In September, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale was on the ropes. He was being pounded daily by news stories about financial scandals, staff resignations and the launch of four different audits. Knox County Commission voted to subpoena his staff to appear before public hearings investigating audit results.
There was much speculation at the time as to whether Ragsdale could finish out his term. People were underestimating Ragsdale's political skills and his ability to change the subject—with the help of his allies.
Let me be clear. I have no problem with any stories nailing various commissioners for Sunshine law violations, nepotism (as I recall I wrote one of them), or any other malefaction. Various reporters have done yeoman work on covering county government over these many months.
I do think it would be good to step back and put some of this in perspective, however.
Let's remember this is a political battle between two factions of county government and there is a difference between being unethical and practicing politics. Doing politics is not illegal or immoral.
Which is worse: two commissioners talking with each other or the Mayor and his staff meeting in secret to decide to give each other five-figure raises and call them travel allowances, then label it an accounting mistake?
An unfortunate result of the Sunshine lawsuit is a committee in Nashville attempting to gut the Sunshine law. While committee members are moving to put limits on media access, the News Sentinel runs a story speculating that if a commissioner talks to someone then that someone talks to another commissioner, it's a Sunshine Law violation. Why don't you take a stick and punch a hornet's nest?
The editor of the News Sentinel, the plaintiff in the Sunshine lawsuit, writes a column in which he says he isn't concerned about being disenfranchised. As a resident of the 4th District, left without a commissioner as a result of the suit, he thinks the stripped-down 11-member Commission might not be a bad thing. We wonder how he would feel if Chair Scott Moore had a 6-5 majority instead of Ragsdale having a 6-5 majority?
The decision to postpone making Commission appointments was a vote to postpone the investigation of the mayor's office. It was a delaying action in the hope investigation proponents will be defeated in the primary and thus eliminated from Commission.
The audits of Ragsdale's office will be damaging. But they can be one-day stories and if a Ragsdale-controlled Commission can be installed in February to shelve the audits without any follow up. With anti-Ragsdale commissioners in the majority, the audits will get an extensive airing that might provoke public outrage.
The ethics committee, led by Ragsdale ally Commissioner Mike Hammond, is being manipulated to provide fodder for Commission races next year. The committee is going to discuss next week a charter change to prevent county employees serving on County Commission. This might be a good policy decision. It might be something that ought to be on the ballot. But it has nothing to do with ethics. There is nothing about a county employee being elected by the voters to County Commission that violates anybody's ethics. It's an effort to make it an issue in Commission races next year.
What we have is Ragsdale manipulating the ethics committee, exploiting his majority on County Commission, and getting help from local media to change the subject, divert attention from his misdeeds, and to try to cripple the forces that want to hold him accountable.
It would seem the correct attitude toward the factional fighting in county government ought to be, "A pox on both your houses." Let's not let our fixation on the Sunshine Law take our eye off the ball. Some serious misdeeds have occurred in Ragsdale's office.
It would be nice if we could focus on that particular problem and let the voters deal with County Commission, beginning in February.