Charter amendment discussion is taboo for some officials

Larry Van GuilderAs I see it

A couple of weeks ago I wondered aloud about a $650,000 item in the law director’s budget marked for outside counsel. Aren’t 11 lawyers and eight support staff members enough to take care of the county’s legal business? I posed the question to Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong.

Outside counsel, Armstrong said, would be employed in situations in which his office has an inherent conflict. For example, he could not represent one county employee against another, rare though such occasions may be.

And, it turns out the outside counsel category is used as a catchall for related legal expenses. Court costs, filing fees, court reporters, transcripts and expert witness fees end up there alongside private attorney bills.

“The $650,000 figure hasn’t changed in years,” Armstrong said. “It’s been the same going all the way back to Lockett.” (Bill Lockett’s tumultuous tenure ended with his 2010 resignation amid legal problems dating back to his previous firm.)

It’s an open secret in the county that certain elected officials would look favorably on a charter amendment to appoint rather than elect the law director. Although he’s term-limited, it’s not surprising that Armstrong favors the status quo.

Bud Armstrong

“I think the law director should be elected, just as the charter says. If you’re appointed, your loyalty is to the one who made the appointment.” That loyalty should be to the people who elected you, he added.

There’s a strong suspicion in the halls of the City County Building that Mayor Jacobs does not feel much loyalty to his law director. The mayor won’t comment for the record, however, and Armstrong can only be “terminated” by a recall vote. Mayoral dislike doesn’t rise to the necessary standard for that measure.

While some elected county officials tell this reporter bluntly, in confidence, that the mayor will not mourn the law director’s departure, others, like commission chair Hugh Nystrom, shy away from even discussing a prospective charter amendment as if the topic is radioactive. In any event, a charter amendment is of little consequence to term-limited Armstrong.

I did find one elected official willing to talk about an amendment. At-large Commissioner Larsen Jay says he’s open to having the conversation.

“I know it’s worth having,” he said. “I’d love to have the debate.”

There’s a charter review in 2020. I believe he’ll get his chance.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.

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