At the Circus

No knife throwing or lion taming, but clowns aplenty

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

It is hard to categorize the gamut of emotions on display as Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale stood at the podium for an interrogation by County Commission on Monday. It was political theater unlike anything seen in Knoxville since the days when Cas Walker punched out a fellow City Council member.

At times, as he listed the accomplishments of his administration, Ragsdale was almost tearfulâ"exuding the air of a man describing a dream that had died. It must have been galling to recount the successes in senior centers, libraries, and school construction, knowing that no one gives a damn as they watch the slow-motion destruction of his reputation and his administration in the wake of scandal after scandal.

The stress of recent events on Ragsdale is obvious. His voice has a strangled sound as if he is forcing words through a clenched throat.

With wife Claudia in the audience and his senior staff arrayed behind him, presumably offering moral support, Ragsdale suffered the humiliation of being questioned about ethics by Greg â“Lumpyâ” Lambert and Scott â“Scoobieâ” Moore. Moore and Lambert said it was without any animosity, they were just trying to get the facts about Ragsdale's scandals so they could move on. Moore observed that everybody likes each other and no one hates anybody. It's a wonder the crocodile tears didn't short out the microphones. The prosecution might have been more believable had Moore not been smirking like a little boy who had just gotten away with farting in church.

The most remarkable thing about the afternoon was Ragsdale's failure to go over the desk and choke one of them to death.

Lewis Cosby, a retired CPA and bored millionaire, has been examining county records. What he has found has left him outraged. Standing at the podium answering questions from commissioners, it was obvious the state of the mayor's office records violated everything Cosby knows about good accounting practices and good order.

As commissioners elicited damning revelation after damning revelation about the execrable state of the mayor's hospitality fund, his staff's credit card usage, and his lack of documentation, Ragsdale did a masterful job of avoiding foaming at the mouth, screaming, and turning purple-faced. But, time after time he was forced into the humiliating position of having to admit mistakes were made, state that he is going to take care of it going forward, and say he was so busy doing good for the folks of Knox County he just didn't have time to examine credit card receipts.

There were two salient questions asked at the meeting. Phil Ballard asked how it is that the county has an auditor, yet these abuses have been going on for five years. Craig Leuthold asked why the county's annual outside audit, conducted at a cost of $270,000, has not uncovered any of these abuses. Those are good questions, and we hope they were not rhetorical. It would be instructive for commissioners to ask the outside auditors to attend the next meeting and explain it.

Cosby refused to criticize the audits. He argues it was Ragsdale's responsibility to put good management practices in place.

If you are marking your scorecard at home, score this one as a big win for the anti-Ragsdale faction. They are almost, but not quite, at the position of over-reaching and making Ragsdale a victim.

It is readily apparent, if you talk with county department heads, that county government is adrift. Imagine going to work every day when your bosses are being skewered in the newspaper, morale is in the toilet, and you sit around wondering if someone is going to get indicted. But the tension throughout county government is palpable.

In the bloody civil war going on within the Republican Party, you don't want to be on the wrong side when it all shakes out. There aren't many people lining up on the Ragsdale side of the room.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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