A reader called me recently to compliment us on printing an editorial cartoon (which appears in color with my column on Sunday August 11) on July 31. He said the Bill Schorr drawing highlights one of the most important (yet ignored) issues of our time.
The caller was a passionate believer in term limits. He thinks limiting the time a politician can serve in Jonesborough, Nashville or Washington, D.C. is the one sure way to solve all the ills of our government.
While I agreed with some of his points, I reminded him we already have a way of limiting a politician’s time in office. The problem with “voting the bums out of office,” however, is that it’s never the bum who represents you who needs to be gone. It’s the bums in the other legislative districts that need to be removed from office.
And unless you move to that district, and properly register to vote, you have no control over the number of terms that bum serves. That’s the way our representative government works (or in the case of the Washington County Commission, doesn’t work very well).
Periodically, I hear from people who say it’s time to get rid of certain members of the County Commission. “I’d like to vote that Commissioner Horsefeathers out of office in the next election,” they say.
“Fine,” I tell them. “You’ll get your chance in August 2014.”
Then I ask them a question that is met with either a “Duh?” or a long pause.
“Do you live in Commissioner Horsefeathers’ district?”
Usually, they don’t know what commission district they live in. I suspect fewer that 40 percent of registered voters in Washington County can even name one of their county commissioners. Which is why many county residents believe there are too many commissioners needlessly collecting a paycheck (and in some cases, health insurance as well) from beleaguered county taxpayers.
If you recall back during the last county election in 2010, reducing the size of the County Commission was a big issue. Many candidates campaigned on the issue and promised to downsize the board in redistricting. That, unfortunately, did not happen. Once seated, some of the newbies who were elected in 2010 on that pledge developed a wicked case of political amnesia.
County Commissioner Ethan Flynn would like to change that. At last weekend’s meeting of the Washington County Republican Party’s hierarchy, he pushed a proposal calling for the party to hold a caucus instead of a primary next year to nominate the GOPers who would appear on the ballot for the County Commission in the general election.
Flynn said the party could then nominate candidates who would work to reduce the number of commissioners from 25 to 11.
While I appreciate Flynn’s reasons for wanting to downsize the County Commission, bypassing the primary process is not the way to do it. A majority of his fellow Republicans feel the same way, and told him so last week when they voted down his plan. As one GOP leader told me last week, you don’t fix such a public political problem in a closed-door caucus.
He’s right. This is a matter for the voters to decide, not a select few of party leaders. And then there’s the political reality of living in Northeast Tennessee. Sorry Democrats and independents, but most races for local offices are decided in the Republican Primary.
Why would Republicans even want to embrace the caucus process? It would not grow their party. In fact, it would do the opposite. Scrapping the primary system sends the following message to independent-minded voters in this area: We don’t need you and we don’t want you.
As I mentioned earlier, we are a year away from the next election for the County Commission. We have no term limits in this county other than those inflicted by the voters.
My advice to Washington Countians who want to see the number of commissioners reduced is to ask every candidate seeking one of the 25 seats on the board what they plan to do about it. If the answer they give is not what you want to hear, then vote for someone who does share your opinion.
And once elected, if that person does not live up to his or her word on downsizing the commission, remember to respond accordingly the next time they are on the ballot.
Vote the bums (in your district, of course) out.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.