insights (2008-08)

Restoring Trust in County Government


Last weekâ’s Knox County election results represented a big step toward getting county government out of the ditch in which it has been stuck. In defeating nearly every candidate associated with last yearâ’s abortive appointments to fill a dozen vacancies in county office, voters resoundingly rejected County Commissionâ’s back-room wheeler-dealings epitomized by that appointment process.

Even County Law Director John Owings went down to defeat for his failure to prevent the violations of the stateâ’s Open Meetings Act that occurred and then his attempt to defend the indefensible in court. County Commission Chairman Scott Moore, who presided over the debacle, was so severely crushed in his bid to become County Clerk that he felt compelled to resign his chairmanship (though he will retain his seat on Commission).

Victorious candidates in both party primaries almost uniformly made restoring trust in county government their campaign theme. So whoever wins the eight vacant Commission seats in next Augustâ’s general election should be counted upon to rise above not just the secretiveness but also the vindictiveness that has permeated Commission meetings over the past year.

The defeat of appointees Richard Cate, Tim Greene, and Lee Tramel should also erode the sway of the faction on Commission thatâ’s been out to get Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. Granted, the leaders of the anti-Ragsdale factionâ"â“Lumpyâ” Lambert, Paul Pinkston, and Mooreâ"will serve on until at least 2010, but none of the newly elected commissioners will be beholden to them in the way that Cate, Greene, and Tramel were.

It would be nice to think that Lambert and Pinkston would get the votersâ’ message in the way that Moore seemed to in stepping down as chairman. But as thickheaded as they are, itâ’s doubtful that they will. Even so, the new majority should insist upon civility in Commissionâ’s proceedings. Outrageous slams like Lambertâ’s calling fellow Commissioner and UT professor Mark Harmon â“an arrogant little university twitâ” are making Knox County the laughingstock of the nation and can no longer be tolerated.

I wish that more of last weekâ’s primary winners had applied to fill the vacant Commission seats on an interim basis by appointment. But the four that did certainly deserve to be seated, and the process for selecting the others seems salutary.

The legislative branch of county government isnâ’t the only one in which trust and confidence need to be restored. Mayor Ragsdale has also contributed to its erosion by his administrationâ’s lax management of everything from the use of purchase cards and expense allowances to conflicts of interest in the award of county grants.

The pending release of several scathing audits promises to make matters worse. And all of the mayorâ’s assurances about implementation of tighter controls may not be sufficient to rectify the situation.

Ragsdale would do well to follow the example set by Ronald Reagan when faced with a crisis of confidence in his administration over the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan brought into the White House as his chief of staff someone who commanded universal respect: namely, former Sen. Howard Baker. I can think of several senior statesmen whom Ragsdale might enlist, just as city Mayor Bill Haslam got distinguished retired banker Larry Martin to become his chief deputy (even though the Haslam administration has been untainted by anything approaching a scandal).

In my view, Ragsdaleâ’s biggest failing as mayor hasnâ’t been his lack of control over relatively minor expenses but rather his failure to face up to a major county revenue shortfall. When voters narrowly approved a new pension plan for sheriffâ’s deputies in 2006, it created a $57 million unfunded liability for benefits based on their prior years of service. Ragsdale opted to fund this liability with the proceeds of a bond issue; but this, in turn, beget a $7 million annual debt service obligation for many years to come. In his budget for the current fiscal year, Ragsdale temporized by drawing down county reserve funds to cover the $7 million. But this violated a cardinal rule of fiscal responsibility: that non-recurring funds should not be used to pay for recurring expenses.

The only sound way out of the fiscal bind in which heâ’s placed the county is a tax increase. Without one, the county wonâ’t be able to continue covering its existing debt obligations for long, let alone fund the four new elementary schools that Ragsdale has proposed or even much-needed roadwork.

Facing up to that harsh reality will be a huge challenge for a reconstituted County Commission, which will no doubt look for expense reductions to avert a tax increase if Ragsdale recommends one in his budget for the fiscal year ahead. The ensuing scrutiny of all facets of county government will be painful but can be therapeutic if it helps the public get a better understanding of what are essential county services.

Restoring trust in our elected officials requires fiscal responsibility on their part, and the time to start demonstrating it is at hand. â" Joe Sullivan


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