Would changing the organizational structure of the Knox County Board make the body more effective?
by Mike Kroll
In some way reorganizing the Knox County Board is somewhat akin to herding cats, it's hard to see much payoff compared to the effort expended. Nevertheless that is exactly what some Knox County Board members want to do. Following decades of board operation under the so-called “committee system” organization the county board reorganized itself into a “committee-of-the-whole system” one year ago. Now a group of board members led by Carolyn Porter and Alan Pickrel want to return to the former committee system. Other board members including chair Jan Occhi and Wayne Saline have voiced their preference to continue using the committee-of-the-whole system for at least one more year. While a few other county board members have voiced opinions on either side (notably Steve Johnson (who sides with Occhi and Saline) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Lowell Mannhardt (in support of Porter and Pickrel) most have either stayed out of this public discussion or equivocated. It is expected that the November 28th County Board meeting agenda will include this as an action item as it was discussed at the November 9th meeting.
Under the present committee-of-the-whole organization the Knox County Board meets twice monthly and all board members hear reports and discussion regarding all Knox County business. The former committee system saw the board divided into various committees with responsibilities assigned by the county board chair. Each of these committees met once per month and discussed in detail all business within their purview and voted on recommendations to the full county board. The county board met as a whole once per month and each committee chair reported back to the full board and committee decisions were voted upon by the complete county board. Most county board members were formally assigned to a pair of committees but were free to attend any other committee meeting at their discretion.
One obvious structural difference between the two systems was to reduce by one the number of required county board meetings each board members was expected to attend each month, three under the committee system and only two under the committee-of-the-whole system. Another key difference was that as each committee (excepting the executive committee) had its own chair the committee system created more opportunities for the most active county board members to play a leadership role. Once these committees were eliminated the only formally acknowledged leadership position became that of the board chair elected by county board members at an organizational meeting in December of even numbered years.
For perpetually cash-strapped Knox County one more difference between the two organizational structures is the cost of board operations. According to financial figures attained from Knox County Treasurer Robin Davis the county has saved nearly $10,300 in per diem ($35 per meeting per board member) and mileage expenses for county board members since changing to the committee-of-the-whole system. During fiscal year 2004 when they still operated under the committee system Knox County paid board members a total of $26,652.50 for attending board meetings plus an additional $2,265.20 in mileage reimbursement. In the past year under the committee-of-the-whole system has cost an estimated $18,619. It should be noted, according to Davis, that not every county board member submits a per diem request for every meeting attended nor requests reimbursement for all county-related mileage accumulated. On the other hand I must note that historically there have always been county board members who energetically played the per diem game for their own benefit.
“From the viewpoint of my office the committee-of-the-whole organization appears to support a more fiscally responsible county board,” commented Davis. “Under the committee structure it didn't seem as if each committee really exerted the necessary degree of financial control but often times became vocal advocates for increased spending within their own areas of responsibility. And overall county board oversight was hampered by the comparative lack of detailed information and understanding by county board members outside of the committee itself. Committees also became very territorial and actually took offense if other county board members dared question any recommendation they made. The effect was to compartmentalize both information and decision-making with a committee and committee chair that identified more strongly with their own piece of county business than with the big picture.”
Many county board observers, including some of the county board members themselves have noted critically the tendency for committees to become cheerleaders for the parts of county government they were supposed to oversee. One board member went so far as to tell me that it was comparatively easy for a hired administrator or elected official to cultivate unconditional loyalty from the committee and that committee chairs often became unquestioning political allies. One example of this problem was the steady downward financial spiral of the Knox County Nursing Home under the committee system. Another example was the gleam Highway and Landfill committee members got in their eyes every time they came to the full county board with a request to lease or purchase a shiny new piece of heavy equipment. The literally looked like kids in the holiday toy section of the department store telling mom and dad how much they just had to have the new Tonka bulldozer or Barbi playhouse.
“I think the county board is operating a whole lot better than some people want to think under the new committee-of-the-whole system,” said Saline. “Every county board member now has much more complete information available before the two monthly meetings even if some of them don't take full advantage of it. Under the old committee system people thought they knew more about the operations covered by their own committees but that wasn't necessarily so and they sure didn't have anywhere near the currently available information regarding other areas of county business. Today we have more information over a broader area of Knox County government and a wider group of board members can have meaningful input on board issues than ever before. We still have some who contribute much more than others on the county board but now they can participate in all areas rather than just one or two.”
Alan Pickrel and Carolyn Porter disagree with Saline here. “Too many decisions are now being made by a small group of 3-5 county board members and more members are uninvolved than ever before,” claimed Pickrel. “I fell like I know so much less about most of the county business than I did before. I always felt that I had a strong handle on issues pertaining to the committees I was on but now I don't have the same comfort level. We get this big packet of information but we have far less interaction with department heads and elected officials than with the committee system.”
“I see the chair doing way more than she should under the current system while other county board members aren't even engaged in the process,” said Porter. “The committee-of-the-whole reduces the level of responsibility for most county board members and makes me feel less like a participant and more like an observer. We have a stronger board now than in the recent past; a less political board and a more progressively minded one. Under the current system a lot of county business is handled by only a few in an informal manner rather than before a formal county board discussion.”
Not surprisingly Occhi, who was instrumental in pushing for the committee-of-the-whole system sees it as a qualified success that should be continued. “Under the committee structure we had too much rah-rah and board members guarding their turf instead of overseeing it. This lead to problems in a number of county departments and even committee chairs didn't have the level of understanding that any county board member who does their homework today can have. I think those who are pushing to return to the committee structure are more interested in having 'ownership' over some part of Knox County-- being able to claim that this or that is 'their baby' and that's not an effective way to run the county.”