Crack Golfers

Courthouse colorblindness is inability to distinguish between black, white

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

There seems to be a school of thought around Knoxville these days that you have to pick a side in the bitter battle between County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and a faction of County Commission led by Chair Scott Moore.

It is at once disturbing and fascinating to watch them rat each other out. Nepotism versus hidden pay raises; golf trips versus expensive dinners and $6 smoothies. It is sometimes amazing what's revealed about government when you have two factions engaged in a blood feud. Makes you wonder what goes on when everybody is getting along, doesn't it?

But people are defending one faction or another by pointing a finger at the other side. Wrongdoing is being measured by the messenger making the reveal. Might I suggest a Third Way? A pox on both your houses. People in glass houses have been throwing stones. Both sides are endangered by flying glass. So what?

If Scoobie is playing golf in California, it's deplorable. Does that excuse Ragsdale giving himself an additional $20,000 of taxpayer funds without the public's knowledge? If county credit cards are being used for the administration to hang out at Morton's or buy fine cigars, does that excuse some Commissioners taking $500 gift certificates for golf clubs at a charity event?

There was a time in our political discourse that the two parties kept each other honest. The Democrats would watch the Republicans, and the Republicans would watch the Democrats. We now seem to have a culture of incumbency protection. The nepotism down at the courthouse isn't limited to one political party. The bitter feud now going on is, primarily, between two Republican factions.

No one in county government is covering himself in glory at the moment. That is not to say there aren't individual County Commissioners disgusted with the mess that surrounds them, but when you work in a mud hole, it's hard to stay clean.

After being battered for months following the infamous Jan. 31 meeting to appoint 12 new members of county government, the Moore faction turned the tables on the Ragsdale administration with budget hearings on â“travel payâ” that wasn't travel pay and credit card abuse. They had successfully changed the subject heading into next year's election cycle and cut the moral high ground out from under the administration.

All they had to do was be good for a year and govern responsibly and they might have made the public forget some of their past sins. But they just couldn't.

If there is anything more prevalent in county government than nepotism it is the mindless, ethically challenged hot pursuit of free golf. A free game of golf is like crack cocaine to any number of public officials. Given the ethical cloud surrounding County Commission for the last six months, what would possess these people to take a golf outing in California allegedly to study pensions? Or take golf shop gift certificates? Not to mention the wailing and gnashing of teeth when a new ethics policy prevented the long standing practice of free golf at the county golf course.

Knoxville charities know the best way to win friends and influence county government is with a golf tournament. It is also true the most egregious violations of the Sunshine Law are discussions on fairways and greens.

The inability of county officeholders to forgo free golf is indicative of a form of colorblindness when it comes to ethical behavior in office. It is an inability to distinguish between black and white.

It has become amusing to watch Ragsdale step up and announce how he is â“fixingâ” some problem in county government. The latest is the misuse of purchasing cards. He has rescinded most of them, and an employee is under investigation. This is after he â“fixedâ” the travel pay problem by taking it away from his senior staff.

If Ragsdale had just come into office these measures might be credible. But he is into his second term. Anything he is â“fixingâ” is something he allowed in the first place.

Ragsdale will be around for a few more years, and he is term limited. There are any number of these other people who are planning to run for other offices next year. The Knox County Commission has less than a year to convince the voters they have seen the light. They can enact tough ethics rules, instead of proposing exemptions. They can do something about nepotism. They can answer an altar call and beg the congregation's forgiveness for their sins.

But don't hold your breath.

It comes down to whether the voters will have credible alternatives in next year's elections. Given the reputation of county government of late, how many responsible qualified citizens will step up to provide a real choice? If the voters have another crop of challengers who just need a jobâ"or their kids or their wives need a jobâ"we will not have made any progress.

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

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