editorial (2007-12)

Ethics for Dummies

Fairness isn't rocket science or brain surgery, though it may seem that way at times

Ethics for Dummies

It's always entertaining, munching popcorn from the sidelines of the three-ring circus that is the Scoobie, Lumpy & Friends show. What'll they do next? What'll they say? And, perhaps most intriguingly, don't they have better things to be kicking up dust about than, say, whether it's ethical to accept a free bowl of chili at the local Parent-Teacher Organization meeting?

But the latest squabble over what does and does not constitute an ethically acceptable gift to your local county commissioner, as outlined in a policy approved by County Commission in January, is only the latest in a series of petty diversions preventing forward movement in county government.

It's a classic case of sweating the stupid stuff: No, Scott "Scoobie" Moore, nobody's going to take your Christmas presents away from you. And Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, don't you worry, we're not going to ruin your good name if you spend a long weekend at daddy's house in the Bahamas--to echo a couple of concerns expressed by the commissioners in a News Sentinel story on Tuesday. Perhaps they give our ability to decipher the difference between right and wrong too little credit. (Psychologists might describe such maneuvering as "projection.")

What we already know and a select few county commissioners have yet to accept is, a spoonful of rational, fair-minded thinking goes a lot further than you think. As in, any rational, fair-minded person can differentiate between a free bowl of chili and, say, a big grubby wad of cash slipped into some politician's fist. The ethics policy set in place in January is a good one; let's not soften it on account of a handful of frankly dumb hypothetical situations.

But rather than dwell on that which deserves fewer words than we've already devoted to it, let's put our column where our mouth is and focus its remainder on the single variable that we do have control of: the future. A handful of folks are already turning their heads in that direction, most notably former two-term Knox County Executive Tommy Schumpert and retired State Senator Ben Atchley.

Last Thursday, the duo registered a public action committee (PAC) with the Knox County Election Commission aimed at attracting and helping finance candidates of integrity for upcoming elections, including the next County Commission go-round in 2008. Headed by Schumpert, a Democrat, and Atchley, a Republican, the PAC will be non-partisan, which is a promising start and in line with its goal of supporting candidates for public office who are more interested in policy than politics, who are truly qualified and not just friends of friends.

What a novel idea.

So far, the PAC's list of organizers includes Sam Furrow, Henrietta Grant, Sheri Lee, David Moon and Suzanne Schriver. A candidate questionnaire or a more detailed list of specifications will be drafted soon, they say, which should get the ball rolling. We wish them luck.

On other fronts, County Commission's newly formed ethics committee seems to be taking shape nicely, with its final member on the agenda to be appointed on March 26. South Knoxvillian Julia Tucker, a former school-board member, sounds like she's up for the task, and seeing as she's not the type of person who'll put up with County Commission's crap, we think her appointment can only be a good thing.  

As for the rest of the term-limits fallout--lawsuits, calls for special elections and the removal of appointed officeholders--that water's still growing murkier by the moment, and we wish somebody'd just pull the plug already. Yeah, it's not fair, but there comes a point at which the grown-up thing to do is think forwards, not backwards. To quote Metro Pulse columnist Frank Cagle's op-ed last week, "The only permanent solution to restore faith in local government and put it behind us is an open, fair election process.... Give potential candidates a clear timeline on the next election, fix the targets in place and get on with it. It may not be as emotionally satisfying, but it's the way forward."

Sorry, Mayor Ragsdale. And it sucks for News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy, too--settlements are no substitute for justice, after all. But while it's important that we get the fixtures in place that will prevent this mess from every happening again, maybe it's time to start reinvesting our time, energy and editorial pages on, oh, we don't know, something besides political infighting. Something tangible, and preferably progressive. Or, if you insist on riding the thing out, don't let us stop you. Heck, we'll be there cheering you on, so long as you adhere to one simple stipulation: that your efforts to rectify the past in no way compromise our future by inhibiting the county's potential for positive, forward momentum.  

We've got a tough year ahead of us, and spinning our wheels in the muck of things we can't change does nothing to advance the positive agendas we do have the power to push forward. Energy is too precious to waste on political black holes. Let's put as much of it as we can spare toward the development of a new and improved ethical consciousness (and other important stuff, like bettering our schools, figuring out how to pay for that Sheriff's pension plan, etc.). Onward and upward, kids. Onward and upward.