Several things are clear in the saga of the Knox County charter. The charter was never submitted to the state for ratification, as required by state law and the charter itself. Documents pertaining to the term limits referendum were similarly mishandled, with the full and original text apparently lost.
The intent of Knox County voters is also quite clear. They want a home rule government and term-limited office holders. What is not clear is whether anyone is representing the interests of the voters. (read more...) Chancellor Weaver acknowledged the interests and intent of Knox County's voters when he wrote:
"When the voters approved a charter form of government, it was reasonable for them to assume that Knox County had a charter that covered its government, not part of its government. When the voters of Knox County were presented with a ballot in 1994 imposing term limits upon individuals holding an "elected office of Knox County government," it was reasonable for those voters to assume that term limits would apply to all of the elected office holders in the Knox County government, not part of it."
He was reacting to the position of the county law department, as argued by Mary Ann Stackhouse, Law Director Mike Moyers having recused himself. She argued the charter covered only the County Mayor and legislature, leaving remaining offices under state authority, a weak stance Weaver had no trouble dismantling.
You can almost feel Sheriff Hutchison breathing down your neck as you read Weaver's decision. Though sheriff is a constitutional office, when Weaver lists such offices, which he does throughout his ruling, he typically lists "Trustee, Register, Court Clerk and Assessor," mentioning sheriff in only a few instances. The elephant in the room (Is the sheriff term limited and ineligible to run in 2006?) was so imposing Weaver tiptoed around it and the law department went through contortions to avoid the issue, crippling itself as a representative of the citizens of Knox County.
Most litigants in the case were arguing for the destruction of the expressed will of the voters, and with the county law department neutered, only the chancellor was left to defend the public. Though Weaver was cognizant of the public interest, his ruling thoroughly subverted it.
Weaver claimed, "This Court cannot write the omitted portions of the charter." The problem with that claim is that the alleged omissions are Weaver's creation. To reach that conclusion, Weaver ambled through a self-contradictory exercise wherein he first asserted (correctly) that the state Constitution requires charter governments to perform all the duties of normal county governments, then later decided (incorrectly) that the state Constitution does not require "retention or continuation" of offices and duties not explicitly defined in a charter.
Judging from their Bailey decision, the State Supreme Court gives counties wide latitude in defining their own form of charter government, but Knox County was not attempting to redefine the structure of its government when it passed its charter. It was merely after "home rule," which allows a county to pass laws without then submitting them to the state as private acts needing legislative approval. No offices or duties were created, destroyed or redefined by the charter, and the casual references to "constitutional offices" in the charter clearly imply the continued existence of those offices, though they are not explicitly named. It is obvious that the intent of the charter was to change nothing at all about the county government except for the need to get state approval for legislative acts.
John Schmid's argument that the unnamed offices were abolished is absurd, as Weaver found, yet Weaver's decision to invalidate the entire charter because those offices are only mentioned implicitly is equally extreme. Similarly, his conclusion that the failure of county functionaries to properly ratify the charter renders it invalid is an absurdity. Office holders do not have the power to nullify the will of the voters by simple neglect.
Weaver was operating in a vacuum, with no one before him making an uncompromised argument on behalf of the citizens of Knox County. As this case moves through appeals (assuming someone cares to challenge it), it is imperative that the interests of voters and citizen be represented. If the county law department can not be trusted with this duty, the state election commission or attorney general's office should do so, or a civil rights organization should get involved.
The will of Knox County's citizens has been persistently subverted by negligence and disregard, and Weaver's ruling is just one more slap in the face. It is now too late to salvage this year's elections. Already defective in execution, they will now be defective in outcome. Office holders complicit in subverting the public interest will be awarded with continued power for as long as they can drag out the appeals process, and our elections, already tainted by big money, ballot manipulation and the two-party straightjacket, will degrade further toward becoming complete charades.
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