Candidates for Anderson County Charter Commission sparred over term limits, cutting the Anderson County Commission almost in half, and electing the law director during a public forum this month.
There was also a heated exchange over whether two candidates—both county commissioners, including one in her first term and another halfway through his second—are permanent officeholders.
The seven candidates are running for three seats on the eight-member Anderson County Charter Commission in the November 8 election.
The debate over term limits has focused on whether the limits are necessary, whether they would encourage more young people to run for office, and whether Anderson County voters already have the right to impose term limits through elections, among other arguments for and against.
As proposed during the campaign, there could be a two-term limit on county commissioners and the county mayor. However, nothing will be official until the Charter Commission is elected next month, and the Charter Commission is not obligated to consider the proposal. Whether the commission even considers term limits could depend upon which candidates are elected. Any changes proposed by the Charter Commission will be considered by voters in November 2018. If approved, they would go into effect in September 2019.
Those who have raised concerns about the proposal to impose term limits on county commissioners have said there has been significant turnover, even without term limits. Anderson County Commissioner Steve Mead, who represents District 6 in Oak Ridge, said there have been 14 new people on County Commission since 2010.
“We don’t have the same people staying forever,” Mead said at a League of Women Voters forum at Roane State Community College in Oak Ridge. Mead, who is a county commissioner, is one of 19 candidates running for one of the eight Charter Commission seats in the eight County Commission districts. The Oak Ridge forum was for the seven candidates in the three Oak Ridge districts.
Mead has said that county commissioners are part-time elected officials who often work from home and earn a relatively small salary of $540 per month.
“The real question is whether the government should prohibit the voters from re-electing a high-performing commissioner they really like and trust,” Mead said. He pointed out that a seated commissioner, an incumbent, was replaced in August by a challenger in District 8, and only one person volunteered to serve to replace another commissioner in District 4.
Mead argued that imposing a two-term limit on county commissioners would mean that, at any given meeting, half of the commissioners would be relatively new, still in their first term, and the other half, commissioners in their second term, would know that they can’t be re-elected, no matter how they vote.
Bob Smallridge, a former Oak Ridge Schools superintendent and Charter Commission candidate in District 8 in Oak Ridge, said he sees some advantages to term limits, but he also has concerns.
“You don’t always have a large number of candidates,” Smallridge said. He cited the current campaign for Oak Ridge Board of Education, where there are three candidates for two seats. If term limits were in place for the school board, Smallridge said, two of those candidates, the two incumbents, would be term-limited.
Would there be more? Smallridge asked rhetorically. It’s not clear, he said.
Still, Smallridge has said he remains open-minded and encourages public participation.
(Note: Any term limits approved in Anderson County would not apply to elected municipal offices in Oak Ridge; Oak Ridge has its own charter, but it does not include term limits.)
Smallridge said charters can be very good or they can make county government much worse. He cited a Knoxville News Sentinel editorial on the topic from earlier this year.
“I think we have to be very careful about what changes we propose,” Smallridge said. “I will try to keep an open mind.”
He said he has, with the help of information from the County Technical Assistance Service, or CTAS, at the University of Tennessee, reviewed the Greene County Charter Commission, which had 49 meetings.
“It became evident that a charter commission could have a very significant impact on Anderson County and Oak Ridge,” Smallridge said. The impact could be good or bad, depending upon what is in it, he said.
“We’ve been kind of premature in focusing on specific proposals,” Smallridge said.
In the November election, voters will choose the eight members of the Charter Commission. The Charter Commission will have nine months to complete its work, and voters will have a chance to accept or reject the proposed changes in the November 2018 election. Anderson County Commission will have to appropriate at least $50,000 for the Charter Commission’s work, although more could be spent.
Former Oak Ridge Mayor Kathy Moore, who is running against Smallridge for Charter Commission in District 8, said she and another former commissioner discussed term limits back in the early to mid-2000s. Moore said she wants to get more citizens involved, including young people.
“People really need term limits,” Moore said. She said she supports reducing County Commission from the current 16 to the state minimum of nine to save money.
The Charter Commission could give people a voice in county government, Moore said.
“I am running for this because I think it’s important that all people are able to be heard,” she said. “Right now, you don’t have that ability at all. We don’t know half of what’s going on.”
Other candidates disputed that.
Anderson County Commissioner Theresa Scott, who is running for a Charter Commission seat in District 7 in Oak Ridge, said there are 126 citizens serving on county boards, commissions, and committees.
“If you want to get involved, just ask,” she said. If you want to see what’s happening, turn on your television (County Commission meetings are broadcast live on Comcast Channel 95), read the newspaper, or come to meetings, Scott said. You can also call commissioners, she said.
“We’re not hiding from the public by any means,” Scott said.
Scott initially had a succinct answer to the question of term limits and reducing the size of County Commission.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she said.
But later, Scott, who sat next to one of her opponents, David Stanley, a doctor, elaborated. She asked, rhetorically, what if someone told you that you can’t use your doctor after eight years? That’s the equivalent of two county commission terms.
“When it comes to term limits, it’s who’s willing to stand up and speak for you,” Scott said.
On the proposal to reduce the size of Commission, Scott said, splitting it would have a negative impact on the cities in Anderson County.
“You’re going to lose your voice,” she said. “You’re going to lose your ability to be heard. It’s doesn’t make sense to slice up what we have.”
Stanley favors term limits. Like Moore, he said he wants to get young people involved in county government.
“I come in with an open mind,” Stanley said. “There’s got to be some things that can be improved.”
Also like Moore, he said voters can reject the proposed changes if they don’t like them.
“I think we can have a lot better county government,” Stanley said. “Unfortunately, the commissioners running for this thing don’t want to change anything, and that’s sad.”
Attorney Hugh Ward, who is running against Mead in District 6, said he favors term limits, with no more than two terms for any candidate. Ward said he also doesn’t see a need for more than one commissioner per district. There are currently two per district.
The current size of commission is unwieldy and ineffective, Ward said, and he thinks a small number of commissioners are already controlling things.
“We’re not permanent officeholders, like the two commissioners on my sides,” said Ward, who was seated between Mead and Scott.
That prompted a retort from both commissioners.
Mead said commissioners earn $125 per week, and he is only halfway through his second term.
“So, I don’t think I qualify as a professional politician,” Mead said.
He said he does support term limits for professionals, such as a well-paid mayor. (The term limit debate has mostly focused on its application to county commissioners, with less attention paid to other offices such as the county mayor.)
Responding to Ward, Scott, who is midway through her first term, said she is a “fresh face.”
“I am not a lifetime politician,” Scott said, adding that she is a full-time commissioner with a full-time job. “I’ve been there for two years.”
Ward, an administrative hearing officer for the City of Oak Ridge, said Mead and Scott both have a vested interest in the current form of county government, including the two commissioners per district and no term limits.
“I think they told you they’re okay with the way things are,” Ward said. Electing them will add up to “zero changes for home rule and citizen participation in the county,” Ward said.
He said the Charter Commission offers the county a chance to stand back and see how it it governed.
“This Charter Commission gives us the opportunity to be deliberative,” Ward said.
It’s a great opportunity to revitalize the county government, Ward said. The county won’t have to depend upon the authority of the state legislature on some issues, he said.
“That’s outstanding,” Ward said. “We will get to participate. We will get to decide.”
Mead said he is not necessarily opposed to a charter form of government, but he is concerned about what might be in it. Regarding the size of County Commission, he said there are an average of 17.4 commissioners per county in Tennessee, compared to the 16 commissioners in Anderson County.
Reducing the size of Anderson County Commission would mean the county would have more trouble filling committee seats, Mead said. There are open seats on committees now, he said.
Marjorie Mott Lloyd, a candidate in District 7 who did not attend the forum but had a representative there, said she sees advantages and disadvantages to term limits. She leans toward a limit of three four-year terms, Lloyd said through her representative, Wanda McCroskey.
Also during the forum, a few candidates briefly debated whether the county law director should be elected, rather than appointed.
No, Scott said.
“Polluting your legal advice with politics is a bad idea,” she said. Ninety-one of 95 counties in Tennessee appoint their attorney, Scott said.
“The law director needs to be a professional position,” Mead said, comparing it to a superintendent position, a job that is an appointed position in Tennessee.
“The position of county attorney should not be politicized in any way,” Lloyd said through McCroskey.
Debate over the performance of the law director has been at the heart of some of the disputes between the county mayor and county commissioners, with the mayor critical of some aspects of his job performance but with commissioners supportive of the work he is doing. Two people helping to lead the Charter Commission effort were among a group of petitioners who unsuccessfully tried to remove the law director through an ouster suit. That’s an issue that has come up in the campaign for Charter Commission.
Candidates also spent some time during the Oak Ridge forum debating whether a small group of them “centered around” Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank had been recruited to run for Charter Commission, including several who have run for County Commission in the past.
They are now making false claims that the county does not have open meetings, does not allow citizens to speak in meetings, and does not allow citizens to participate in county government, Mead said.
“This Charter Commission is not really about term limits,” he said. “It is about retaliation and this small disruptive group seizing power.”
But several other candidates objected to those claims.
“I don’t think there is any plot, any sinister plot…we just want to make Anderson County better,” Stanley said.
“No one has paid me, no one has persuaded me, no one has asked me,” Moore said. “The mayor or none of these people have asked me to run. I’m doing it for the people. I haven’t even talked to the mayor.”
Jim Cooper, who is running for a District 2 seat in Clinton and attended the Oak Ridge forum as an audience member, said he also was not recruited.
“I’m nobody’s lapdog,” Cooper told Oak Ridge Today after the forum. “People don’t recruit me.”
During the forum, Ward said he has seen meetings closed, purportedly to discuss lawsuits, and he and Mead had a brief dispute over citizens’ right to speak at a meeting earlier this year. Mead said the commission chair runs the meetings, and “you don’t have the right to speak,” according to Ward.
Stanley said that’s one of the issues that has upset some people: the ability of citizens to be heard at County Commission meetings.
“They do have the right to speak,” Stanley said. “They’ve been cut off, frankly.”
In response, Mead said there was one incident where public comments were limited on an issue that had already been discussed for five months, including at Operations Committee. Some citizens planned a demonstration at a meeting and were not allowed to speak, Mead said. Since then, County Commission rules have been changed to allow those people to speak, Mead said, and they will be allowed to talk even when they are demonstrating or disrupting in violation of state law.
One last issue raised at the forum was whether citizens should be allowed to serve on important committees such as the budget, finance, and purchasing committees.
Stanley said citizens should be on those important committees, and not just on committees like Beer Board and the sidewalk committee.
But Anderson County Commissioner Myron Iwanski, who is not running for Charter Commission, told Oak Ridge Today that those committees are subcommittees of the full County Commission. He doesn’t know of any other county in Tennessee that has residents on its budget and finance committees, Iwanski said. CTAS doesn’t know of any either, he said.
The City of Oak Ridge, which has a charter, does not have residents on its Budget and Finance Committee, Iwanski said.
You can see our previous story on the charter commission process here.
You can follow our 2016 election coverage here. You can see the November 8 sample ballot, which includes Anderson County Charter Commission candidates, here. Early voting started October 19 and ends November 3.
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