Every eight years a committee is formed to consider amendments to the Knox County Charter. Next year, 2020, the 27-member Charter Review Committee will review proposed changes to the charter submitted by Knox County officials and the general public. Is the composition of the committee fair to the public?
The committee consists of nine commission members, one from each district; nine citizens who are registered voters nominated by the county commission, who are not members of commission; and nine citizens registered voters nominated by the Knox County Mayor who are not members of the county commission. No more than two citizens may be nominated from each district.
If your math skills aren’t rusty, you can quickly see that three components of nine add up to 27, certainly by design. Equal representation from the nine commission districts, nine commission appointments and nine mayoral appointments make a nicely balanced review panel.
What happened to the commissioners from Districts 10 and 11, the at-large members? They’re left out.
The argument that the citizens of Knox County are fairly represented on the Charter Review Committee by the nine commissioners is weak tea when examined closely. If the at-large commissioners are deemed superfluous for this task, why have those districts in the first place? Why will Justin Biggs and Larsen Jay be cooling their heels while their colleagues consider amendments to Knox County’s “constitution?”
It can’t be as simple as keeping the decibel level of discussions to a roar by minimizing the number of voices. Two more opinions added to the discussions hardly matter.
We can’t stop at two, of course. Maintaining equilibrium on the committee would mean adding two members to each component, a total of six more members. Now we have a 33-member Charter Review Committee. Are 33 cats so much harder to herd than 27?
There would be no need for discussion if the county dropped the two at-large districts and made do with nine. That would require a charter amendment, and under the current charter the two neglected commissioners couldn’t even take part in their own execution.
The practice of at-large representation is not without critics. At-large voting has often been used to squelch minority candidates. In many instances, voting by district opened the door to elected office for minorities and women. The U.S. Constitution mandates direct election of congressional representatives.
At the same time that it dampens minority enthusiasm, at-large voting may keep a dominant political party in power that would find its strength diluted by district voting. Such anti-democratic heresy probably never crossed the mind of local politicos.
In Knox County, the best argument for at-large representation is the county’s size. The county encompasses 508 square miles, and some districts outside Knoxville’s corporate boundaries, like District 8, cover a lot of ground, meaning more territory for that commissioner to cover.
The county is also growing fast. The latest census figures estimate the population at 465,000 in more than 182,000 households. As the county grows, so will the need for fair representation.
If the needs of the county’s citizens are best met by 11 members on its legislative body, shouldn’t the same 11 members have a say in amending the charter? As I see it, the answer is yes.
Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.