Ousting Ragsdale Isn't Justified

The county mayor's missteps don't meet the test for an ouster suit

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's negligence in the conduct of his office is by now beyond dispute. His lack of control over the use of county purchasing cards resulted in many flagrant abuses and at least one that may be fraudulent. His hospitality fund's use of a sequestered bank account to collect and disburse private contributions for special events plainly violated a state law and companion county ordinance requirement that such contributions be deposited into the county's general fund and spent only pursuant to County Commission appropriation.

Small wonder, then, that a group of irate citizens including two county commissioners petitioned District Attorney General Randy Nichols to investigate whether Ragsdale should be removed from office via what's known under state law as an ouster suit. Nichols then turned the investigation over to a special prosecutor from Shelby County, thus recusing himself from the matter. The state attorney general's office has since been brought into the investigation, which befits the fact that Ragsdale's alleged offenses involve civil not criminal violation of law.

Perhaps a layman like me should refrain from opining until they've completed their investigation. But from reading the state law governing ouster suits and court decisions thereunder, it seems clear to me that none of Ragsdale's transgressions rise to the proportion of justifying his removal.

The salient section of the ouster statute provides for the removal of any public official "who shall knowingly or willfully commit misconduct in office or who shall knowingly or willfully neglect to perform any duty enjoined upon such offices by any of the laws of the state, or who shall in any public place be in a state of intoxication produced by strong drink voluntarily taken, or who shall engage in any form of illegal gambling, or who shall commit any act constituting a violation of any penal statute involving moral turpitude."

Since no one has accused Ragsdale of being drunk in public or engaging in illegal gambling or a crime of moral turpitude, the determinant becomes whether he was knowingly or willfully guilty of misconduct or neglect. The courts have stressed that "a plaintiff in an ouster suit shoulders a heightened burden of proof" and that evidencing negligence alone does not meet it. So this is not a case where ignorance of the law is no excuse or where mismanagement is culpable. The closest Ragsdale has come to crossing the line has been his failure to adhere to a provision of the state law in his handling of the hospitality account.

That provision stipulates that "a gift must be accepted by a majority vote of the county legislative body... then such money must be deposited in the county general fund and must be appropriated and expended in accordance with county budgetary procedures"—none of which was done. Arguably, Ragsdale should have known of this requirement or at least known to have consulted with the county law department before opening a sequestered bank account to receive and spend some $60,000 that went mostly for salutary public receptions.

Yet when Ragsdale's Chief of Staff Mike Arms did consult the law department in 2007, he got back a letter dated June 18, 2007, recommending procedures for keeping hospitality funds separate and stating, "Hopefully, this would make sure that these donations and expenditures would be kept separate from the Knox County general fund." A month later, the law department in effect rescinded this letter with one citing the apposite statute. But if the law department hadn't been aware of it, how on earth could Ragsdale be expected to?

There are also questions about the propriety of accepting donations from firms doing or seeking business with the county, such as the county's auditor Rodefer Moss. But these don't rise to the level of misconduct, knowing or otherwise. Nor does Ragsdale's investment of $10,000 in the stock of Idle Aire Technologies at a time when he was aware, by dint of his position, that the company was in line to get a federal grant. Ragsdale presumably lost most of his money when the company subsequently went bankrupt, and there is no evidence that he sought or got personal financial gain from any of his other actions under question.

Prospectively, the voters of Knox County will have a much less restrictive way to get rid of an elected official with whom they are dissatisfied. An amendment to the county charter approved overwhelmingly in last month's election provides for the recall of elected officials on any grounds whatsoever. But it will take some 40,000 signatures on a petition to force a recall vote, and such a vote can only take place in conjunction with a county general election. By the date of the next one in August, 2010, Ragsdale will be term-limited from serving any longer.

In the meantime, unless the investigation turns up offenses that have yet to come to light, Ragsdale should be allowed to turn his attention back to Knox County governance and hopefully improve upon his record that's now tarnished by the censure he received from County Commission in May for his past negligence.