The Knox County Commission as a whole misses more meetings than its counterparts in the city and school system
During last year's budget discussions, Knox County commissioners reinstated all but one major spending cut that the administration implemented: a $100,000 payment to the Metropolitan Planning Commission.
The vote was close, but didn't represent the full board. One member abstained, one was late and one didn't show up.
In July, an incomplete board voted on another hot button topic: appointing the county's tax collector.
It was a 5-5 vote until Chairman Tony Norman switched his choice, noting that he "didn't want to be here all night."
Mike Brown, who is rarely absent, missed the meeting due to a prior engagement.
Although the commissioners' absences might not have derailed county government, their presence could have created a different outcome. These are just two of many examples, but officials say they help stress the importance of attendance.
"It's what we signed up to do," said R. Larry Smith, commission vice chairman. "The taxpayers – the constituents – expect us to be there and we're also paid to be there. It's the job we knowingly took on."
WBIR analyzed governmental meeting records from September 2010, when members of the current Knox County Commission were sworn in, through this past summer. 10News also looked at similar records for Knoxville City Council members and the Knox County School Board.
The analysis studied only governmental boards and panels that met at least quarterly. That meant voting sessions, workshops, audit committees, ethics committees, pension boards, beer boards, zoning boards, investment committees, education committees, and a charter review committee.
The commission as a whole has missed roughly 10 percent of its scheduled meetings, which is more than its counterparts. Knoxville City Council members have missed 2.25 percent of their meetings during the past three years, and Knox County Board of Education members have missed 4.5 percent.
Commissioners, according to the analysis, were expected to attend between 150 and 200 meetings depending on their assignments, since September 2010.
Commissioner Amy Broyles was the biggest violator, missing almost 30 percent of the meetings in which she was assigned, either by virtue of her position on the commission or by appointment.
However, she's isn't the only one on the 11-member board to skip out.
Commissioner Sam McKenzie missed 15 percent of his meetings; Chairman Tony Norman was out for 13 percent of his, and Brad Anders missed 10.5 percent.
Commissioners Richard Briggs and Mike Hammond each missed 9.5 percent. Ed Shouse and Jeff Ownby missed a little over 7 percent, and Mike Brown missed 6 percent.
Commissioner R. Larry Smith had the best attendance, missing only 2 percent of his meetings, followed by board member Dave Wright at 3 percent.
"Just hearing those numbers – except for Broyles – they seem right in the normal range of attendance," said Mark O'Gorman, an associate professor of political science at Maryville College. "When you're looking at 150 meetings and you miss, say 10 percent, if you take away a flu season (and don't count any absences incurred then), it could really just be two meetings that you end up missing."
But, O'Gorman said ultimately voters will have to decide whether attendance is important.
"Is the work getting done – is the business getting done?" he said.
WHAT THEY DO
Commissioners, who earn almost $21,000 annually and receive a number of key benefits including insurance and retirement, get paid regardless of their attendance.
The county charter does not require them to show up at meetings and there are no penalties for missing them. But, members make decisions that affect the area short term and long term, and they vote.
The boards on which they serve, composed either entirely or mostly of other commissioners, discuss a number of issues essential to the county's livelihood, like finances, education, economic growth, community development, and rules and regulations.
In 2012 alone, commission meeting discussions focused, in part, on the annual budget; whether to hold prayer before the meetings; the extension of a controversial contract with the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation; tax breaks for business; a Public Building Authority audit; public transportation funding; an anonymous teacher survey; moving the Belle Morris Elementary School precinct; education bonuses for employees; parking garage fee increases; and a billboard ordinance.
The audit committee looked into financial waste and fraud, and the charter review committee vetted a number of controversial matters, including the Sheriff's Office pension plan, and decided whether to give voters a chance to change the county charter.
The pension board worked to create a new retirement program for law enforcement personnel, and the education committee looked for ways to ease the tense relationship between school board members and commissioners.
Officials listed a number of reasons for their absences. Sometimes they were sick, or on vacation, or celebrating a birthday or the birth of a grandchild, or at work, for example.
All the commissioners, though, stressed to WBIR the importance of attending meetings.
"I do my absolute best to attend," said Ed Shouse. "I just don't miss a commission meeting unless something extraordinary happens."
Commissioner Jeff Ownby agreed.
"You're supposed to be there to represent your constituents and provide their viewpoints on things," he said.
Commissioner Mike Brown added that punctuality also decreases the amount of time officials have to meet.
"So many times we're spending all day answering questions in commission meetings that were answered in the workshops and if people bothered to show up they'd know," said Brown, who's missed only one voting session in the past three years.
Commissioner Broyles, who missed more scheduled meetings than her peers, said much of the board's work is done outside of meetings, but that she tried her best to attend them when officials discussed major items.
Anders, the board's chairman, said he typically schedules his vacations so he won't miss a voting session, but said he missed half the charter review committee meetings because he works nights.
Likewise, Commissioner McKenzie, who also missed half of the charter review committee meetings, said he did so because he wanted the residents who served on it to play a larger role.
"It was a citizen review process, but a couple of commissioners tried to use it as a bully pulpit, and that's what I was trying to avoid," he said.
Commissioner Hammond noted that sometimes a day's absence could equal four missed meetings, since officials hold pension, voting, beer, and zoning sessions on the same day.
"Would I like to be there 100 percent of the time? Absolutely, but considering I've missed two days out of 175 meetings, that's pretty good," he said.
LOOKING AT THE REST
City and school officials had a stronger turnout than their county counterparts.
For example, most officials on the current 9-member school board were on the hook to attend 104 meetings from September 2010 though this summer. The panel typically schedules meetings three times a month during the school year and twice a month from June through August.
School board members Karen Carson, Gloria Deathridge, Lynne Fugate and Doug Harris also participated on the joint education committee with the commissioners.
Overall, one of the board's nine members – Mike McMillan – had perfect attendance.
Pam Trainor and Kim Severance each missed two meetings. Harris made each of the school board meetings but missed two Education Committee meetings.
Thomas Deakins, Karen Carson and Indya Kincannon each missed eight board meetings. Gloria Deathridge,the board's vice chairwoman, was absent seven times and Lynne Fugate, the board's chairwoman, missed two.
"There's a lot of self-interest with the school board because many of them probably have a child or grandchild in the district and they want to be a part of (the meeting), so I'm not surprised that they have pretty good attendance," said O'Gorman."They take a very strong interest in the children, especially with core curriculum changes. I think they recognize that they need to go to these meetings."
On the city side, Knoxville's council members regularly hold voting sessions, workshops and beer board meeting.
Five council members have served since at least September 2010. In that time, the council held 155 meetings.
Daniel Brown had perfect attendance; Nick Della Volpe missed two; Brenda Palmer, three; Duane Grieve, five; and Nick Pavlis,10.
The council's other four members took office in late December 2011. In that time, Finbarr Saunders attended all 82 of the scheduled meetings. George Wallace missed one, Marshall Stair missed 2 and Mark Campen missed three.
"I think it's extremely important to be present for all council meetings because we're elected to represent the people," said Brown. "But, it also depends on a person's personal situation. Things can come up in terms of medical conditions or family matters. But, I try to take it very seriously and I try to be present at every meeting. My goal and desire is not to miss any."