Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale is supposed to be a dead man walking, politically speaking. He has been censured by County Commission, and his office has been battered by a series of critical audits. He has lost four members of his staff due to scandals.
So why does he keep winning?
Ragsdale's budget passed with very little tweaking. On most any issue of real importance, he wins the commission vote. The county awarded a new contract to Natural Resource Recovery despite a lawsuit and a scandalous lack of control by the county of the previous five years in which the county received no revenue from the contract.
There has been a lot of talk and a lot of criticism. But underneath it all, there has been remarkably little action by commission to impede his major programs or to hold him accountable for misspent funds.
The election has, ironically, strengthened his hand. The interim commissioners who raised questions about his activities will soon be gone. The incoming commissioners seem to have the attitude that any investigation of Ragsdale will be left to the district attorney general's special prosecutor and the state attorney general. They show little inclination to delve into the hospitality fund audit, which is next on the commission agenda.
Ragsdale held his back-to-school celebration at the Expo Center last week. The First Day Festival drew 8,000 participants, according to the press release from the mayor's office. The Read with Me program continues apace, according to the release, and will be headed this year by former WBIR anchor Bill Williams and his wife Wanda. Outside of commission meetings, you would never know Ragsdale has had any problems. The Knoxville establishment has been silent.
It is certainly true that Ragsdale's future political career is over, and I am sure it has not been pleasant for him—or anyone working around him—this past year. But at this juncture it appears he will coast on out of office in two years with his program pretty much intact. Unless, of course, the special prosecutor finds some illegality worthy of prosecution.
There have been clear violations of the county charter: things that are not illegal, but that might be worthy of an ouster suit. But unless a super majority of County Commission decides to press the matter, it is unlikely to happen. The political will on commission has never reached critical mass and the addition of new commissioners is not likely to change it. In fact, it makes it less likely it will happen.
The purchasing card audit revealed lunch purchases in Knox County, which experienced auditors like Lewis Cosby say is a clear violation of the county charter and its purchasing policy. Law Director John Owings said there was a line item in the budget for food, so no harm no foul. Nothing was done to collect any of the money, as long as they had a receipt.
One presumes that if Ragsdale put an item in a footnote in next year's budget for whores, local escort services could start taking p-cards.
So it appears Knox County will be governed by an administration limping out of office, one step ahead of a special prosecutor, and commission will feature occasional criticism but no action.
There are some people on County Commission who have toyed with the idea of running for county mayor in 2010. These are the people who have done nothing to try and recoup misspent taxpayer money or hold the mayor accountable. Ragsdale's major failing has been a lack of good stewardship over the county's money.
If county commissioners don't have the spine to collect misspent money now, why should we trust any of them to manage the people's money if they are in charge?