Blount County Commission makeup result of 1969 lawsuit
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Why are there 21 Blount County Commissioners?
The answer to that question involves a trip back 44 years in time, to Aug. 7, 1969. That’s when The Daily Times reported that U.S. District Court Judge Robert Taylor had ruled in favor of plaintiff James R. Dykes, who had sued the Blount County Quarterly Court, the predecessor of the current County Commission, on the grounds that the legislative body was “malapportioned and had not been reapportioned.”
The judge agreed and forced the Quarterly Court to adopt a reapportionment plan devised by then-County Judge Asher Howard, which lopped 20 seats off of what was then a 41-member body, reducing it to the current 21, and shrank the county’s 18 civil districts down to five.
Four decades later, the county is back up to 10 commission districts, but the County Commission remains at 21 members. State law gives Blount County Commission the flexibility to set its own membership within certain parameters. It can have no less than nine members and no more than 25.
During the last redistricting in 2011, members of the County Commission Redistricting Committee briefly discussed reducing the number of seats to 11 but ultimately decided against the change. “There wasn’t even a motion made to forward it (to the full County Commission) or anything else,” said County Commissioner Gary Farmer, who chaired the committee. “It was discussed, and I’m sure it will be discussed again during the next redistricting. That’s one of the things you have to look at each time.”At the time, several committee members expressed concern that reducing the number of commissioners so much would hurt their ability to represent constituents. With 21 commissioners, each represents about 5,858 citizens, according to 2011 population figures.
The Blount County Commission, as legislative entity, has only existed for 35 years, coming into being after voters approved extensive revisions to the Tennessee State Constitution during a special election in 1978. Prior to that time, the Quarterly County Court, composed of justices of the peace instead of commissioners, served as the county’s legislative body.
In some ways, the Quarterly Court blurred the line between the legislative and judicial branches of local government, with the justices of the peace holding a broad array of powers that were gradually pruned back over time.
“There were quarterly courts under a county judge,” said David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association. “Some people called them magistrates or justices of the peace. They had some judicial functions in addition to being a legislative body.”
Justices of the peace held various judicial powers in Blount County until 1947, when the Tennessee State Legislature created the Blount County General Sessions Court through a private act. The judges of the new court assumed the judicial jurisdiction, powers and authority of the justices.
The constitutional amendments enacted in 1978 created the state’s modern system of county governance. “They restructured county government and came up with more of a strict county executive and county legislative body,” Connor said.
The current 21-seat commission is practically streamlined in comparison to the makeup of the Quarterly County Court prior to 1969, “I bet taking roll call took five minutes,” said County Clerk Roy Crawford.
State law at the time would have allowed up to 51 justices of the peace to serve on the Quarterly County Court, according to Connor, a mind-boggling scenario for professional observers of county government, such as the author of this analysis, to contemplate.
Sept. 1, 1978, marked the official end of the Quarterly County Court as state law abolishing the body went into effect. County Commissioners were then vested with all the legislative powers and duties formerly held by the justices of the peace but were given no judicial powers nor charged with any judicial functions.