Election 2020: Charter Amendment #2

Knox County Charter Review Committee

Election 2020: Charter Amendment #2

A transparency measure would require the county mayor to provide County Commission with a record of public contracts.

by jesse fox mayshark • October 12, 2020

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the knox county charter review committee meets in june.

In a bit of electoral irony, the more opaque of the two Charter amendments being put to Knox County voters this fall is the one concerned with transparency.

If the Charter change fails, Commission could accomplish the same thing with a simple resolution.

The ballot wording of the measure has provoked some consternation on social media as voters have tried to figure out what it means and does.

Here is how it reads:

Shall Section 3.03 M of the Knox County Charter be amended by deleting said section in its entirety and by substituting therefore the following:

Sec. 3.03 - The Mayor's duties.

  1. Have the sole power and authority to enter into contracts on behalf of Knox County, except as otherwise provided in this Charter. Contracts and purchases on behalf of the County shall be entered into by the Mayor or the Mayor's designee. On all contracts in an amount greater than $50,000, or such greater amount as established in advance by the Commission, the Mayor shall obtain the approval of the Commission by resolution prior to execution. On all contracts in the amount less than $100,000, the Mayor shall submit the full contract to the Commission to be included in the monthly meetings under Spread of Record without approval by vote of Commission. Any contracts to be spread of record shall be submitted in accordance with the Rules of the Commission.

The first helpful thing to know is that only the last two sentences of that section are new, beginning with “On all contracts in the amount less than $100,000 …” 

The county mayor can already enter into contracts of up to $100,000 without Commission approval. The amendment would require the mayor's office to make monthly reports to Commission of those contracts. The report would be provided as “Spread of Record,” meaning it will be documented as part of the Commission meeting but Commission does not on vote on it.

“It’s entirely to do with transparency,” said County Commission Chair Larsen Jay, who supports the measure. 

The proposed amendment would produce an ongoing public record of contracts under $100,000, which currently doesn’t exist. The contracts are public records and could be requested by any member of the public, but there is not a formal log of them.

Jay said that could theoretically lead to abuse by a county mayor who thought no one was watching.

“You could have a mayor who could give a $90,000 contract a hundred times, and no one would know about it,” Jay said.

The measure was proposed this summer by the Knox County Charter Review Committee, which approved it on a 23-1 vote (unlike the divisive Charter Amendment #1). It was introduced by committee member James Corcoran, who was appointed by County Commissioner Randy Smith.

Mike Donila, Knox County communications director, said County Mayor Glenn Jacobs supported the proposal in the interest of transparency, but that’s the extent of his involvement.

Matt Myers, Knox County’s procurement director, said even without the reporting requirement, there are already some checks on the mayor’s purchasing powers. There is a multi-tiered structure of accountability, depending on the amount of the contract:

  • Up to $25,000: The county can spend up to $25,000 with a single vendor or contractor per year on a discretionary basis, without getting additional quotes. But that amount is cumulative, so if one department spends $15,000 with a vendor and then another department wants to spend $15,000 with the same vendor, the second department will be over the $25,000 limit and will need to seek quotes.
  • Between $25,000 and $50,000: If the county’s spending with a given contractor exceeds $25,000, the department making the purchase has to seek three competitive quotes for the service or goods. The department is not required to accept the lowest quote, but if it doesn’t, it has to explain its reasoning to be approved by procurement.
  • Between $50,000 and $100,000: The department seeking the service or goods must issue a formal solicitation, in the form of a request for proposals or other notification. It must then consider all the bids returned and explain its purchasing choice.

Some other purchases are made through established state or national cooperative contracts, in which vendors have been pre-approved for use by any government that joins the contract. For example, Myers said, the company Kelsan is the local supplier for a cooperative agreement, and Knox County purchases many of its janitorial supplies through them.

What the proposed amendment would add is a monthly disclosure requirement so all of those contracts are reported to Commission.

“If the Charter amendment passes, everything under $100,000 will be on Commission’s agenda,” Myers said.

Even if the amendment doesn’t pass, Myers said Commission could accomplish the same end by passing a simple resolution requesting a monthly report.

Donila said if Commission made a formal request, Jacobs would be happy to supply the information on an ongoing basis.

One bit of confusion in the amendment’s language is a reference to the mayor being able to contract up to $50,000 without Commission approval, rather than $100,000. But the Charter also allows Commission to raise that level, and Myers said it was raised to $100,000 years ago. (He was not sure exactly when, but county budgets going back to at least 2008 make reference to the $100,000 level.)

CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect that Charter Review Committee member James Corcoran was appointed by County Commissioner Randy Smith. It originally said he was appointed by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. The Charter Review Committee vote on the measure has also been corrected — it was 23-1, not unanimous.