So, do we give Tim a mulligan for his first month?
The first thing new County Mayor Tim Burchett did wrong was to depend on out-going Mayor Mike Ragsdale to do his dirty work. Burchett should have kept his own counsel, taken office, and then fired the staff he didn’t want to retain. Instead he left it to Ragsdale, who did what he usually does, take the easy way out. He offered severance pay to induce people to quit.
Then the excrement hit the oscillating cooling device.
With all that was going on in the transition between administrations, I think Burchett and Chief of Staff Dean Rice did not foresee the public outrage over departing employees getting a severance package. They foolishly joined the chorus of criticism, hoping it would go away. It didn’t. Burchett now admits he knew about it, though he did not approve it. And he welched on Ragsdale’s deal and refused to pay.
So what happens now?
Knox County Commission will likely adopt a policy on severance packages. The initial reaction seemed to be to prohibit them outright. But is that wise public policy?
There are times when it best serves the public to reach an agreement with an employee to move on—avoiding protracted legal action, personnel disputes, and creating a distraction. There were severance packages paid before during the Ragsdale years.
Certainly, severance packages for political appointees ought to be barred. I’ve had political jobs and what you expect in one of those jobs is that your boss can fire you any morning, tell you to clean out your desk, and a severance package is out of the question. You know that going in and you don’t expect anything different. But there are other jobs in public service where it is an open question.
Suppose you hire a computer expert who relocates to run your information system. Then you decide to go another way, outsource the job, or you don’t have the money to purchase the computer system you anticipated. In that case it might be appropriate to let the person go, but offer some weeks of pay to ease the transition. It isn’t the same as giving your chief of staff or your media spokesman a severance package because you are leaving office.
There are people to whom public service is a career. They take care of the day-to-day operations of government, removed from the changing political positions. If the Commission enacts a policy, perhaps it ought to be setting up a case-by-case basis, but stipulate that any severance package has to be approved by County Commission.
They could also require that all county employees, except for department heads, be included in the county merit system, which has procedures for hiring and firing county employees. As long as elected officials can hire and fire at will you are going to have politics involved in public employment. That makes issues like severance pay even more of a problem.
There are some hard issues coming up that new Mayor Burchett will have to address. The budget, the pension’s lack of funding, the Midway business park. He needs to move on.
Burchett needs an altar call. Yes, I sinned and fell short. But I’ve learned from the experience and it won’t happen again. Tim was elected by an overwhelming majority in both the primary and the general election. He has the goodwill of a majority of Knox County’s citizens. He ran on a platform of restoring trust. You can’t do that and then lie.
Burchett could have avoided getting involved in the Midway business park issue. East Knox County doesn’t want it and the Industrial Development arm of the Chamber has $10 million invested. During his campaign, Burchett talked about brownfield developments and empty space in existing industrial parks. But he could have stayed out of this issue and let Commission vote (and likely approve) the park. But he had the courage to step up and ask for time to try and work out a solution.
That’s the kind of courage you expect from a leader. I think it’s the kind of leadership Burchett will provide. So, yes, we’ll give you a mulligan on this one Tim. Just don’t do it again.