by Mel Griffith
Recently a committee has been studying the way Bradley County government is organized. This is a good thing. We should stop and think now and then about why we are doing things the way we do them. They have offered some good suggestions and some others that are somewhat puzzling. They have suggested that there ought to be one location for people to get all needed permits and a single location where both city and county taxes can be collected. These are commonsense suggestions which hopefully will be implemented at little cost and improve service to the public. Other suggestions appear less helpful. They suggest combining the city and county fire departments. This idea has already been tried in different forms in past years, first by depending entirely on the city to protect the county and then by starting a county fire department but making the city fire chief also the county fire chief. Both ideas were disasters. Why would we want to change the present system which is working well except for county residents being overcharged by the city for one one that is already a proven failure?
The committee suggested combining the city and county planning commissions which may or may not be a good idea, but their proposal for a single commission is quite weird and shows a fundamental ignorance of how a democratic government is supposed to operate. They propose an eleven member commission with five members from the county, five from Cleveland and one from Charleston. This would give the urban areas about 55% of the planning commission. Yet out of a county population of about 88,000, there are about 38,000 in Cleveland and around a thousand in Charleston. Why should the 45% of the population have 55% of the vote on the planning commission?
Regardless of the percentage representation, there is a large problem that goes to the very heart of the democratic process. A fundamental principle of democracy is that citizens be able to vote on those in authority over them or those appointed or employed by those they elect. All voters in Bradley County can vote in county elections so it is proper for county government to take actions that affect citizens both inside and outside the cities. However, residents outside Cleveland and Charleston cannot vote in city elections and have no influence on city officeholders. Therefore city officials or their appointees should not be involved in decisions outside the city limits, If one planning commission would indeed be better, all that is needed is for the city to abolish its planning commission. Bradley County already has a nine-member commission, several of whose members live in Cleveland, which could take over. Any voter, inside or outside the city who is sufficiently unhappy with its decision can vote against the county mayor who appointed its members and the commissioners who confirmed them. Both the proposal for the fire department and for the planning commission seem to be based on the city's desire to grab power instead of on better government.
The committee also suggested combining the Trustee, County Clerk, Tax Assessor and Register of Deeds into a single office. That might make sense in counties with only a few thousand residents, of which there are many around the country, where there is little county business to transact. It seems there would be little benefit in a county like Bradley where the work force is already busy. Most of the time when I go to the county clerk's office or the Trustee's I end up waiting in line. I don't normally go to the Assessor's office or Registrar's but I have no reason to think they are overstaffed. It is difficult to see how putting these busy people in a mega-office with a lot of other people busy at entirely different tasks would increase efficiency. The question the committee should have focused on were: Does this task need to be done at all? If it does, can it be done better? Instead, they seem to have focused mostly on: Who does this task, and who else could do it. Shuffling tasks from office to office instead of changing the task is not likely to result in much improvement.