Few of us need to be reminded that "change" is the watchword of the day in politics and government. At one time or another, the word has been uttered manifesto-style by virtually every candidate running for president this year — including all three surviving hopefuls: John McCain, Hillary Clinton,
and, notably, Barack Obama.
And change in the most literal sense is under active consideration in both city and county government. After conducting a series of public forums, the citizen members of an elected City Charter Commission are in the final stages of preparing their recommendations for the ballot — either in August or November — and the Shelby County Commission, which held its own public meetings, is already signing off on its recommendations for a referendum to be held in August.
The County Commission's most significant task is to provide charter definitions for five county offices that had been regarded as spoken for in the state constitution until a judicial finding last year in Knox County declared otherwise. Those positions are sheriff, trustee, assessor, county clerk, and register. By now every conceivable variation on each of the positions has been debated in public, in private, and in between. Some, like commissioners Steve Mulroy and Deidre Malone, felt that the aim of good government would be best served if some or all of the officials holding these jobs were appointed. Most of the other commissioners seem to have believed, just as strongly, that the affected officials should continue to be elected. In this regard, popular opinion seems to have been on the side of election and has apparently carried the day so far.
In morning deliberations Monday, commissioners reached agreement on one office — that of sheriff. By super-majority vote (requiring nine votes of 13 for passage), the commission agreed to put on the August ballot a provision to elect the sheriff, to limit any given sheriff to three four-year terms, and to establish in the county charter a definition of duties consistent with those previously assumed to be his under state law.
It could well be that some of the other four positions still being deliberated as of this writing — notably those of register and county clerk — may be deemed suitable for appointment rather than election. If so, those jobs will not be affected by a provision that a groundswell of the public has insisted upon: term limits.
What people seem to be demanding is a limitation of two four-year terms for any officeholder of one of the affected jobs. The County Commission, however, exercised its discretion Monday to allow a third four-year term for the sheriff. The same latitude may or may not be extended to other positions, but it was granted Monday after commissioners Mike Carpenter and Mike Ritz, among others, made the case for the value of longevity in positions more than usually needful of experience.
To use the cliché: The system seems to be working and no doubt will be seen to, as well, when the City Charter Commission (which also has responded to the public call for term limits) finishes its task.
The changes that voters will be asked to approve may not seem as radical as those which some in the community have demanded. Indeed, at this point they seem moderate on their face, but where the public will has expressed itself, they have incorporated that will.