editorial (2007-06)

Bring Down the Commission's Circus Tent

Let's get Knox County government straightened out through the ballot box ASAP

Gov. Bredesen is Right On

Bring Down the Commission's Circus Tent

Outfall from the shenanigans that County Commission used in its selection of successors to term-limited office-holders continues to degenerate with each passing day. Its failings multiply; internal and external challenges mount, and public response is swelling into a general outcry.

The Commission, and its majority led by Chairman Scott "Scooby" Moore, worked a series of hallway manipulations, outside the view of the public that gathered Jan. 31 to witness the Commission's appointments.

The appointments, which included political cronies of the chairman and of outgoing Sheriff Tim Hutchison, plus a spouse, a father and a son of term-limited commissioners, were ill considered in the first place. Then, to compound matters, the machinations to secure them were conducted in apparent violation of the state's Open Meetings, or "Sunshine" Law.

That Sunshine Law question translated into a suit filed this week against the Commission by the News Sentinel , questioning the validity of the appointments. The Sentinel also challenged commissioners for violating their own just-adopted ethics policy by failing to disclose jobs they or their family members held or had been offered in county government. The inherent conflicts of interest might disqualify some of those appointments. All of that remains open to the Chancery Court and to County Commission's interpretation of its code of ethics. As much as we tend to choke on complimenting the News Sentinel , bravo to them for using their considerable legal resources to mount the court challenge over the Sunshine Law.

County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, whose position of authority over county business is threatened by the majority's/ex-sheriff's faction, called for all of those term-limited offices that were subjected to Commission appointment by the state Supreme Court to be put before the electorate in a special election ballot tagged onto city elections this fall, rather than wait until county elections next year.

Ironically, the new Commission would have to approve a resolution asking the state Legislature to authorize such a special election. If Commission did not go along, at least the votes of those opposed to the special election would be recorded for future public reference.

The Sentinel 's website has been deluged with public protests of the Commission's actions, and letters to the editor on the subject have been piling up on the daily paper's editorial desks like so much kudzu.

The Commission's leaders in the tour de force that saw eight of its members and the county's sheriff, trustee, register of deed and county clerk replaced defended their backroom activities from the outset.

Chairman Moore was quoted as saying he didn't "know what a backroom deal is," and Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, who admitted to some of the persuasion and manipulation in the Commission chamber's back hallway, was quoted as saying, "There's no backroom to it," and that he thought his tactics were neither illegal nor inappropriate.

While it may be true that the hallway has served as the locale for deal making on past legislation, it has rarely been so blatantly utilized for such fundamentally sensitive actions as picking new office-holders en masse.

The legislative approval of a special election should have been sought from Day 1, rather than leaving the constitutional and Commission posts to the discretion of the commissioners. Eight of them were already ordered out of office, and many of the rest of them were apparently willing to cut deals for further employment or political favors.

Moore and Lambert may have made fools of themselves by defending their acts, but there are other commissioners who should have trouble looking in the mirror. If the courts and the Legislature don't clean up this mess in favor of the county's electorate, there may be barely a few commissioners worthy of reelection when their seats come before their districts' voters.

Gov. Bredesen is Right On

When Gov. Phil Bredesen said it's time to "walk the walk" on education rather than just "talk the talk", he was speaking to legislators who have paid the cause of education lip service, but have avoided meeting the issues of educational improvements with the funding necessary to resolve them.

Bredesen's proposal for a 40-cent per-pack increase in cigarette taxes, with the revenue dedicated to education, would still leave Tennessee's tax on cigarettes 40 cents below the national average among states.

His commitment to education has never been clearer, and his proposal was timed to forestall a legislative initiative to increase the cigarette tax to offset a reduction in sales taxes on food.

We could have it both ways. If the Legislature had the gumption to bring our cigarette tax up to the national average, there'd be the already estimated $220 million for education and another like amount to allow for a reduction in the taxes on groceries. Don't look for that to happen, but it ought to be considered and argued. What are the benefits of smoking again? How do they compare with eating, or learning?