Self-Destructive County Government

Our dysfunctional Knox County government seems bent on self-destruction. If the only damage done were to the feuding elected officials who have perpetrated the debacle then perhaps there would be some solace in the outcome.

But the harmful effects of their malevolence and malfeasance are dragging down the entire community, or at least besmirching its good name. Everything from the business climate to the recruitment of a worthy new school superintendent has to be adversely impacted by the unrelenting acrimony. Yet attending to public business, let alone restoring the public's trust, is taking a back seat on County Commission to the vindictive pursuits of several commissioners.

Commission sunk to a new low last week when a lengthy agenda of ordinances and resolutions didn't even get addressed at a three-and-a-half hour meeting. Instead, most of the time was spent delving into various activities of the now-notorious political operative Tyler Harber. Harber had been employed by County Mayor Mike Ragsdale until March 2005, when he was terminated and then moved to Washington, D.C. While he was here, Harber and a partner also had a political consulting firm that worked on the campaigns of numerous candidates for local office.

At the outset of the meeting, the most vengeful of all commissioners, Paul Pinkston, held the floor, asserting that Harber had "run" fellow Commissioner Mike Hammond's campaign in 2004, which made Hammond "the mayor's man." While acknowledging that he paid Harber's firm some $23,000 for campaign services, Hammond rejected both of Pinkston's assertions.

None of this had anything to do with any matter pending before Commission, nor was there any allegation of wrongdoing involved. Yet Pinkston, with assists from Commissioners Scott Moore and Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, was disgracefully allowed to misuse Commission meeting time trying to tar Hammond with a Tyler Harber brush. Hammond has been an outspoken critic of nepotism, and both Pinkston's and Moore's wives are employees of the Sheriff's Department.

Lambert then took the lead in resurrecting all of the circumstances surrounding Harber's dismissal in 2005. Harber was accused of pilfering emails from the computer of then-Knox County Republican Party Chairman Chad Tindell and furnishing them to Ragsdale. A sheriff's deputy was called upon to make a lengthy Powerpoint presentation of the findings of his investigation of the theft. These included an assertion on Ragsdale's part that he "did not have the first clue" as to who furnished him the e-mails, which the sheriff's deputy branded as a lie. District Attorney General Randy Nichols was then summoned to the podium to explain why no charges were brought against Harber. He stated that Tindell elected not to press charges.

However, Lambert pushed ahead with a motion to have Harber subpoenaed to testify at a County Commission investigation into these and other allegations that include a purported attempt on Harber's part to determine whether a radio talk-show critic of Ragsdale was enrolled in TennCare. Even Hammond ended up supporting Lambert's motion because, "while I'm sick and tired of the Tyler Harber thing, it keeps coming back up, and I don't know how to get it over other than to have a hearing." However, County Law Director John Owings pointed out that Commission's subpoena powers end at the county line. And the likelihood of getting Harber to come from Washington to testify is remote.

All of this is, of course, part of a much broader effort on the part of the Moore-Lambert-Pinkston faction on Commission to embarrass Ragsdale any way they can. Certainly, Ragsdale has plenty to be embarrassed about in the conduct of his administration. There's been widespread abuse of purchasing cards on the part of county employees, mischaracterized pay supplements to the mayor's top aides, use of undisclosed private contributions to pay for public events, including an education "summit" and a $10,000 no-bid contract that went to Harber's firm to prepare and print materials for the summit—a clear violation of county regulations.

Ragsdale admits mistakes were made but insists that p-card controls are now stringent and that undisclosed pay supplements and solicitation of private funds have been eliminated. Audits are underway that may reveal yet more transgressions and mismanagement.

Certainly, it's Commission's job to be a watchdog in such matters, but Chairman Moore and his adherents are vindictively bent on making life for Ragsdale as miserable as they can. They've instructed Owings to advise them on whether the mayor has violated any laws and have resolved to summon him to an investigative hearing whether Harber shows up or not. The thought of a blunderbuss like Moore presiding over such a hearing is abhorrent to me. And the widespread notion that they are seeking to drive Ragsdale out of office in order to fill the vacancy with former Sheriff Tim Hutchison is even more abhorrent.