A new skipper is chosen for Knox County


by Mike Kroll


When the Knox County Board convened Monday evening for its organizational meeting following the November election the voting was little more than a formality. The real business of this body had been conducted during the days and weeks preceding and the choice of a new county board chair was in little doubt. The 15 member board is split as eight Democrats and seven Republican members and each of these groups caucused separately and in private to determine who they would officially nominate for board chair. The Democrats selected Caroline Porter and the Republicans picked  Allen Pickrel as their nominees. Had the members voted by party Porter would have prevailed but instead Pickrel won the chairmanship by a 10-5 vote as three Democrats joined with the Republicans in supporting him.

It is unclear whether anyone was really surprised although a clearly distraught Porter worked overtime to control her disappointment. Both Pickrel and Porter had privately lobbied for votes among members of the opposing party but the acrimony sowed within the Democrats was Porter's undoing. Democratic insiders speculate that had Porter made an effort at mending fences with outgoing board chair Jan Occhi and vice-chair Dale Parsons the result might have been different. Both Occhi and Parsons voted for Pickrel after the Democratic caucus failed to select Occhi as its nominee for chair and Porter anointed Paul Stewart as her designated vice-chair. Democrat Greg “Chops” Bacon also voted for Pickrel.

In the run up to Monday's vote both Porter and Pickrel made clear their intention to return to a committee system of management and used the various committee chairmanships as coin of the realm in their quest for votes with both offering chairmanships to members of the opposite party. However, the key difference is that while Porter failed to use this as a means of mending fences with Occhi and Parsons, her opponent offered Bacon chairmanship of the Ad hoc negotiating committee and gave both Occhi and Parsons more attractive committee assignments.

Fighting back her emotions after the meeting Porter commented: “I'm really not surprised at the outcome. I think  Allen [Pickrel] will make a good chair. He and I have become good friends while he has been on the county board and I appreciate that he is very inclusive in decision-making so the business of running Knox County will actively involve more board members than in the recent past. I have already shared many of my ideas with  Allen and I am confident that he will work hard to solve the many problems facing Knox County. Some of the key issues in my mind include establishing a new county administrative building and solving the existing problem of the absence of daily supervision of county operations. I continue to support the hiring of a county administrator and frankly don't think we can afford not to.”

“I must say I was a little surprised,” said Pickrel following the meeting. “Coming into tonight's meeting the rumors were flying fast and furious including some crazy predictions of what would happen tonight. Personally, I really didn't expect this to be either a two-way race or to be settled in one ballot. It is my hope that party partisanship can be ended after tonight's meeting and all of the county board members can work well together to run this county. One of the most positive aspects of my time on this body is that most of the time party politics plays little role in our decision making.”

Knox County has struggled financially for some time and there have been numerous 'crises of leadership' over controversial issues, frequently involving money. Two years ago the county board abandoned the committee structure and voted to meet twice monthly as a committee-of-the-whole. As problems continued to plague county government this experiment was frequently cited in conjunction with the putative need for a county administrator as contributing factors in the county's difficulties. Knox County briefly experimented with a county administrator but chose not to renew former administrator  Allen Hallberg's contract when it came up two years ago. Since then there has been a clamor by some to replace Hallberg while key county board members have argued that the salary and benefits of a county administrator were beyond the county's financial means at this time.

During the past election nearly every candidate for county board publicly professed support for the return of a county administrator although many privately remain skeptical. Porter has been an unapologetic proponent of hiring a new administrator while Pickrel says this is an issue to revisit as the county's finances permit. One idea gathering steam among board members and others is the notion of the at-large election of a full-time county board chair who would perform many of the duties typically discussed as part of an administrator's role such as purchasing and direct supervision of department heads and county employees who otherwise fall outside of the current supervisory structure of Knox County. Such a chair would be much like a traditional “mayor” for the county and this change could not be implemented until after the 2010 census.

Former Knox County chair Occhi was extremely frustrated with how the county administrator position functioned here during Hallberg's tenure. “We didn't get anywhere near our monies worth. The county board never created a situation where anyone could succeed in that position and I can't see that ever happening plus there is the built-in conflict with the elected county-wide office holders who saw this as undermining the authority of their offices.” Occhi believes a more independent county board chair working full-time offers greater potential for Knox County.

Pickrel is also a supporter of an elected full-time county board chair. “I totally agree with the idea of a county board chair that is elected at large and I find the notion of making that position full-time and combining many of the duties we envisioned for an administrator very attractive. This could be a much more workable approach for Knox County than trying to hire an administrator and the county board would probably find it easier to assign duties and responsibilities to a full-time chair.”

“This was one of the approaches I have suggested,” added Porter when asked about the prospect of a full-time county board chair. “For example, I now have the education and training to do just that and would have been willing to serve in something like that role without the need of paying me a full-time salary to better lead Knox County. The present lack of day-to-day administrative leadership is the biggest problem currently facing the Knox County Board and the committee-of-the-whole structure only made this problem worse. I supported returning to the committee system because if it does nothing else it involves more county board members in the active administration of county business.”