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KC law director speaks at Farragut GOP meeting


From the perspective of Knox County Law Director John Owings, a Farragut resident at the vortex of a County Commission controversy, 2006 was “a very tough year.”

And 2007 doesn’t look any easier.

Owings, speaking Thursday, Feb. 8, to the Farragut Concord Republican Club, had to concede “it hasn’t gotten a lot better” since he took office last Sept. 1 when county commissioners named him successor to Mike Moyers, now Knox County’s Division 3 chancellor.

Owings, as Moyers’ chief deputy, successfully had defended the county’s charter from a lawsuit challenging its validity — specifically that of a clause, approved by voters, setting two-term limits for elective county officials, including 19

commissioners.

In upholding charter validity, the state Supreme Court also upheld term-limits, and that, in effect, removed a dozen officeholders, including eight commissioners. Also ousted were Sheriff Tim Hutchison, County Clerk Mike Padgett, Trustee Mike Lowe and Register of Deeds Steve Hall.

Owings told Republicans, meeting at the Gondolier Restaurant, he will serve out Moyers’ unexpired term through August 2008.

But he and his 17-member staff now are at ground-zero of a controversy stemming from County Commission’s Jan. 31 vote when departing commissioners named relatives and friends to succeed them. Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale since has asked Gov. Phil Bredesen to intercede in the county’s situation. State legislators have mulled legislation so Knox County could hold a special election to fill the seats.

Owings said the court might have prescribed a special election to replace term-limited officials, but its 34-page ruling was silent, and Tennessee’s Constitution, he said, keeps officials in office until the county legislature names successors.

After commissioners chose among 79 applicants, attorney Herb Moncier sued challenging the process. And the Knoxville News-Sentinel sued, alleging violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act (sunshine law).

Owings said his office defends the commission but cannot defend commissioners if sued individually. They must pay for their own legal defense, he added.

Some at the Jan. 31 meeting alleged some commissioners had met before and during meeting recesses to discuss selections. Owings said his “cautious advice” to county officials always has been to avoid discussing any county business when gathered for fear of violating the 1974 sunshine act.

Owings’ office now must respond to both lawsuits. The sunshine law challenge, he said, “may boil down to an interpretation of the law and what was said during county commission recesses.”

If courts find Open Meetings Act violations, Owings said, “it probably means all appointments made in violation of the act are void, and those persons will not serve.”

A special election to select new commissioners would have been “a great idea,” he said, and that “would’ve taken the heat off county commission. But the law made no such provision, he added.

Owings, chief deputy law director for 16 years, administers and executes county legal matters, litigates, performs title investigations and oversees contracts. He said term limits, approved in 1994, are relatively new and require “time to work in [to the system and be] readily accepted.”

Bill Johns, the club’s president-elect, called Owings’ talk “enlightening” and said:

“It was interesting to learn that state ‘sunshine laws’ probably prohibit commissioners from meeting to discuss county business or communicating county business by phone, e-mail, cellphone or instant messaging. I suppose that means folks at Fox Den can no longer play golf together or meet up at the Cracker Barrel mornings.”

Owings said he still would have accepted the law director’s job in 2006, had he known such controversy would arise. But he doubted term limits will pose him any dilemma.

“I don’t know how anyone would want to do this job more than two terms,” he grinned.

 

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