Should Knox County elect the law director?

Betty BeanKnox Scene

When Glenn Jacobs parlayed his 23-vote primary win into the county mayor’s office in 2018, he noticed right away that the county’s law director had sued the county’s pension board. The new sheriff was mad about it and Jacobs wondered why and on whose authority was Knox County suing itself?

Betty Bean posted this story Oct 26, 2018, at KnoxTNToday. Here’s the short version:

See you in court!

After about 90 minutes of discussion, drama and argument at Thursday’s emergency meeting, Knox County Commission voted to join Mayor Glenn Jacobs, Sheriff Tom Spangler and the Knox County Pension Board in asking Chancellor John Weaver to accept a compromise agreement to end Law Director Bud Armstrong’s lawsuit against the pension board.

The 7-1 vote surprised exactly nobody, since the commissioners had already staked out their positions at an Oct. 15 workshop meeting when six of them voted to add the issue to the full commission’s agenda.

The issue is whether to allow retired deputies enrolled in the Uniformed Officers Pension Plan to add up to 43 days of unused leave time to the formula used to calculate their pensions. Jacobs, Spangler and the pension board have agreed to allow 43 days to be added to the calculations.

Armstrong says that the county charter requires that pensions shall be based on salary, not compensation. He supported his right to sue with a document titled “Separation of Powers Under the Knox County Charter” (which was not furnished to reporters).

Pension board attorney Chuck Berks said that this is not the case and summarized his arguments, which he detailed and documented in a 35-page booklet that he provided to reporters.

Afterwards, a commissioner who had voted with the prevailing side said Armstrong’s memo stated he has equal power with other elected officials. “We’ve got a new mayor and a new sheriff and we need to get this thing straightened down and move on.”

How we got here

So how did Knox become the only urban county in Tennessee with an elected law director?

Here’s a brief history, based on oral accounts of a half dozen seasoned veterans of local Republican politics:

The job of Knox County Law Director was created by private act in 1968 at the behest of Republican Party chair Warren Webster, whose brother, Ronald, was a state legislator. Prior to that time, the county’s executive-level legal work had been done by Democrat Earl Ailor, an attorney appointed by County Judge C. Howard Bozeman (also a Democrat).

“Now, this is lore, mind you,” cautioned former law director Dale Workman, who left that office to become a circuit court judge. “But Warren thought it ought to be a Republican, and Warren got a private act passed (that created the elected office of law director).”

The first recipient of Webster’s power move was Tony Brown, a South Knoxvillian who messed up his chance for a second term by running afoul of Knox County Schools Superintendent Mildred Doyle, probably the most powerful woman in the history of Knoxville politics. Workman said a contract glitch that led to a massive cost overrun on the football field at the new Doyle High School ended Brown’s career in county government.

“It added a million dollars to the cost of the high school with Mildred’s name on it,” he said. “And Hello Skatoozy, Mildred was MAD.” …

Workman was the campaign manager for the GOP ticket in 1972. A bow-tied attorney named Charlie Maner got the nomination for law director, and Workman hired on with him after awhile. Maner suffered a massive stroke in December 1982, and Workman was appointed to the position when Maner left office the following October.

Workman was re-elected and helped write the new Knox County Charter in 1988. He served until 1990, when he was elected to a judgeship, and he was succeeded by Richard Beeler. Beeler was succeeded by Mike Moyers (now a chancellor), and Moyers was succeeded by John Owings. Owings was defeated by Bill Lockett, who was ousted from office amid a storm of terrible publicity over questionable financial dealings with the law firm he left when he took office. Joe Jarret, Lockett’s chief deputy, was appointed to serve out the term. He was defeated at the next election by former county commissioner Bud Armstrong.

More than one former law director fears that the position could be written out of the charter when it comes up for review in 2020.

It was. So now voters will be asked whether the law director should be appointed by the county mayor or elected by the voters. Regardless of the Nov. 3 outcome, Law Director David Buuck (just elected in 2020) will serve out his four-year term.

Ironically, the Amendment No. 1 will probably fail in a perfect storm. Rural Republicans tend to vote no on such questions. The more progressive city dwellers may vote no too, seeing the vote as boosting the political clout of Mayor Jacobs, who has lost favor with his recent attacks on the Knox County Board of Health. His allies in that effort? Bud Armstrong and David Buuck.  

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for Sandra Clark added the italicized portions of this report.

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