The Year Ahead: For Knox County, Decisions and Elections

Knox County General Plan 2003

The Year Ahead:
For Knox County, Decisions and Elections

The TVA tower deal, countywide planning and jail crowding remain on the mayor’s plate as 2020 begins.

by jesse fox mayshark • january 1, 2020


a map from the county's general plan, last updated in 2003. (image: knoxville-Knox county planning)

For Knox County government, 2020 begins with a lot of unfinished 2019 business still hanging in the balance. It also starts with a short window before voters will make decisions in a March primary that could shift seats on County Commission and in the county’s key legal offices.

Elections will bring changes to County Commission and the law director's office.

Also on the horizon: a review committee that could recommend amendments to the county charter, including possibly changing the county law director to an appointed position.

Here’s a look at some of what we’ll be talking about in the next 12 months.

Trying to Seal the Deal

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs tried to bring the proposed county lease of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s vacant East Tower to a resolution before the end of 2019, but some realities interfered: A.) The contract with TVA, a lease in the form of an easement that would give the county control of the 12-story tower, was not quite finished last month; B.) County Law Director Bud Armstrong has raised concerns about the legality of the school board moving its Central Office functions into the building, as Jacobs has proposed; and C.) Support for the deal on both the school board and County Commission remains uncertain.

But the new year should get off to a busy start, as Jacobs has vowed to bring the issue to a Commission vote this month and has asked Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom to organize one more work session on the deal to try to address any lingering questions.

Commission may well have to act on the proposal before the school board does, since board members have said they want to be assured that Armstrong’s legal concerns can be addressed before getting on board. (That may require an opinion from the state attorney general.)

Jacobs has said that he wants to pursue the deal even if the school board decides against it; other county functions could move into the building, freeing up space elsewhere. Still, getting the school system’s Central Office out of the historic Andrew Johnson Building one way or another remains a priority, as Jacobs tries to complete a sale of the building for private redevelopment that began under former Mayor Tim Burchett.

What’s the Plan?

One win for Jacobs last year was getting agreement on an amendment to the county’s Growth Policy Plan that would lift some restrictions on development in rural areas. (Both Commission and Knoxville City Council have signed off on the amendment; the Town of Farragut Board of Mayor and Aldermen is due to vote on it this month.)

But in pushing for the change, Jacobs promised an update of the county’s General Plan, which hasn’t been revised since 2003, to address concerns about balancing growth with infrastructure needs and rural conservation.

Commission has had some discussions about how much it will cost to have Knoxville-Knox County Planning undertake that update, but there hasn’t been any movement on it yet. The Knox County Planning Alliance, a coalition of residents’ and citizens’ groups from across the county, will likely keep the pressure up on Jacobs and Commission to make good on their commitments.

Jail and Fire 

Commission received two detailed reports last year on emergency services in the county, one detailing causes of and possible remedies to persistent overcrowding in the county jail, and the other recommending changes in the way fire protection is provided outside Knoxville city limits.

Both engendered a fair amount of discussion, but so far little concrete action. Jacobs has said he will expand his existing jail task force and charge it with an action plan to relieve jail crowding. 

Commissioners have promised to take some steps to address inconsistencies in the level of fire service, which is provided by the private company Rural Metro except in areas served by the volunteer Karns and Seymour fire departments. 

Both involve complex issues and multiple vested interests, meaning they are a lot easier to talk about than act on. 

Election Time Again

The Knox County primary election schedule is set this year to coincide with the March 3 presidential primaries. For contested races, that means there are just six weeks of campaigning between now and the start of early voting on Feb. 12. 

On the ballot this year are the county law director, public defender and property assessor, all of which have contested Republican primaries. Also up are seven of the 11 County Commission seats, although only three have contested primaries. (And three more have no contest at all.)

Four Knox County school board seats are also up for election, three of them with primary challenges for incumbents seeking re-election. 

We will have detailed coverage of each race in the weeks ahead, but the one that’s likely to generate the most attention is the law director face-off between David Buuck, currently the chief deputy law director, and former Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Quist Shanks.

Buuck has been the right-hand man to Armstrong and is running with his support. Shanks is banking on support from those who have been at odds with Armstrong on a range of issues during his eight years in office. It is partly a proxy fight between different factions of the county Republican Party, one aligned with Armstrong and Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley, the other revolving around Jacobs and Sheriff Tom Spangler.

Republican turnout in the March 3 election is likely to be low, given the absence of a contested presidential primary on that side of the ballot.

Charter Members

The outcome of the law director primary could also influence action by the recently appointed Charter Review Committee, which by law must be convened every eight years to consider amendments to the county’s foundational document.

The 27-member committee includes all nine county commissioners who represent geographic districts (the two at-large commissioners are not included), along with nine citizen members appointed by Commission and another nine appointed by Jacobs.

Any changes it recommends would need to be placed on a ballot later this year for approval or rejection by county voters. A range of amendments are possible, but the status of the law director is likely to be one of the hottest topics.

With Jacobs and his allies on Commission controlling a majority of the votes on the committee, it could revisit the issue of making the law director an appointed position, as it is in almost every other county in Tennessee (including the other three large urban counties). Jacobs’ stand-offs with Armstrong on the pension plan for Sheriff’s employees and the TVA deal have given the mayor plenty of incentive to seek a different arrangement.

But if Shanks defeats Buuck in the law director primary, some of the immediate impetus for that change could dissipate.

Stay tuned, it’ll be an interesting year.