by Joe Sullivan
The county law director's post has become a political hot seat over the past year. Charges and counter-charges between Law Director Richard Beeler and Sheriff Tim Hutchison have roiled the City County Building and spilled over into court. Everything from the handling of a lawsuit challenging the sheriff's authority to oversee construction of a new jail and other litigation to personal animosities have been involved in the disputes.
Until last month, it looked as if they would get fought out at the ballot box as well. Hutchison's administrative chief and legal counsel, Mike Ruble, had declared himself a challenger for Beeler's elected post in the March 15 Republican primary. While Ruble insists he's running entirely on his own, he's known to have the sheriff's backing and to share the sheriff's views on many matters.
Then, faced with a court challenge to his eligibility to run for re-election under term limit restrictions imposed by a 1995 referendum, Beeler withdrew from the race. In Beeler's stead, Senior Deputy Law Director Mike Moyers declared his candidacy.
During his 10 years in this position, the even-keeled Moyers has managed to steer clear of the controversy in which the occasionally volatile Beeler has gotten embroiled. Moyers has also shown proficiency in managing the eight-person law department during extended absences on Beeler's part due to a chronic back condition.
"I've dealt with everything from zoning, contract work, and litigation to representing every board in the countyfrom the Library Board to the Beer Board," Moyers says, "And I've always managed to keep politics and personal feelings out of my decisions."
Independence is the raison d'Étre for having an elected law director who can represent all the disparate arms of county government without being beholden to any of them. Moyers clearly fits this profile, whereas Ruble's bona fides in this regard are suspect.
Ruble insists, "It's unfair to me to perceive that I'm anybody's candidate, and to say that the sheriff and I will agree on every issue if I'm elected is wrong." But given Hutchison's propensity for exerting political control, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Ruble's election would represent an extension of his power base.
It may overstate to say that Hutchison has a propensity for overstepping, but it doesn't overstate by much. Ruble's very title at the Sheriff's Department seemingly flouts provisions of the county charter that place the law director in charge of "all legal matters" and preclude any other county official from retaining counsel unless authorized to do so by County Commission. Moreover, the Sheriff's Department compromised the county's position in a lawsuit with Perceptics Corp. over a faulty computer system installed at the jail by removing the equipment in violation of a court order.
Ruble insists he "had informed people not to move the equipment" and "was shocked when I got word it had been moved." But he turns any suggestion that he was personally at fault into finger-pointing at the law director's office. "Under the terms of the court order, they were supposed to have resolved the disposition of the equipment within three days, and this was going on two years later."
Ruble contends that Moyers will represent an extension of an unsatisfactory status quo in which the law director's office has: 1) done nothing to keep elected officials appraised of changes in the law; and 2) allowed litigation costs and litigation losses to mount tenfold since Ruble left his post there 10 years ago.
Moyers says increased costs are due in large part to injury claims that reflect both the large growth in county employees and medical costs over the past decade. As for the finger-pointing, he asserts, "Knox County government has been beating itself for far too long. I intend to do everything I can to get us to close ranks and do the job that the public expects us to do."
There are also two candidates in the Democratic primary contesting for the nomination to face the Republican winner in August's county general election. One is George Underwood, formerly an attorney in the city law director's office who is now in private practice. His less-experienced candidacy would be hard to take seriously except for the fact that Mayor Victor Ashe seems to be backing him.
The other is Dennis Francis, a generally well-regarded attorney, former chairman of the Knox County Election Commission, and Democratic party stalwart. His chief claim to electoral fame (or infamy) is for presiding over the flawed 1996 referendum on city-county consolidation. Approval required separate majorities both inside and outside the city. But the Election Commission failed to keep track of the residency of some 44,000 early voters. This failure would have invalidated the results of the referendum except for the fact that consolidation was so resoundingly defeated outside of the city by votes cast on election day that it would have been mathematically impossible for early voting ballots to have changed the outcome. This debacle was followed by vacillation in accepting the responsibility on holding anyone accountable.
Of all the candidates, only Mike Moyers has demonstrated the capability to conduct the law director's office professionally without favor or malice.
Editor's Note: Mike Moyers' wife Stephanie is a former employee of Metro Pulse.
February 24, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 8
© 2000 Metro Pulse