Knox County's Failing Fiefdom

Chinks are beginning to open up in its walls, exposing systemic abuses

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Editorial

What's been going on in Knox County government in recent weeks is an indication that the County Commission, the mayoral administration and the several semi-independent fee offices have been run as though the county is an inviolate political fiefdom where individuals set their own rules. That may not be a new condition, but it is now out in the open as a result of political bickering and back-stabbing

The administration looks askance at the Commission's obvious disregard for its own new ethics policy; the Commission gains an audit that shows the administration abuses its compensation and expense privileges, and the holders of other elective offices hunker down as if waiting for the axes of ethics policy to fall on them.

The charges and counter-charges are politically motivated, certainly, but the airing of each other's dirty laundry may also be considered a public service.

Mayor Mike Ragsdale is set to appear before the Knox County Ethics Committee, which he and the Commission and its Chairman Scott â“Scoobieâ” Moore created and appointed early this year, to explain how the distribution of â“procurementâ” credit cards among his employees got so widespread and which purchases the cards' long list of uses were proper. The committee is to meet Friday, July 6 to hear that story.

The committee has yet to hear a complaint that the acceptance of golf outings and other favors by Moore and other county commissioners may have violated the ethics policy the Commission itself has adopted.

Mayor Ragsdale, whose office was challenged by the Commission majority to explain tens of thousands of dollars of â“unreimbursed travel and miscellaneousâ” allowances to administration executives who also drove county cars, has discontinued those allowances and collected all but nine of the 170 procurement cards issued to his employees while their uses are being investigated. He has appointed an â“independentâ” panel to review those expenditures. One of those card-holding employees has resigned and reimbursed the county for $2,936 in personal expenses charged to her county card.

Some of the administration's upper-level practices also seem to be ethically suspect, including the now-discontinued travel allowances. County Finance Director John Werner, who received such an allowance of $12,000, as well as a procurement card, first explained to the Commission that the allowances were paid out to cover unreimbursed travel expenses, but Ragsdale's director of communications and government relations, Dwight Van de Vate, who also received a $12,000 allowance, later admitted they were tacked onto payroll as salary supplements. The Commission-inspired audit concluded that they were â“disguised compensation.â”

Compensation issues for top county officials should have been met up front, rather than resolved through an open back door. That maneuver had to be known and approved by Ragsdale, as he was a $20,000 recipient. He is accountable for such deception, which is now unmasked.

Turning loose hundreds of county workers with county credit cards is another issue altogether. It shows a lapse of judgment. Many items in the list of procurement-card expenditures reviewed in the audit appeared to be questionable, either for the purpose listed or for what seemed exorbitant amounts.

The idea of who was responsible for the program of issuing the cards in those numbers and reviewing such expenditures is a mild mystery. Whether it was to be monitored in the purchasing office or in the finance department or in the offices of the individual department directors and the mayor, it is Ragsdale who is ultimately in charge of the executive branch of the county and what it does or fails to do.

His office has complained that the audit itself was politicized. Does that make it inaccurate? Biased? The numbers were there to be reviewed, and the county's auditors reviewed them. It doesn't excuse the ethical lapses that have been demonstrated by some members of Commission. It corroborates the idea that the county government concept of ethics has not risen to meet its constituents' expectations.

We don't doubt that the items that remain in dispute were the result of poor judgment and lack of respect for the county's taxpaying citizens, but we have to wonder which of those were deliberate and which are chargeable to failures of oversight. And we don't doubt that more such abuses may turn up in a more exhaustive examination of county employment and purchasing practices, to include the fee offices.

A substantial segment of the county's leadership has demonstrated lapses in judgment. If the preliminary findings were part of an NCAA investigation of members' athletic recruitment and retention practices, the conclusion would have been described as a â“lack of institutional control.â”

Somebody will have to regain control. Unfortunately, it may not be until next year's county elections before that somebodyâ"or somebodiesâ"is identified and elected to fill Commission seats and the other county offices. The turnaround may not be easy, but county voters must attempt to find and elect people with an incorruptible sense of the public trust.

Columns

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