City Council Election Changes Are Needed

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

If a candidate for mayor of Knoxville gets a majority of the votes cast in the city’s nonpartisan primary election in September, he or she is forthwith elected to the office.

On the other hand, a candidate for an at-large seat on City Council can get the vast majority or even all of the votes cast in the September primary, yet is still required to run again in the city’s November general election against the second-place finisher in the primary or a possible write-in candidate.

Such a runoff requirement for at-large City Council seats is a travesty and should be eliminated. Nowhere else in the election of any other office of which I am aware does the winner in a nonpartisan primary have to run again to get elected. To the contrary, in nearly all other primaries as well as general elections in Tennessee and most other states, a plurality of the votes cast (which could be far less than a majority in a multi-candidate field) suffices for election to every office from governor to you name it.

Why does Knoxville have such a ridiculous requirement for subjecting clear-cut winners in September to having to run again in a November election in which the turnout is likely to be minimal (unless there’s a runoff contest for mayor because no candidate got a majority in the primary)?

The explanation harks back to a 1996 amendment to the City Charter that changed the basis on which at-large Council members are elected. Up until then, all candidates for all three of the at-large seats on that nine-member body ran against each other in a September primary in which the top six finishers then battled it out in a November election in which the top three won. The provision for a runoff made sense in such a construct, but it also made for perplexity among the candidates and perhaps the electorate as to who was running against whom.

Following a particularly fractious 1995 election, City Council opted for a clearer construct, in which the three at-large members are elected in separate contests for seats designated as A, B, and C. The 1996 charter amendment approving the change probably would have put these contests on the same footing as the mayoral election except for one hitch.

The hitch was that only one of the six district Council seats is on the same election cycle as the at-large seats. Candidates for this district seat could then have faced a very lonely, low-visibility November election as the only contest on the ballot.

That seat, then as now, happens to be the Fifth District, and its incumbent at that time, Larry Cox, successfully pleaded with his colleagues not to subject him to having to run alone in an under-the-radar November election in which who knows what could happen.

The reason district seats require a runoff is Knoxville’s unusual—but I believe salubrious—way of electing district Council members. After contesting the primary purely within their districts, the top two finishers in each district then square off against each other in November citywide. This dual track serves to instill Council members with a sense of accountability both to their districts and to the city as a whole. And that, to me, outweighs the counterargument that each of them should be solely representative of their districts’ interests.

Fortunately, there’s a very simple solution to the dangling Fifth District problem, and that’s to put it on the same election cycle as Council’s five other district seats, which will next be contested in 2017. This would mean bestowing a transitional two- or preferably six-year term on the Fifth District starting in 2019 in order to align it with the others via a charter amendment that can only go on the ballot in conjunction with the state elections in November 2016.

If putting six of the nine Council seats on the same election cycle is deemed too top-heavy, then the restructuring could take the form of (A) placing three districts on each cycle, and (B) moving one of the at-large seats so that five Council members would be elected on one cycle and four on the other. This would entail creating more transitional six-year terms to achieve the new alignment. But it would be no more complicated than the way in which County Commission seats were realigned when that body was reduced in size, from 19 members to 11, in 2010.

The time to start the restructuring is soon after this fall’s election, when Council should set in motion the process of putting the requisite charter amendment on the November 2016 ballot. This represents the most opportune—and perhaps the only—time to make the change in the next eight years. That’s because all, or nearly all, of the nine Council members then in office will be term-limited and therefore don’t have a vested interest in the outcome.

Incumbent at-large City Council members Finnbarr Saunders, Marshall Stair, and George Wallace all seem virtually assured of re-election, leaving only the Fifth District’s Mark Campen facing what could be a serious challenge. If his challenger Jennifer Mirtes should prevail, she might need to recuse herself from voting on the restructuring since she could stand to benefit.

But there is no excuse for a failure on Council’s part to rectify what’s been a vexing flaw in the way its at-large members are elected.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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