In current management speak, County Mayor Tim Burchett came into office with three “issues” or “opportunities” for his first three months, each with the potential to have him stumbling into his first term.
He has adroitly come through the maze and demonstrated real leadership, even though all three problems were messes he got himself into.
The controversy of the new elementary school for Carter could have been left to the school board and, if necessary, County Commission. Burchett could have stayed on the sideline and kept his head down. But he waded in, asked for more time, and came up with a possible solution. He proposed the county have a private contractor build the school on land the county already owns, then have the county lease it for the term of the financing. It may or may not work, but it demonstrated to East Knox County that the county mayor is on their side and trying to get them the new school they want so desperately.
The school proposal would have kept Burchett from being vilified out east even if the Midway Business Park had been approved. Again, on the business park, it was not necessary for Burchett to get involved. It was an issue for County Commission to decide and he could have stayed out of it and ducked the entire issue. But he waded in, asked for more time, scheduled two public hearings, and kept the issue alive for opponents in East Knox County to marshal arguments and lobby County Commission. Burchett had raised an issue in his campaign about the neglect of developing brown fields in Knox County, as well as empty spaces in existing industrial parks.
When the business park went down to defeat on County Commission, Burchett did not have a vote and did not directly challenge the Chamber and its Development Corporation. But arguments against Midway mirrored some of the objections Burchett had raised, and he is credited by environmentalists, neighborhood activists, and the people in Thorn Grove with delivering votes for their side.
The last mess was the handling of severance packages for three staff members of former Mayor Mike Ragsdale who were not retained by Burchett. Instead of waiting until he got into office to make personnel decisions, he and Chief of Staff Dean Rice let Ragsdale handle it. The feces hit the oscillating cooling device when severance packages were included. Burchett foolishly declared he didn’t approve them and would not pay them.
The mess was complicated for several reasons:
• The money had already been deposited in the three staffers’ checking accounts. It remains unclear how it was legal for the money to be jerked back—and how a bank allowed it to happen. It certainly would have made interesting testimony in any legal proceeding.
• Law Director Joe Jarrett’s announcement that the severance packages were not authorized by the charter prompted a knee-jerk reaction from Burchett saying they would not be paid. Jarrett, siding with public opinion and obviously thinking about his coming election, could just have easily said the charter did not forbid a severance package either. In fact, severance packages have been paid before.
• The johnny-on-the-spot law director then became irrelevant. It would require hiring outside counsel to defend a lawsuit filed on behalf of the employees, with costs estimated up to $100,000.
Rather than spending $100,000 to save $39,000, with a shaky case, the issue was settled. The employees got $13,000 apiece; one hopes the issue goes away.
Burchett was a popular legislator, and given his huge vote totals, he was obviously a popular choice for county mayor. But if there was a knock on him among some people, it was that he did not have executive experience: Would he be able to make the tough choices? His predecessor had a reputation for not being able to say no.
The tests that Burchett has faced during his first three months in office have demonstrated that he will make hard choices. He will not be passive and popular at the expense of doing the right thing. Intervening in the Carter School and Midway controversies showed leadership.