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A C: 'Elect Sheriff, Assessor, Appoint Other Offices'

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BY JACKSON BAKER | MAY 18, 2007

If Shelby County mayor A C Wharton had his way, he'd appoint most of the constitutional county officers whose status is now judicially uncertain and allow the popular election of the assessor and sheriff, though he'd want to strip away the independent budget control now enjoyed by the sheriff.

The county mayor made his personal preferences clear Friday in an interview with the Flyer after attending a noon session of the Urban School Leadership Conference at the city's Teaching and Learning Academy on Union Ave.

Five currently elected county offices had their status made flexible by a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in a Knox County case. Since then Mayor Wharton, county commission members, and other officials have been reviewing the status of these position for possible redefinition under the county charter.

Besides the sheriff and assessor, the positions in legal limbo are those of the trustee, the county clerk, and the county register.

"I do think there are some offices that are largely business-type offices that should be appointed," the mayor said. Those, he indicated, were the county clerk, the register, and probably the trustee, though Wharton remains undecided about the latter.

Eliminate sheriff's budget control

"I feel very frankly that the sheriff ought to be elected and answer to the wishes of the people. And the assessor, I also think the individual in that slot ought to be completely immune from political pressure," the mayor said.

On a key issue affecting the sheriff's fiscal independence, however, Wharton demurred. "But I think I think he ought to be elected under the charter, not under the state constitution," Wharton said. Did that mean that the budgetary control currently enjoyed by the sheriff should be transferred to the central county administration? "That's correct," the mayor answered.

"It's not the multiplicity of the positions per se that makes it difficult to head the county in one direction," he elaborated. "It's just the plain business functions - it's where we bank, where we invest, how many people we hire. When you have seven or eight people trying to make those decisions, it's very difficult."

In the case of the trustee, those issues have been acute in the recent past, Wharton feels - a factor in his ambivalence about the position. "I'm not fully decided on that, but I do think more of the functions ought to be more clearly delineated in the charter and not have to rely on the state law. See, that's what happens now: The trustee says, 'I'm not a county officer, and I don't have to go through your purchasing procedure, and I don't have to do this, and if you don't give me enough positions, I can sue you."

Conceivably the trustee's position could remain elective, the mayor said, but "when it comes down to the housekeeping functions, those ought to come under the charter, just like everything else."

'Basically office-type positions'

Summing up: "I'm not completely decided on the trustee. I'm inclined to believe that ought to be an appointive position. With the assessor, I am decided that should be an elective position; the sheriff I think ought to be. But again those business functions, you don't have that in city governments around the state, and they function quite well. Those positions are basically office-type positions."

Ideally, as Wharton sees it, the mayor's office would be responsible for hiring the county clerk and register and likely the trustee, with the county commission responsible for confirming the appointments.

Any change in the county charter would require an amendment to be voted on by popular referendum. It could be placed on a Shelby County ballot by citizen petition, by action of the county commission, or possibly through the aegis of a charter review panel.

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