A Question of Priorities

Let's treat the hangnail, but ignore the cancer?

Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has been censured by the County Commission. His office has been the subject of repeated audits finding instances of financial impropriety. The TBI has raided the City County Building confiscating computers. Possible criminal violations in the recent hospitality audit have been referred to a special prosecutor. Ragsdale's personal life is a public joke.

Ragsdale has demonstrated he has no shame, no remorse, and no inclination to do the right thing. We can forget about him quietly moving on and relieving the populace of the soap opera that is his administration.

The question now is where we find the community leadership to step up and do something about the situation. Where is the local equivalent to Sen. Barry Goldwater who, at the height of Watergate, went to President Richard Nixon and told him he had to go?

The business community, Ragsdale's initial base of support when he ran for office, is embarrassed and busily surveying the field to find someone to replace him in the next election. They are sitting idly by, however, and refusing to step up and do anything about the public spectacle that is turning Knoxville into an East Tennessee version of Memphis.

At what point does the city's only daily newspaper run an editorial calling for Ragsdale to get the hell out of Dodge? Why is it left to Chuck Bowers and his friends from Powell to go down and call for an ouster suit and set a legal process in motion?

The establishment in Knoxville is geared up to get petitions signed for charter amendments to punish County Commission and the constitutional officers and grant the county mayor more political power and patronage than exists in any other county in Tennessee. If they were true leaders of this community, they would be stepping up to call for Ragsdale's removal and an end to the local nightmare. Focusing on the problem of some commissioner having a relative on the county payroll instead of paying attention to the financial improprieties in the mayor's office is to miss the point.

It is typical Knoxville: screwed-up priorities.

Where are the candidates who are asking to be elected in August? Have any of them stepped up to openly criticize this mayor, point an accusing finger, and call for his removal? No.

I understand that calling for the removal of a county mayor is serious business. But what, pray tell, would Ragsdale have to do to move these people to action? Would he have to be caught standing over a dead body on Gay Street with a smoking gun?

There has been a great deal of criticism of District Attorney General Randy Nichols over the preceding months. Nichols has at least named a special prosecutor; he has referred the results of the audits for investigation. He is empanelling experts to examine whether charter violations have occurred that warrant an ouster suit. Some County Commissioners have been raising questions for well over a year.

But where are the community leaders? Where are the people who allegedly run this town and normally shoulder the responsibilities and reap the rewards of civic leadership? Where is the resolution from the Knox Area Chamber Partnership calling for Ragsdale to resign? Where are the good government types so active in the last election?

I have long supported County Commission putting the proposed charter amendments on the ballot. I think it would be a good idea to eliminate nepotism in county government. I think it would be a good idea to have a strong ethics policy requiring recusal for conflict of interest. I support Commissioner Elaine Davis' efforts to establish civil service in county government. There are any number of good things that might be accomplished with charter amendments.

It would strengthen the case for county government reform via the charter if there were a simultaneous call for changes in the mayor's office. A new non-partisan caretaker running the executive branch would shift the focus onto real reform and remove the charge of a one-sided political agenda.

But to focus exclusively on these charter changes now? It's like treating a hangnail and ignoring cancer. m