editorial (2007-09)

Amend Our Charters

End rampant government nepotism once and for all

Amend Our Charters

The Knox County Commission has wrestled through the creation of a County Ethics Committee, a toothless board appointed by Commission and Mayor Mike Ragsdale that will hear citizen complaints against county government... and then do what? Pat the complaining citizens on the head and thank them and tell them to run along?

Conflict of interest claims against many of the Commission's members should be first on the agenda, but they are already roundly denied by the commissioners who are involved in those readily apparent conflicts. And what if a genuine conflict should be actually found by the committee? There are no penalties, save those held in reserve by voters who have been reluctant to invoke them.

It's both a sobering and a sad situation, as outlined in this Metro Pulse issue's feature story (Page 18). The number of family members and close associates of commissioners holding county jobs--and appointed Jan. 31 to fill the seats of term-limited commissioners and county officeholders--is a disgrace to any concept of good government.

The newly named Ethics Committee should take on the task of drafting an amendment to the county's Charter that would eventually bring to an end the practice of holding a Commission seat while working for county or city government or while close family members are employed by either government.

Conflicts in such situations are evident on their face, regardless of the opinions of people whose family livelihoods are dependent on the lack of a defined policy toward nepotism.

City government should likewise be operated nepotism-free, and Knoxville's City Council and mayor should get the process underway to appoint a committee to draw up a similar city Charter amendment outlawing the practice.

Unfortunately, cronyism can't be so easily regulated, but civil service rules ought to be tightened to insure that no city or county employee is hired without meeting a set of real, stringent and job-applicable qualifications that do not include a family history in politics.

If such Charter amendments for the city and county were put to the voting public in referendum balloting, there should be little doubt as to the result in the current climate of political disgrace.

Commissioner Paul Pinkston told fellow Commission members this week that he has heard no citizen complaints about the backroom process that saw the Commission appoint a father, a son and a wife to seats vacated by the term-limits ruling of the state Supreme Court. The current baron of what might be called the South Knoxville Principality of Pinkstonia, Commissioner Pinkston, who inherited his seat when his brother died, must not have been listening.

People by the hundreds have been registering disgust over the blatantly shady actions of the Commission majority in mail, email, weblog and telephone protests and interviews with the news media, and the daily News Sentinel has sued the Commission over its violation of the state's Open Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law, in its dealings in a back hallway that secured appointments for its new members.

Subsequent poking into city and county payrolls has turned up inordinate numbers of members of commissioners' families in government employ, not to mention commissioners themselves working for county or city paychecks. The depth of that practice has been suspected, but ignored, for decades until now, but it's certainly not too late to put an end to it.

There is no conceivable justification for drawing wages or salaries from local governments while representing the public in voting for budgets or for spending programs being advanced, often jointly, by those governments.

Knoxville and Knox County are inexorably interlocked in the performance of government services here, but that hardly means they should have interlocking directorships on or among their governing bodies or in their executive offices.

Those who insist that government ought to be run like a business should take note of prevailing business practices against nepotism, even though we believe that government should not be run like a business. It should be run like a government, a good government, honestly and ethically and free from cozy family arrangements.

The principal feature that should be businesslike about governments is that they should be run for the benefit of their customers. The citizens at large are their customers. That's us, all of us, not just commissioners' or council members' kinfolks and in-laws.