Without a doubt, restoring trust in Knox County government is what voters are most looking for in the new county mayor they will elect this year.
The numerous instances of negligence on the part of outgoing mayor Mike Ragsdale that have cost him public confidence need not be recounted here. Suffice it to say that his successor must be above reproach and a stickler for propriety.
Also without a doubt, in my mind, Tim Burchett is the more trustworthy of the two candidates running in the May 4 Republican primary, whose winner will be the overwhelming favorite in the August 5 general election. During his 16 years in the State Legislature, Burchett has established himself as a straight shooter and become a prudent overseer of public funds as chairman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee.
His opponent, Tim Hutchison, did a lot to strengthen law enforcement during his four terms as Knox County sheriff. But his record of accomplishment is marred by too many instances of imprudence both in the conduct of his public office and in his private business dealings.
The latter have been highlighted by a recent lawsuit seeking a $4.8 million recovery stemming from his guarantee of a 2006 bank loan to a now bankrupt auto dealer of which he was a co-owner, while still serving as sheriff. Hutchison claims he sold his interest in the company in 2008 and was "guaranteed by a senior bank official that the stock sale would be approved and my name taken off the note." But, according to the company's bankruptcy lawyer, Lynn Tarpy, the stock sale on which Hutchison's release from his guarantee was contingent was never consummated.
In any event, Hutchison's failure to get a release from his guarantee in writing reflects poor judgment on his part. And the former sheriff's veracity has long since been tarnished by misrepresentations on his part when he was in office.
In 2003, Hutchison was held in criminal contempt of court by Knox County Chancellor Daryl Fansler for denying the existence of documents sought by former County Commissioner Wanda Moody in a suit against the sheriff. "There's no way to escape the conclusion that these were willfully false statements in the January 18, 2002, pleading signed by Sheriff Tim Hutchison and that the effect of these willfully false statements was to obstruct and interfere with the processes of the court," Fansler ruled. The chancellor imposed a $300 fine on Hutchison but concluded that "incarceration would serve no useful purpose in this case."
Moody's suit challenged the validity of numerous expenditures on the sheriff's part without County Commission approval of funds derived from drug busts that Hutchison had refused to place under county control despite a determination by the State Comptroller that he should do so. These included construction of an airstrip for the sheriff's helicopters and stables for his horses—projects that he appallingly denied he'd been involved in.
These transgressions are far worse than any failures on Ragsdale's part to get County Commission approval for certain outlays, and while Ragsdale acknowledged his missteps, Hutchison either stonewalled or lied about them.
This pattern of misrepresentation extends to Hutchison's current campaign for mayor. In a March 9 posting on his campaign website, he stated that, "I was notified today that the Chamber-sponsored debate with my Republican opponent has been canceled because he refused to participate." According to the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce's director of communication and government relations, Garrett Wagley, "That is not at all the case. We were unable to schedule the debate because of some logistical things that didn't work out, not because of any one of the candidates."
It's true that Hutchison has more administrative experience than Burchett and has exerted far more political clout, especially from behind the scenes. But as Burchett persuasively asserts on his campaign website, "The people of Knox County are ready for a new direction and fresh straightforward leadership. They are ready to have their vision and their hopes for our community be the focus rather than the ambitions of a handful of politicians."
The winner of the Republican primary on May 4 will face opposition in the August general election from the winner of a Democratic primary contest between two political novices and an independent candidate, Lewis Cosby, who should not be taken lightly.
Cosby is a CPA with extensive auditing experience who took it upon himself to probe for financial irregularities in the Ragsdale administration, and he turned up plenty. During the 1990s he was co-owner and general manager of WVLT-TV. And his website asserts, that, "My institutional knowledge and full understanding of fund accounting, employee and business management is an exact fit for the job of chief fiscal officer of the county."
Cosby clearly has the most administrative experience, but he's no match for Burchett's prowess as a campaigner. By the time election day rolls around, Burchett will have knocked on umpteen thousand doors whereas Cosby says, "I'm not a politician, and that doesn't work for me."