Supporters Hold Rally, Address Problems They See In Local Government
BY KEN LITTLE
Supporters of Greene County's home rule movement need to get the word out about the May election of a charter commission, the first step in a legal process that would include the creation of a charter detailing how county government would be run under locally-adopted rules.
That message was a common theme Saturday during a rally sponsored by the Citizens for Greene County Home Rule.
Speakers also emphasized their common desire to trim local government, eliminate tax rate hikes, and limit the terms of elected officials.
About 10 speakers addressed the gathering of about 50 people in the former school auditorium of the Crescent Building.
PETITION DRIVE 'SUCCESSFUL'
A charter petition drive supporting home rule was concluded in December.
"We feel good about the success of the charter petition drive and now direct our focus on the successful creation of a limited-government charter," said PK Lowrey, a Home Rule group member who served as rally moderator.
Lowrey said that, after recent Greene County property tax increases, home rule was viewed "as a solution to our local problem of expansive government."
The 15-month petition drive that started in August 2012 ended with the Greene County Election Commission's recent sanctioning of an election for the members of a charter commission.
Citizens, not officials, were the driving force in the petition effort, Lowrey said.
"Our petition did not beg or cajole any magistrate to take action. Rather, it was a demand by Greene County citizens according to Tennessee law," Lowrey said.
"Although we had far more signatures than needed, I strongly suspect there would have been even more petition-signers, if the message of limited government had been delivered to more citizens."
The election of a charter commission in May will be the third such election in Tennessee to have resulted from a petition drive by citizens, Lowrey said.
Giles and Lincoln counties are the other two counties where citizen petitions have triggered the election of a charter commission, Lowrey said.
Once the members of the charter commission have been elected and seated, they have nine months to create a proposed charter: a document specifying the rules by which the Greene County government would be required to operate.
The charter must conform to the Tennessee and the U.S. constitutions, and other state laws also "bind the charter's content," Lowrey said.
A ratification election would likely be held in March 2016, Lowrey said.
A majority of Greene County voters would have to ratify the charter in a public referendum for it to go into effect.
If it is ratified, the charter would be implemented on Sept. 1, 2018, Lowrey said. It would not affect seated elected county government officials.
"You must be careful in selecting charter commissioners. The document that emerges will be a reflection of their work," he said.
The petition called for the election of seven charter commission members, one from each Greene County Commission District.
COMMISSION CANDIDATES SPEAK
Several people who intend to run as charter commission candidates spoke at Saturday's rally.
Ronald Davenport, a charter commission candidate from the First County Commission District, said that at least 80 percent of the citizens he has spoken to support the charter concept.
"We're trying to do the right thing by the taxpayers and the citizens of this county," Davenport said.
Dan Burgner, a charter commission candidate from the Fourth County Commission District, said he's seen his property taxes raised twice in recent years. He said the current structure of Greene County government needs to be changed from the current setup.
"The big picture [at the present time] is to bring Greene County under the thumb of the state legislature as much as possible," Burgner said.
Anything short of a home rule referendum vote "will leave the power (to raise) taxes in the hands of politicians," he said.
The charter and home rule "will make people's lives better," Burgner said.
Robert Wood is running for the charter commission in the Seventh County Commission District.
"They know you can run this better than they can," Wood told rally attendees.
Accessibility of elected officials is another important issue, he said. Citizens shouldn't need prior authorization to address Greene County elected officials at meetings, Wood stated.
Davenport is the only charter commission candidate to have formally filed a petition with the election commission as of Friday.
"Give citizens of Greene County a greater voice in their government and easier access to talk to whoever is in charge," he said.
Clifford Bryant, a County Commission candidate for a Third County Commission District seat, said most people in Greene County share the goals of home rule proponents: "Make a decent living, raise a family and be left alone," Bryant said.
He added, "I'm fed up with big government."
Bryant said he is a home-rule supporter and questioned allowing officials in Nashville "who don't know our circumstances trying to tell us how to run [local government]."
Others who addressed the crowd include Don Burchnell, who expressed interest in the Charter Commission seat in the Seventh County Commission District; Frank Barwick, a possible charter commission candidate in the Fourth County Commission District; and Eddie O'Brien, a candidate for Greene County mayor.
Others included home rule supporters Ron Dawe and Ronnie Lintz.
Lowrey said that if members of the Greene County home rule group are elected to the charter commission, positive changes will occur.
"We can expect a charter designed to increase the prosperity of ordinary citizens," he said.
Charter provisions are likely to include term limits for elected officials, elimination of conflicts-of-interest for elected officials, and stricter requirements for enacting tax increases.
According to the website http://etliberty.com cited by Lowrey, conflicts-of-interest can arise with County Commissions.
"Commissioners may be employees of county government, work for a state agency, or may have either spouses or children who are government employees. Also, they or their family may receive retirement benefits from the local school system or other government entity," according to the website.
"Most people realize the existence of two distinct groups in our society: those that use political means to obtain prosperity and those that use productive means to obtain prosperity," Lowrey said.
"Advocates of home rule envision a charter which limits the political means available for people to use."
'TAKE NOTE OF OPPONENTS'
Lowrey and several other speakers cautioned that home rule backers "must take note of their opponents."
Opponents of limited government include "politicians, government employees and business-owners who benefit from government regulations. All are people who use political means to gain their prosperity," Lowrey said.
"Very few, if any, of these people support home rule restrictions on government," he added.
Lowrey said the home rule charter clearly reveals the distinction between proponents and opponents.
"From the very beginning of the project, curtailing the size and scope of government has been the objective of the proponents," Lowrey said.
Home rule opponents will try to "sabotage" the charter commission and "try to convince citizens that the charter written is bad for them," he said.
Limited government "is a godsend for people who choose to prosper through honest, productive work," Lowrey said.
He urged those at the rally to spread the word about home rule with their neighbors, and pay close attention to who backs the concept and who is against it.
"Notice how their method of prosperity aligns with their point of view about home rule," Lowrey said.
"Above all, remember that the success of a ratified, limited-government charter is within our power to create."
The effort will be successful if proponents show "courage, knowledge and tenacity," he said.
Five counties and 14 cities statewide have a form of home rule, including three that share a charter with nearby cities. Cities in the state that have home rule charters include Johnson City and Oak Ridge.
None of the charters in the five counties came about as a result of citizen petitions, Lowrey said.
Greene County government "currently follows the generic rules specified in Nashville for counties not adopting their own charter," he said.
Home rule "allows citizens the chance to control the size and scope of local government, to guard against the burdens of unreasonable tax increases, conflict of interest and other excesses.
"Government activity is dictated by the rules in force," he said.
During a brief question-and-answer session after the speakers had finished, one man asked about what he said was the impending bankruptcy of a municipality in the Shelby County area that had adopted home rule.
Each city or county that adopts a form of home rule does so with its own set of regulations, Lowrey said.
"Home rule itself simply means that the rules are formulated by the people," Lowrey said.
"The exact rules that are formulated are going to be up to the charter commission. Government in [the five counties] decided they didn't want to go through Nashville," Lowrey said.
It doesn't matter if a local government has home rule provisions or standard operating procedures if spending is out of control, Bryant added.
"If you spend more than you're taking in, the result is the same," he said.
"Local government is currently 'expensive, expansive and invasive,' said Don McIntyre, a home rule supporter.
"We've got to somehow wake up local citizenry to rally around home rule," McIntyre said. "Why home rule? I say, 'Why not?'"