Knoxville City Council on Tuesday turned aside on first reading a set of proposed amendments to the City Charter that were drawn up by Council member Amelia Parker.
The proposed amendments dealt with how tied votes are handled in City primary elections and the annual budget process. Had they been approved by Council, the amendments would have appeared on the ballot in the November election.
“This is the beginning of a conversation that will continue in a workshop,” Parker said after the meeting’s conclusion. “The passage of these proposals may have been delayed but I am committed to continuing the discussion and working towards the adoption of these needed changes to both our budgeting and electoral processes.”
“Flipping a coin”
The night before the meeting, Parker took the highly unusual step of presenting her arguments directly to her constituents during a Facebook live session that lasted about 40 minutes.
Parker proposed a total of eight amendments to Knoxville’s governing document that covered two topics: the rare occurrences when City primary races end in a tie vote, and the annual process by which Council approves the mayor’s budget.
When it came to election tiebreakers, Parker explained that she’s on a very short list of Knoxville citizens who can testify to having been… well, tied up in the issue.
In 2017, she explained, she ran for Council and was defeated by Lauren Rider. However, Parker ended up tying for second place with Harry Tindell.
“You know, Lauren blew us out of the water. I mean, she got twice as many votes as both of us. But there was a lot of attention that then came to our race because of this tie that happened. That just doesn’t happen very often. I learned a lot through that process,” said Parker during her Facebook presentation.
Parker said she wanted to give voters a chance to decide between the highest vote-getters rather than city leaders “flipping a coin” to decide.
According to Parker, the main goal of the budget-focused amendments was to allow more time for discussion, consideration, and making changes to the mayor’s annual budget prior to its passage.
“Over the last couple of years, both myself and others on Council have had some questions and concerns about the timeline of the budgeting process as well as some of the requirements that we must follow as Council that are in the Charter,” she explained.
Parker said she feels that Council isn’t given enough of an opportunity to give proper consideration to the budget and she was inspired by Chattanooga’s participatory budget system.
“They do seek public input much earlier in the process,” Parker explained. “As departments are developing their request, they’re engaging with the public. And so I like that type of model.”
Parker said that she’s aware that Council has so many issues to deal with right now that they’re having a hard time finding time to even hold workshops.
“But I felt we could make some changes that would put us in a good position to have a more thorough review down the road and consider other types of budgeting. Maybe we want to do a priority-based budgeting process like Chattanooga or incorporate participatory budgeting into our system on the front end. So those are conversations we can have down the road,” she said.
Amendments discussed, turned aside
When it came time to act on the proposed amendments at Tuesday’s meeting, however, Parker’s arguments met with a lukewarm response.
Some Council members, for instance, expressed concern about making changes to the Charter too hastily.
“I’m not generally opposed to this particular ordinance … I think it requires a lot more dialogue,” said Tommy Smith of the 1st District.
“I’m not generally opposed to the policy idea,” he said. “But the speed with which we go about Charter changes is really important to me, and I know you [Parker] experienced it firsthand, but putting something before voters is very delicate and I think we just need more time to discuss it. I’m open to a workshop to discuss it.”
Vice Mayor Andrew Roberto harkened back to his experiences on the Knox County Election Commission to offer insight into the complications that could arise from trying to implement some of the changes.
“I’m gonna dust off my old Knox County Election Commissioner hat and try to address some of the initial questions that were talked about,” Roberto said. “You’d need to add machines, you’d have to have training. You’d have increased precinct complexity because you’re dealing with City voters, and you’re going to make sure these Charter questions are going to be provided for the City voters and not for people who live in the county.”
He continued, “I think this type of discussion about Charter change needs a very long time to be vetted and discussed with all the parties that need to be engaged in that process. And we just simply don’t have time to do that process at the time this is being brought up.”
“It certainly does create those extremely rare and awkward situations when there’s a tie and it’s complicated,” said Lauren Rider of the 4th District. “I think we need to have a pretty robust conversation and involve the Election Commission to understand what the various options there are before we put something on the ballot for a Charter amendment is kind of my issue with it.”
City Council attorney Rob Frost also discussed the possible financial costs associated with the proposed amendments.
“There is a cost associated with putting something on the ballot,” Frost said. “I mean, it’s just passed through by the Election Commission to the City because they have, you know, ballots to print. They have newspaper advertisements to run. As to the exact cost, I don’t know if the administration spoke with them or not. …I seem to recall that it costs $10,000 to the Election Commission, which is then passed on to the City to put something on the ballot. But that was a long time ago.”
Parker said that she was aware of the potential costs associated with implementing the changes but argued that strengthening the City’s democratic process was worth the price.
Had Council approved the Charter amendments on two readings by July 26, they would have appeared on the City’s ballot in the November election.
None of Parker’s proposals, however, came close to passing on their first reading with most of them dying for lack of a second.
The Knoxville City Council is set to meet again on July 12 at 6 p.m. in the Main Assembly Room of the City-County building.
Published on June 29, 2022.