It's come to the point where, if you hear someone uttering the epithetical question, â“What were they thinking?,â” you automatically assume the preceding comments had something to do with Knox County government.
Lately, nothing coming out of County Commission or the mayor's office is viewed as positive, and some of the revelations reflect exercises of abject stupidity.
Most recently, Commissioner Craig Leuthold, who is also an employee of the Knox County Trustee's Office, was described as accepting a promotion in April, along with a $17,000 annual pay raise, from Trustee Fred Sisk. Sisk was appointed to the office Jan. 31 by a vote of County Commission, including Leuthold's yea.
Sisk defends the promotion, denying it was a prid pro quo gesture in response to his own appointment. Both men worked in the office prior to the enforcement of term limits on the prior trustee, Mike Lowe.
The episode smacks of the kind of cronyism that has been alleged in county government, where all-in-the-family style nepotism has resulted in an annual county payroll total of nearly $1 million going to commissioners or close relatives of commissioners, not to mention what personal and political friends of commissioners are drawing.
With five commissioners working in county jobs and eight others having family members holding county jobs, it's no wonder that the semi-independent County Ethics Committee, appointed earlier this year, wants to look into possible revisions of the county's ethics policy to reflect on nepotism, at least. Cronyism is much harder to address, but family relationships are a matter of record. As it stands, the ethics panel is permitted to address only specific complaints of wrongdoing. Nepotism is not illegal, although the county mayor's administration has its own policy prohibiting it in the executive branch.
Just this past Monday, a Commission faction led by Chairman Scott â“Scoobieâ” Moore and Commissioner Greg â“Lumpyâ” Lambert, tried to derail a resolution allowing the County Ethics Committee to expand its role by making policy recommendations and to stymie another resolution permitting the ethics panel to propose a specific policy on nepotism in county government.
Lambert was quoted at the time as calling the Ethics Committee a potentially dangerous tribunal, ludicrously likening its proposed powers to those of the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials or the McCarthy congressional hearings. He must have been hyperventilating by the end of his vain appeal.
As things calmed down a bit, the resolutions were sent along from the Commission's Intergovernmental and Finance Committees, without recommendation, to the full Commission for a vote, expected sometime next month.
That outcome will be interesting to observe, since Moore and Lambert have led a Commission majority that has gotten the Commission in trouble periodically since the backroom debacle associated with the January appointments.
A lawsuit brought by the News Sentinel charging violations of the state's Open Meetings Act is also scheduled for a hearing next month.
A February 2008 primary election is set, in which all of the term-limited seats and some of the other county elected offices will be up for party nominations. How the current officeholders, such as Sisk, Leuthold and Lambert, expect to appeal to voters to prevail in the 2008 primary or general elections against a host of rising contenders is a mystery, given their shenanigans in the public eye. Chairman Moore wants to be elected County Clerk. If he were alive and a Knox County citizen, Chairman Mao would stand as good a chance.
John Shumaker, the former UT president who was dumped from that post unceremoniously amid an expense scandal in 2002, after holding it only 18 months, is back in the news. He's described as working for the U.S. government on a project to resurrect the higher education system in Afghanistan.
We were unable to locate him last year while working on a â“where are they now?â” series of stories. But he's resurfaced in the light of a claim he filed earlier to try to get the state to pay him up to $1.7 million for the way it handled his ouster. Depositions are being taken in the case. His arguments may be heard in a claims hearing this December, and his lawyer, Dan Warlick of Nashville, says he's in more or less regular contact with Shumaker, who is in and out of Afghanistan on a federal contract.
Warlick says he doesn't know what U.S. government entity hired Shumaker for the job, but indicated the former UT prez has been at it for a couple of years.
Given the state audit report that outlined Shumaker's excesses in presidential expenditures and personal travel at taxpayer cost, we can't help but wonder how he's getting along in his overseas mission. Wouldn't you love to gain a review of his compensation and expense package with the feds?
Knox County officials, who've just been piddling around with meals and drinks and golf fees and the like, could have learned something from Shumaker's more expansive expense attitude. Or maybe they did what they thought they could.
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