By Roy ExumWhen Tim Burchett became the Mayor of Knox County, Tenn., on September 1, he immediately instructed the county's purchasing department to put a "stop-payment order" on three handsome severance packages that had just been doled out by his predecessor.
In a story that shouldn't be ignored by any city in this angry nation of ours right now, the new county mayor also said he would soon sell a nice Chevrolet Tahoe that accompanies his office and, instead, will drive his "old Jeep that has about 175,000 miles on it."
Last week, as Mike Ragsdale was cleaning out his office in Knoxville, the word got out that several top people would not be retained by Burchett, the new Mayor. Rather than await the political executioner, communications director Susanne Dupes, director of public works Bruce Wuethrich, and director of library services Larry Frank promptly resigned.
The "hook" came a day or two later when former Mayor Ragsdale, who lost the seat due of term limits, promptly doled out almost $78,000 to the three in severance pay. Are you with me here? Think about this -- since the three weren't actually fired, the outgoing Mayor handed out packages that, when you add accrued vacation time and health insurance, will cost Knox County about $112,000. How does that sit with you?
Obviously the County Commission is pretty well steamed but, what's worse, a loud and heated public outcry has ensued. The county commissioners have started plans to prohibit severances packages in the future but, according to county law, they can't stop a mayor who desires to pay it.
Burchett's chief of staff (who'll also drive his own vehicle instead of one provided by the county) said there may be some legal issues with the severance packages. Dean Rice announced no money would be paid out until Knox County Law Director Joe Jarret verifies that the packages were legal.
Burchett, a former state senator as well as a past member of the Tennessee House, was quoted in the Knoxville News-Sentinel as saying, "I, along with my senior staff and director, will do like employees do around the country.
"We will log our mileage and file reimbursement for justified business travel using the standard federal reimbursement rate -- no take-home car, no allowance -- just straight reimbursement for miles driven to work," the new county mayor explained.
Burchett is expected to replace about 90 percent of the Ragsdale staff and will eliminate three "director level positions." Further, his staff will institute "almost 50 percent change in senior level directors." Get this: Burchett has also issued orders, according to the Knoxville newspaper, for every county department under his direction to suspend all travel that requires hotel and airfare costs. When and if necessary, travel must be approved by Burnett himself.
Rice, the county mayor’s chief, further outlined sweeping changes. According to a News-Sentinel story, “he said the mayor's office, which operates on a $1.35 million budget, will have about a 90 percent turnover rate, mostly through previous attrition that started about a month ago. He said some of the positions won't be filled and others, particularly in general administrative work, will be consolidated.”
In a 10-minute speech after he was sworn in, Burchett told an enthusiastic audience, "I cannot promise you I will never make a mistake. But I can promise you I will do my very best," the new mayor said. "I will be honest and I will never forget that you are my bosses and that this is our community and our home."
Are you getting the picture? Better yet, are you getting the emotion, the mood, the stance? It’s just like Knox County law director Joe Jaret stage-whispered to a Knoxville reporter during the new mayor’s speech, “Welcome to a new era in Knox County government.”
The people will be heard. They are the ones newly-seated Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett is duly charged to serve. And, what’s more, he’s the first to realize it. Again, grasp the whole. My goodness, the repercussions are enormous.
“There is no magic bullet ... and there is no single step that will put us on a perfect financial path, but I am confident that if we remain focused on the principles that brought us here, you will stand with us and help make our county better,” Burchett said.
Isn’t it obvious? A different day has come to politics, to Tennessee, and to you and me. Trust me, what is unfolding in Knoxville will probably be repeated all across America if what I am hearing through my stethoscope is true.
In Chattanooga we have just recalled a Mayor for the first time in history. Others will follow in the heated process. But if you aren’t paying attention, look no farther than Knoxville because when new County Mayor Tim Burchett says the people are his “bosses,” he just may have the all the turmoil finally figured out.
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