cover_story (2007-09)

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“It’s clear that Knox County government has issues with nepotism and conflict of interest. Our challenge going forward is to develop reasonable policies that will restore public confidence in the government without discouraging qualified candidates from seeking office.

“None of my family is supervisory, mostly hourly workers (except teachers). I don’t see any conflict in it. I personally don’t see any conflict of interest. If they were supervisors, in charge of a department or something, handling budgets and payrolls, there could be a conflict. I do my job for the city, but I don’t see any conflict in serving on County Commission. I see an advantage in it, because I know what we’re [the county is] dealing with.”

“The whole mess going on now has pulled back the curtain on how county government has worked for years. Maybe those of use who noticed it should have spoken up sooner. Having immediate family working for the county does present a conflict.

The 19 members of the Knox County Commission and their immediate families receive at least 45 public sector checks. Diane Jordan has observed that being on County Commission isn't just a job, it's a lifestyle. But it appears that every day at the City County building is also a family reunion.

Family relationships in local government have a long and hoary history in Knox County, but nepotism has gotten a laser-like focus lately as a result of the on-going saga that started when the state Supreme Court ruled term limits valid and threw county government into turmoil. The appointment of relatives to replace out-going commissioners and outgoing commissioners taking county jobs has put the issue front and center. Reporters have been tripping over themselves of late assembling family trees.

There is nothing in the county ethics policy or in law that forbids this interlocking directorate; adopting such a policy or ordinance would be up to, well, County Commission. When two-thirds of Commission have family incomes at stake, it isn't likely. There are only five Commissioners who do not have family members on the public payroll.

Since County Mayor Mike Ragsdale lost control of County Commission with the appointment of new members in January, he has used the Bully Pulpit to lambaste the selection process, raise the nepotism issue and call for a special election. His selection of an ethics panel to examine nepotism, hiring practices and conflicts of interest has been an effective counter attack against Commission Chair Scott Moore and his ally, former Sheriff Tim Hutchison.

The sheer volume of public sector employment in Commission families has given Ragsdale a good case to make, and the issue is unlikely to go away before county elections next February.

First the obvious, then we will get to the nuances:

Further complicating matters, Commission Chair Moore's wife works for the sheriff; Commissioner Paul Pinkston's wife works for the sheriff; Commissioner Josh Jordan's mother, Diane, works for the Trustee; and Commissioner Richard Cate's wife works for the District Attorney, assigned to Juvenile Court.

Moore's father also works for the sheriff. His sister works for the school system. His father-in-law is Tax Assessor John Whitehead.

Ivan Harmon has a son who works for the city and a son who works for Quist. He has a daughter and son-in-law who are teachers and a daughter-in-law who works for the Trustee. He and his immediate family receive seven public sector checks.

Commissioner Phil Ballard has a daughter that works for the health department and and a daughter-in-law that is a teacher. Commissioner Jack Huddleston has a daughter that works for the sheriff.

The question arises: Is it healthy that the county legislative body, which adopts the county budget, has a significant number of its members and family members on the public payroll? Is there any oversight of public sector spending when a healthy number of those making budget decisions are dependent upon local government budgets for their family livelihood? The largest item in the county budget is the appropriation to the school system. This year Commission will be asked to fund a $57 million contribution to a new sheriff's department pension plan approved last year by the voters.

Pay raises, pensions and appropriations have a direct effect on family finances. But there is the larger issue of accountability. Is it likely Commission will ask questions about spending decisions by the sheriff or one of the fee offices if it might threaten a family member's job? Family employment was certainly helpful in recent years in allowing Sheriff Hutchison to exert more influence on Commission than County Mayor Ragsdale. The recent appointments of new commissioners only strengthened the ties between the department and Commission, giving Hutchison and new Sheriff J.J. Jones a majority.

There are occasions in which county government and the city of Knoxville have competing interests--such as a controversial annexation on Chapman Highway that resulted in millions in sales tax revenue being directed to the city, rather than county coffers. The city has two employees on Commission in Strickland and Ivan Harmon.

The Commission has approved a new state-mandated ethics policy that requires public disclosure of conflicts-of-interest before a vote. When the county budget is approved before July 1 it appears these Commissioners will have to make public confessions of all these paychecks as possible conflicts of interest. County Law Director John Owings is researching the issue and studying the ethics policy. Given the media interest and the public spotlight, it appears Commissioners will have all their conflicts on the public record anyway.

Owings notes that the County Technical Assistance Service handbook for County Commissions contains this passage: "A special rule exists in the case of a county commissioner who is also an employee of the county. A conflict of interest can come up in this situation any time the county commission votes on appropriations or budgets. A statutory exception allows a member of the county legislative body to vote on these matters if that member was employed by the county before becoming a member of the county commission. But immediately before the vote the commissioner must read the following disclaimer, which is set out in state law:   "Because I am an employee of (name of governmental unit) I have a conflict of interest in the proposal about to be voted. However, I declare that my argument and my vote answer only to my conscience and to my obligation to my constituents and the citizens this body represents."

Many of these family relationships predate employment and it is a complex situation. Owings, for instance, has a wife that works for the Register of Deeds and a son that works for the sheriff. Owings' wife worked for the Register of Deeds when he met her. His son is a civilian aircraft mechanic who works on sheriff's department helicopters.

Norman and his wife had been long-time teachers before he was elected to office last year.

Ivan Harmon was term limited off City Council, and then went to work for the city. He was then elected to Commission. Jordan went to work for the Trustee during her second term on Commission. Mark Cawood went to work for the sheriff after he left commission and his wife replaced him.

Strickland has been at the city through two administrations and worked for the city when he was elected to County Commission. Bolus was an assistant principal in the county school system when he was appointed in January. When Cate was appointed in January, his wife already worked for the DA's office. When Huddleston was appointed his daughter already worked for the sheriff.

Paul Pinkston's wife works for the sheriff and his son works for school security. They had these jobs before he joined Commission, but he replaced his brother, the late Howard Pinkston, a long-time powerful figure on Commission.

As far as we can tell, Commissioners Mark Harmon, Greg Lambert, R. Larry Smith, Tim Greene and Mike Hammond and their families only get their Commission check from the public payroll.

Ragsdale had named Commissioners Ballard, Hammond, Smith and Mark Harmon to an ethics panel, joining Criminal Court Clerk Martha Phillips. But Commissioners rejected this panel at a committee meeting last week. Moore and Ragsdale hammered out an agreement and this week Commission expanded the panel to nine members. Moore gets ally Pinkston, Mike Duncan from the sheriff's office, former County Executive Tommy Schumpert and the Rev. Clarence Sexton. Ragsdale nominated ally Hammond, Kim Waller from the school system, Frank Shanklin and the Rev. Ron Stewart. Clerk Martha Phillips was nominated by both.

Since the anti-Ragsdale forces took firm control of Commission with the January appointments the County Mayor has been on the offensive, generally winning the public relations battle. He went to Nashville seeking a special election, but Gov. Phil Bredesen opined the legislature doesn't have the authority to overturn the current selection process and call an early election. Ragsdale is attempting, with help from the ethics panel, to keep these issues before the public. He engineered a vote last week in which the Commission voted not to ask the legislature for a special election.

Some Commissioners say privately the media frenzy and the commentary appears to have them on their heels, but they say there is much less concern out in their districts and in local neighborhoods. They think the public outcry is being ginned up by Ragsdale allies and that if they had picked Ragsdale supporters for Commission seats the controversy would not have erupted. They have a firm voting majority in the upcoming budget process and incumbency in the run-up to next February's primary elections. They are betting the anger is localized among Ragsdale supporters and they can retain popularity in their districts.

Thus far there have been news stories about two of the new commissioners: Josh Jordan's juvenile criminal record and Richard Cate's settlement of a sexual harassment suit. Questions have also been raised about expenses and over-staffing in the fee offices. These offices pay expenses out of fees they collect and turn the balance over to county coffers. If there are excess employees or salaries, that's less money for the general fund.

It appears the next year will involve a wholesale examination of county government, whether by the ethics panel or the media, or both. Not to mention potential political opponents for 12 appointed office holders who will face the voters next February.

Some of the 45 public sector checks may be at risk.