Ethics in Government, Exceptâ

Our County Commission chairman wants some room to snarf up his fringe benefits

Editorial

Knox County government ethics is not a new oxymoron. It's been around for a while now. But in the light of recent agonizing over the county's newly established ethics policy, the contradiction in terms has become a worse joke than it was before.

County Commission Chairman Scott â“Scoobieâ” Moore wanted to render that ethics policy virtually impotent by creating a lengthy list of exemptions and exceptions. The maneuver would have allowed him and other county officials and their employees to accept meals, gifts, entertainment, events admissions and travel expenses as perks that the ethics code prohibits.

Moore's stated rationale was that permitting county officials to receive meals valued at up to $25 and gifts worth up to $50 would put a â“dollar amountâ” on such considerations. The code says, in general terms, that gifts and other things of value that a reasonable person would see as an effort to influence an official's actions or judgment cannot be accepted. He now says he plans to withdraw his proposal because of â“publicity.â”

Good, that general rule is all that is needed. County officials and employees need not be allowed to take favors up to a certain monetary value. Remember, an ethics code is only as good as the personal ethics of those persons to whom it applies. If Moore felt that he needed to benefit from his office by accepting such favors as meals and travel and $50 gifts, he has no business being involved in government at all.

His attitude in that regard was demonstrated clearly enough in April, when he, along with Commissioner Ivan Harmon and two employees of the Knox County Sheriff's Department and the County Clerk's office, played golf at the expense of a firm retained as a consultant to the county pension board on a junket to California.

Moore's justification was that the trip itself was paid for from the pension board's budget, not by taxpayers, and that it was worthwhile to attend the consultant's annual conference to â“learn about new ways of funding pension programs.â”

The consultancy could have included counseling right here on pension funding issues. That's, at least in part, what such a consultant is paid to do. But that wouldn't have included a couple of rounds of golf at the posh La Costa Resort and Spa near San Diego. The greens fees for each round would have run from $100 to more than $200, if the golfers themselves had to cover them. Was accepting that freebie from a hired consultant an ethics violation, since it came after the adoption of the ethics policy?

Ordinary citizens might think so, but the Commission chairman apparently didn't. Someone should point out to him that the golf expense exceeded the limits he wished to place on such gifts.

Commissioner Harmon, a veteran elected official and salaried employee of both city and county government here, said the group from Knoxville attended seminars on pension investment as well as playing golf. He also said his votes on government matters aren't swayed by such favors, and he doesn't think the trip or its side benefits violated the county ethics code.

Moore, a former sheriff's deputy whose wife works in the sheriff's office, has announced that he's running for County Clerk in next February's Republican primary. His detractors suggest that it's because he needs the job. Now they might surmise he also wanted favors with monetary value that may constitute fringe benefits associated with the position.

The total number of exemptions Moore was seeking to create in the ethics code was 28. Commissioner Mike Hammond, who serves on the county's ethics committee, was quoted as saying the county may as well not have such a committee if everything is going to be exempted from ethics restrictions. Too true.

If Moore and other members of the Commission didn't think they could abide by the ethics policy that they've adopted, using common sense and their own consciences for guidance, without weakening that code with exceptions, they're probably not the people we'd want to have providing us with local government.

Come February, we hope the county's voters will send them along their merry way, right back into the private sector. They should be replaced with people who see ethics as a given, not as a problem.

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