Do city voters really want this?

Betty BeanKnox Scene

City voters should watch the video of Monday’s county commission meeting and think about what we’re going to get if the local Republican Party succeeds in its push to take over the city’s non-partisan elected offices.

On the same day that the commission (a partisan body dominated by Republicans) voted 8-3 to dissolve the Knox County Board of Health because they’re tired of being nagged about the pandemic, The Guardian, a widely-read international publication, was reminding the world about Tennessee’s reputation for handling Covid-19 transmission – not the kind of thing the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development is likely to link to its website.

The no votes came from the two Democrats and the commission’s Republican chair, Larsen Jay. The GOP brass may look to primary Jay, along with a couple of legislators who’d rather get their medical advice from scientists than radio talk show hosts.

Knox County Commission has always been an ornery beast. It was my first assignment when I was hired as a beat reporter at the Knoxville Journal, back before county executives got their feelings hurt by out-of -town bigwigs not knowing what a county executive was and told the legislature they wanted to be called mayors, too.

Knox County Executive Dwight Kessel – a no-nonsense, conservative business type – was not one of these. When asked to define his job, he’d just say he was Knox County’s chief fiscal agent, and then demonstrate his philosophy by squeezing taxpayer dollars till the eagle screamed.

The commission had 19 members in those days. Then as now, most commissioners were Republicans. Some of them had been there for decades. None of them except Bee DeSelm (a maverick Republican) paid much attention when county voters overwhelmingly approved a term limits referendum in 1994 that would go into effect in 1998, primarily because they had an attorney general’s opinion that said this kind of folderol didn’t apply to them. They ignored the will of the voters for 13 years until the state supreme court decreed otherwise. They made a final push to thwart the will of the voters by appointing cronies and relatives to take their seats in the infamous Black Wednesday meeting in January 2007.

Meanwhile, city voters approved a nearly identical term-limits measure by a nearly identical margin and while Mayor Victor Ashe and most members of city council didn’t much like it, they bowed out without incident (if not without some grumbling). Carlene Malone, who actually supported term limits, was the exception. It is unsurprising that she opposes this year’s Republican takeover attempt.

“One of many reasons why, back in the day, I opposed so-called metro government was that it went to a partisan model – but there were many other reasons. Urban areas are different from non-urban/rural areas. Cities have their own strengths and weaknesses and have long histories of dealing with problems that arise from density, congestion, entertainment districts.

This colorful truck was parked in front of O’Reilly Auto Parts on Magnolia Avenue last week. (photo by Evelyn Gill)

“Knoxville has been well served by having a nonpartisan council and by having every member run citywide. It makes them accountable to everyone. This is impractical in the county, but has helped city government deal with the city as a whole and brought a broader, more unified vision,” Malone said.


If you want a city government dominated by those who listen to the loudest voice in the room, like, say, the owner of the truck covered with anti-facemask, anti-vaccine, pro-Trump signs that was parked in front of a business on Magnolia Avenue this past week, vote for GOP-endorsed candidates and watch city council morph into county commission.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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