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End the political popularity contests

Johnson City Press • May 12, 2018 at 8:15 AM

County voters faced a long ballot in Tennessee’s recent primary elections, but was it longer than it should be? Other than occasionally voting whether to retain appointed judges, the governor and members of the Tennessee Legislature are the only state officeholders elected by voters. The state’s comptroller, treasurer and attorney general are appointed.

But counties elect a treasurer in the form of a trustee and some, such as Sullivan, a county attorney, among other constitutional officers who should have various levels of professional experience. But a degree isn’t required for most of these; not even a high school diploma.

Among other abilities, the positions of county clerk, Circuit Court clerk and register of deeds demand language and writing skills and expertise in management, accounting and budgeting. But you need only be 18 years old and a resident of the county for some period to run for them.

Why are these important positions filled through a political popularity contest? Shouldn’t they be appointed through a process that includes advertising for persons with the highest qualifications, interviews and reference checks? Shouldn’t these positions be filled on the basis of demonstrated ability?

The mayor is the chief executive officer for Tennessee counties, and as with the CEO of any major business, should have professional management capabilities with experience in setting and meeting goals, thinking outside the box, developing a vision, and especially strong communications skills.

But to run for county mayor in Tennessee you need only meet the residency requirement and be 25 years old, rather than just 18.

The only disqualifier for these offices is that you cannot have been convicted of offering or giving a bribe, larceny or other “infamous offense,” or be on the payroll of a foreign power.

The only additional experience the state constitution demands for other constitutional officers is that candidates for sheriff must have at least three years of full-time experience as a peace officer.

Highway chiefs must be licensed engineers with four years of supervisory experience in road building or maintenance. And constables must not be felons. Candidates for local judgeships must be lawyers over the age of 30.

County residents might be better served if some of these positions were taken off the ballot and filled through a normal hiring process. Then too, qualifications for other positions are weak to say the least, and should be upgraded.

Doing so requires the General Assembly to propose constitutional amendments which would then be voted on statewide. But a smart first step might be a study and recommendations by the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

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