Knox County Will Vote on Appointing Law Director
In its final meeting, the Charter Review Committee approves a ballot measure to abolish the elected office.
by jesse fox mayshark • August 13, 2020
Knox County voters will get another chance in November to decide whether to keep the county’s law director an elected position or change it to an appointed post.
Does the law director serve the general public or county government?
The county’s Charter Review Committee, which is required by law to convene every eight years, wrapped up its 2020 session Wednesday with a final vote to approve two charter amendments. Both will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.
One of the amendments sparked no controversy on the 27-member committee. It will require the county mayor to present reports to County Commission on any contracts the county enters into for less than $100,000. (The mayor can enter into contracts for up to $50,000 without Commission’s approval, so the reports will ensure commissioners and the public at least have an account of those.)
The other amendment, to abolish the elected law director position, was more divisive. On its second and final official vote Wednesday, the 24 committee members present split 15-9.
Knox County is one of the rare counties in the state with an elected law director. The office dates back to the 1960s and has survived three previous referendums to get rid of it.
County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has advocated for the change, saying that he should be able to hire his own attorneys rather than relying on a separate elected office for representation.
Jacobs has had some high-profile clashes with current Law Director Bud Armstrong, who is leaving office at the end of his second term this month. Armstrong’s chief deputy, David Buuck, was elected as his successor in the Aug. 6 county general election.
If the proposed amendment passes in November, Buuck will be able to serve out his four-year term. Then in 2024, the office would become an appointed one, with the county law director selected by the county mayor and approved by County Commission.
In addition, County Commission and the county school board would have the right to hire their own attorneys rather than using the county law director as they do now.
The Charter Review Committee is made up of the nine district county commissioners (the two at-large commissioners are not included), along with nine citizen representatives appointed by commissioners and nine more appointed by the county mayor.
Predictably, all of Jacobs’ appointees present at Wednesday’s meeting voted for the proposed amendment, along with county commissioners who have tended to side with Jacobs against Armstrong — Michele Carringer, Randy Smith, Hugh Nystrom and Brad Anders.
Voting against were several commissioners who tend to be more sympathetic to Armstrong: Evelyn Gill, John Schoonmaker, Charles Busler and Carson Dailey. Commissioner Richie Beeler was absent. All of their citizen appointees also opposed the change.
“I’m really disappointed that we’ve not had as much public participation as we could have had,” said committee member Lisa Starbuck, who voted against the amendment.
It’s true that public interest in the Charter Review Committee has been minimal. Nobody turned out for a public hearing on Monday, and a second public hearing on Wednesday drew only two people — both of whom spoke against the proposed law director change.
Starbuck said that was in line with people she had talked to in seeking out public opinions. People want to be able to vote for the law director, she said.
But committee member Mike Arms, a Jacobs appointee with a long history in county government, said that it was inaccurate to describe the law director as a representative of the people.
“This thing about the law director being ‘the people’s law director,’” said Arms, a former county commissioner who also served as chief of staff to former County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. “That is only when the law director wants to be the people’s law director.”
He noted that when a whole raft of elected officials chose to ignore term limits passed by county voters in the first decade of this century, a succession of law directors interpreted the law to allow the evasion. That eventually led to the Black Wednesday scandal of 2007.
“The law director never did anything for the people,” Arms said. “Because that law director is inside the City County Building. He had to worry about upsetting the sheriff or upsetting the trustee.”
In contrast, he said, counties with appointed law directors tend to hire them on retainer from outside firms, separating legal services from electoral politics.