depew of the Jefferson County Post, and he stated that, with regard to the report in the Post as it pertains to discussion of “the charter” and other related (and non-related) matters printed in this week’s edition, what appeared there is more or less a verbatim account of the discussion which took place on the floor at the County Commission meeting. What was stated in the paper was not the words and voice of the writer, but a restatement of what was said on the floor of the meeting. Depew pointed out that because this is the case, the reporting in the Post was not inaccurate as we initially reported above.