Local leaders will look into a proposal that protects Knox County government employees from workplace retaliation that could potentially result from any public statements they might make about elected or appointed county officials.
The plan, spearheaded by Knox County Commissioner Amy Broyles, comes as election season gears up and in the wake of outspoken comments made recently by teachers about how the school system operates and its top management.
The commission is expected to officially address the matter during its Feb. 18 work session.
"During election season we always hear stories about someone who wanted to campaign for so-and-so but they were afraid because they didn't want their boss to find out and fire them," Broyles said. "There's a lot of contested races and I want all the county employees to know that they can campaign for whoever they want to."
Almost every county seat, including posts on the school board, commission and some of the major positions, like mayor, sheriff and district attorney, are up for election this year. The county primaries are set for May with and the general elections in August.
Broyles said she's also talked to teachers who have told her that "they're afraid to speak out because they're afraid of bad evaluations, or being fired or transferred, so I wanted to make sure they knew that they're being heard."
For months now, educators during public meetings have railed against many of the state and local policies tied to student achievement and teacher evaluations. Some have even lashed out against Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre, accusing him and his administration of creating a culture of fear that in the past has prevented them from speaking publicly about problems in the system.
Broyles said she doesn't know of any particular case in which an elected official or administrator has punished an employee for making public statements. She also said she doesn't believe the superintendent would "retaliate against anyone in any shape or form."
"But, I just want the teachers to feel like somebody's got their back," she said.
Knox County Senior Director of Human Resources and Risk Management Mark Jones said the county has some similar policy already in place, but it's tied mostly to the 900 or so employees who work under the executive branch. He said employees also can engage in political activity but not on county time.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said he would support Broyle's proposal.
"It's their right to have an opinion – I don't have a problem with that," the mayor said. "Sometimes (the employees) may say something we don't want to hear, but that's their right."
As currently proposed, Broyles plan "provide(s) that no employee of Knox County shall be terminated, harassed, demoted, or receive a negative evaluation based on exercising First Amendment rights in making public statements regarding elected or appointed officials of Knox County government."