COVID-19 spurs increased use of executive power

Larry Van GuilderAs I see it

Governing by decree runs counter to the principles upon which the nation was founded. Locally, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs reluctantly bowed to Gov. Bill Lee’s statewide “Safer at Home” order and has since expressed urgency to return to business as usual. On April 14, his office released the draft of a plan for gradually easing restrictions imposed by the stay-at-home lockdown.

The arrival of the coronavirus in the U.S. touched off a period unparalleled in our history.  Executive power has expanded its reach into daily life by nearly all governments, federal to local.

Glenn Jacobs

Although the powers and responsibilities of each branch of government are (as legal documents go) clearly enumerated in the Knox County Charter, that document was not created with a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. Do these extraordinary times call for extraordinary consultation between the executive and legislative divisions in county government (mayor and commission)? Given the public safety emergency born of the virus, would it even be feasible to do so?

Commissioner Brad Anders acknowledged holding a position unique among his colleagues on the commission. In his role as executive director of the county’s E-911 service, he’s in regular contact with the mayor’s office.

“I feel like I’ve been kept informed,” Anders said.

The commissioner added that he didn’t know “what he would change today” with respect to the mayor’s decisions. He also made a reasonable point about the complications if the commission as a body deliberated the executive’s proposed actions.

The Tennessee Open Records Act, part of the state’s “sunshine laws,” requires “adequate public notice” when a deliberating government body schedules a meeting. The law doesn’t specify what this means, but in practice, it’s been interpreted as 48-72 hours. With the public’s health at stake, delay in implementing policy might be unwise.

Anders said a “debriefing” after the crisis passes could be helpful. Commissioner Larsen Jay has an idea for what could be considered at the debriefing: closer coordination between the city and county mayors’ offices, county commission and city council in crisis situations.

“Hopefully, we would want to work together,” Jay said. “Hopefully, we would be on the same page.”

Jay didn’t label it as such, but the concern points up one weakness of unconsolidated governments. They aren’t built for inter-governing cooperation in the short run.

Commissioner John Schoonmaker said, “The mayor’s been very busy … As he tries to get things back to normal, (I think) he’s been out front.” Further, the commissioner pointed out, neither branch of county government has had experience in dealing with a crisis like the current one.

Commissioner Richie Beeler is satisfied that the mayor’s office has remained in “pretty close contact.” Policy decisions fall under the mayor’s purview, he said. In common with several of his colleagues, Beeler is more concerned about the impact of the sharp drop in sales tax revenue and the effect that will have on the county budget.

We asked Mayor Glenn Jacobs to respond to our questions. He said there was no “formal process” for informing elected leaders when the pandemic hit, but that changed “quickly,” and there is now a plan he is “comfortable with.”

The mayor noted that his chief of staff began sending out a weekly email to commissioners to “keep them informed about what (his) office is doing.” His office also sent emails on the latest COVID-19 news to all local elected leaders.

“Do I feel we could have done a better job early on? Yes, probably. But, again, we had a lot of stuff coming at us,” Jacobs said.

The mayor concluded he would be happy to hold an “overall debriefing” with the commission when the crisis passes. Meanwhile, “… if any commissioner – or city council member even – has a question they can call me directly.”

Although commissioners we spoke with seemed generally satisfied with the mayor’s actions, there are lessons to learn, as Jacobs himself acknowledged, saying they “would be better prepared next time – although I hope there isn’t a next time.”

Please read the mayor’s entire statement here: Response from Mayor Jacobs

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for Knox TN Today.

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