County Commission Reformation

Next week’s Knox County primary elections hold promise of righting much of what has been wrong with county government over the past year.

A big increase in voter registration, the numerous candidate forums that have been held all across the county, and the record pace of early voting all point to a truly democratic process of filling the many vacancies in county office that have been a big part of the problem. These vacancies were, of course, created initially by the State Supreme Court’s ruling that 12 elected officials were term-limited and then by a Chancery Court’s voiding of County Commission’s appointments to fill these vacant posts for violating the state’s Sunshine Law.

Whoever emerges from a crowded field of candidates in next Tuesday’s voting will truly reflect the will of the people, and County Commission should give great deference to that will when it makes appointments later this month to fill the vacancies until next August’s general election. The rub comes in having to choose between Democrat and Republican primary winners. However, in the case of County Commission seats about which I’m most concerned, a primary victory is tantamount to election in all but two of the seven commission districts involved.

The 1st district is overwhelmingly Democrat while the 4th, 5th, 8th, and 9th districts are staunchly Republican. That leaves doubt only in the 2nd district in North Knoxville, which leans Democrat, and the 6th district in Northwest Knox County, which leans Republican but whose vacant seat was long held by a term-limited Democrat, Mark Cawood.

In my view, the 2nd district seat should clearly go to the winner of the Democrat primary contest between Amy Broyles and Courtney Piper. The way in which the sole Republican on the ballot, Chuck Bolus, gained the interim appointment a year ago epitomized a worst-case set of back-room, wheeler-dealings, and it would be a travesty if he were reappointed. The 6th district selection is a tough one, but since nine of the 11 commissioners who remain seated are Republican they could reasonably be expected to pick one of their own.

Beyond removing the cloud of suspicion that overhung a Commission with so many appointed members in whom the voters had no say, what’s refreshing now is that nearly all the candidates for these seats are basing their campaigns on effecting change and restoring trust in county government. That’s the expedient thing for them to say, of course, and what they can or will do about it remains to be determined.

Still, one can be encouraged that an infusion of fresh-thinking new commissioners will help lift that body out of the factional and fractious rut in which it has been mired. Before the eight seats were vacated in October, a majority of the 19 members of Commission were predisposed to make life miserable for County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. Of the 11 who remain, only five are clearly anti-Ragsdale. But the vengeful way in which the leaders of this faction—Commissioners Scott Moore, “Lumpy” Lambert, and especially Paul Pinkston—have pressed for investigations of the Ragsdale administration misdeeds has continued to set the tone.

To be sure, there are plenty of failings for which the Ragsdale administration needs to be held accountable. Negligent oversight of county purchasing cards, conflicts of interest in the award of county grants to community organizations, and lax handling of private contributions to a mayor’s “hospitality fund” head the list. These are all the subjects of soon-to-be-released audits, and Ragsdale spokesman Dwight Van de Vate acknowledges that the findings will be “ugly.”

Censures or reprimands may be in order, but Commission should be primarily concerned with corrective action, not with conducting a punitive investigation as Ragsdale’s foes are seeking. Van de Vate is persuasive that corrective measures have indeed been taken, and a prompt resolution of these matters is needed, not protracted further proceedings.

Along with trust, civility and civic-mindedness need to be restored to county government, and these needs will hopefully be manifest in next Tuesday’s primary election results and the interim Commission appointments that follow.

Since I haven’t attended any of the candidate forums or otherwise familiarized myself with the qualifications of many of those who are running, I won’t presume to make endorsements. I do, however, give a lot of weight to the endorsements of both the News Sentinel and the Public Trust PAC co-chaired by two men for whom I have great respect, former state Senator Ben Atchley and former County Executive Tommy Schumpert. While some of their choices differ, conspicuously missing from both of their lists are the four appointees from a year ago who are now seeking election to the seats from which they were removed. All four of them—Chuck Bolus, Richard Cate, Lee Tramel, and Tim Greene—were aligned with the anti-Ragsdale faction on Commission, and their selection would perpetuate the discord that needs to end.

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