Officials share thoughts on separating top county job into two positions

On Monday, Feb. 11, at its monthly business meeting, the Blount County commission unexpectedly passed a motion to separate the top executive job in county government – long combined into a single position – into two separate positions: Probate Judge and Commission Chairman.

It wasn’t an unheard of proposition – it’s been discussed on and off for a couple of decades, often, though not always, in the context of converting the organization of county government from the district system to the unit system. But it hasn’t been discussed recently, and the impression was pronounced that no one on the commission – other than District 3 Commissioner Dean Calvert, who voiced the motion – saw it coming.

The result was a moderate amount of head scratching in subsequent days summed up by the occasional question “Where did that come from?” or “What’s going on down there?” And a few less moderate reactions as well.

Where did it come from? Why was it presented so suddenly? What about the process of dialogue and discussion – among commissioners at the very least – that arguably should have preceeded as major a change in county government as this? Separating the jobs will require funding another major position at a time when money to sustain county government is supposedly approaching an unusual crisis this year. How will the salary of the new position be paid? When will the action be implemented? Presumably, the new job will be an elected position. How long will the term be? Where will the new person sit in the courthouse? What will be the extent of reorganization required? As noted in today’s editorial, the action creates more questions than answers.

The main reason for posing the questions isn’t so much to embarrass the commission as to point out that maybe answers should have been considered – maybe even out loud and publicly – before commissioners voted to move ahead. It would have reduced the degree of discomfort, not to mention distrust, some citizens may feel.

Before the February business meeting concluded, the commission set a called meeting for Monday, Feb. 25, at 9 a.m., presumably to explore some of the above dimensions of the action taken. Probate Judge/Commission Chairman Chris Green said he would recognize members of the public who would like to speak or comment on the matter at that time. Then commissioners will proceed to discuss matters related to the action among themselves in session still open to the public, but not open to further public comment.

Meanwhile, below are some thoughts on the matter shared by Green and Calvert during or following the Feb. 11 business meeting. They are presented as answers to questions formulated after the fact by The Blount Countian.

What is Green’s reaction – the current occupant of the dual job – to the action? “I will in no way back away from the responsibilities of the jobs I was elected to perform,” Green said. “But neither will I stand in the way, if this is what the people want.” (Following that statement, Green called for commissioners to set a special called meeting in order to consider a number of questions unanswered in the motion itself.) Later, in a separate interview, he added: “This is not the time I would have chosen for this. But regardless of that, the issue is now on the table, passed by unanimous vote. Now, the thing we must do is examine the pros and cons carefully and come to the right decision for Blount County and its citizens.”

Why is the action needed? What’s the problem that the action is the answer to? In discussion at the time the motion to divide the jobs was offered, reasons cited related to the increase in county population from around 30,000 in 1976 to about twice that today. As a result, the workload for both the probate job and the commission job has increased greatly, making it impossible to give adequate time and attention to either. Both jobs now require a full-time public servant to adequately carry out assigned responsibilities and serve the citizens of the county.

Why was the motion made at this time with such apparent lack of appropriate discussion? The commission work session was just four days prior to the business meeting. Why was it not brought up for open discussion at that time? In an interview with The Blount Countian, Calvert, who introduced the motion to separate the jobs, said he had

not begun work on that motion and three others he introduced at the same time until the day after the work session. He said he was influenced to move ahead as fast as possible to prepare the motions over the weekend because of a conversation he had with State Rep. David Standridge. He had consulted with Standridge about preparing a request to the Legislative delegation to pass a local law separating the dual position into two separate jobs. Standridge had advised him that in order for the Legislature to consider any such measure during its current term, the request must be forwarded to the delegation as early as possible. Asked about the lack of discussion, Calvert replied that the subject has been discussed many times in recent years and that “we all know we need to move forward on it for the good of the county.” He also noted that had other commissioners not wanted to proceed, they could have voted against amending the agenda to include the added items of business – including separation of the dual job – not appearing on the meeting’s original agenda. Concerning the lack of opportunity for comment by citizens, Calvert said: “We want to hear from people. We want their ideas. Tell them to contact me if they want to talk about it.”

Which position would be the ‘new’ position? To be determined, but the working assumption among those closest to the process is that the new position would be that of commission chairman.

What exactly is the purpose of the Feb. 25 called meeting? “To come to further agreement on details to be forwarded to the Legislative delegation so they can draft legislation needed to create two separate jobs out of the presently combined position,” Green said. “The commission’s motion to divide offices passed unanimously without putting forth necessary particulars on salary, terms of office, timing, and other details the Legislative delegation will need.”

How would the salary for the new position be funded? To be determined, but ideas mentioned by Green and Calvert included tapping district road budgets for a significant portion of the salary, then supplementing it from the county general fund, as well as picking up lesser amounts from other sources. A small amount of the present probate judge/commission chairman job is allocated to the commission chairman position, for example.

When would separation of the job into two positions be implemented? To be determined, but the general election of 2014 was mentioned in commission discussion on Feb. 11 as a possible target date to elect a new commission chairman, if all intervening considerations could be accommodated by then.

Has there been any relief from the ponderous solemnity that has accompanied this matter since its inception? Trying to recover from the surprise motion and discussion related to the impossibility of handling the expanding workload for both jobs he presently holds, Green said plaintively: “Hey fellas, I’m doing the best that I can.” It was one of the few moments of levity in the entire episode – and a welcome relief.