Politics and cronyism will continue on unelected board

By Steve Hunley

The race for Knox County Sheriff is at the heart of the morass that has become the Sheriff Office’s Merit System Council. Incumbent Tom Spangler is facing his predecessor, Jimmy “J.J.” Jones, inside the Republican primary in 2022. Supposedly, the merit council is a body composed of three members who arbitrate disputes between the sheriff and his employees by removing the politics from the process. The three members and alternates are appointed by the Knox County Commission. Last week, the commissioners fought a pitched battle to reform the merit council and the people of Knox County lost. Knox Countians owe a debt of gratitude to several commissioners, but especially to Kyle Ward and Larsen Jay for their determined effort to make the merit council function as it was intended, instead of a nest of political cronies. As Jay said, corruption and cronyism is alive and well in Knox County.

Imagine trying to run a business or operate your office, yet having a committee select your employees. The sheriff cannot hire his own deputies; no indeed, the merit council recommends who can work as a deputy. In the current atmosphere in this country, young people are NOT choosing law enforcement as a career. Citizens are seriously deluded if they think that means little or nothing here. The City of Knoxville is well behind the number of police officers it should employ and the sheriff’s office will be, too unless the merit council is reformed. What does that mean to you? It means slower response times in emergencies, resources that are thinly stretched to the breaking point, fewer officers on patrols in our communities and in our schools. That has much to do with you and your family being safe. The amendment to allow the sheriff’s Human Resources Department to vet prospective employees only just barely passed on first reading.

“JJ” Jones did not want Tom Spangler to be his successor as sheriff. Jones hand-picked and repeatedly endorsed Lee Trammel, whom he had appointed as his chief deputy, to succeed him. There were those who thought Trammel was actually running the department while Sheriff Jones preoccupied himself playing golf. The morale inside the department reached an all-time low under Jones and the rank and file officers loathed Trammel and the Jones administration. Spangler would be the first to admit he is no politician, nor is he particularly adept at political gamesmanship. Jones and Trammel did little else, but it paid political dividends. Jones dominated the merit council and the people he got appointed gave him what he wanted, when he wanted it. Two of the merit council members, Jim Jennings and Gina Oster, are closely aligned together; in fact, Oster’s husband is employed by Jennings’ business. Jennings is supposedly a Democrat, yet a strong supporter of both “JJ” Jones and Trammel, both Republicans, in the last election as was Oster as well. Oster is also at the heart of the fight over reforming the merit council. Readers may remember Oster from her heated primary campaign against Eddie Mannis for state representative in the 18th District. No gracious winner she, Oster is closely aligned with a far right faction of the Republican Party and maintained she had somehow been defrauded of the Republican nomination for the House seat on the basis of Democrats having crossed over to vote for Mannis. Of course there is no party registration in Tennessee and voters are free to vote in any primary they wish. A tearful Oster sulked for days, if not weeks, before mumbling something about supporting the Republican nominee. Nor has Oster lifted her voice to quell the vicious hostility of many of her fellow West Knox Republican Club members who have spewed hatred toward Eddie Mannis. Gina either wasn’t smart enough or too venal to distance herself from what many believe are the homophobic attacks on Mannis. Now Oster is mighty peevish with some of the commissioners who sought to reform the merit council. Kyle Ward had pointed out she has already announced that she is running to succeed Commissioner Randy Smith, who is term limited. Ward’s logic was impeccable; a candidate receiving campaign contributions while being responsible for overseeing employment disputes could very well be a conflict of interest.

Kyle Ward didn’t believe Oster should sit on the merit council while running for yet another political office. It was a valid point. Yet many of the same commissioners who were so deeply offended – – – rightly so in my own opinion – – – by an unelected Board of Health issuing edicts, saw nothing whatever wrong with an equally unelected merit council usurping employment prerogatives from the duly elected sheriff.

Oster is at the very heart of this issue and has hotly resisted any reform to the merit council. For one running to sit on a legislative body where it is necessary to work with colleagues, Oster has a record of leaving bitterness and divisiveness in her wake.

The third member of the merit council, James Wright, seems content to rubberstamp whatever Jennings and Oster do.

Oster and Jennings bend over backwards to accommodate former Sheriff “JJ” Jones and have been hostile to Sheriff Spangler’s administration from the very beginning. The merit council has not been a burr under the saddle of Sheriff Tom Spangler, but rather a thorn in his flesh. It has been a thorn in the flesh of the people of this county, too.

Larsen Jay and Kyle Ward, both freshmen legislators on the county commission, presented a proposal that was fair, workable, and highly logical. They proposed to expand the merit council and stagger the terms of the appointees to keep any former sheriff from dominating it politically. They proposed to remove the merit council’s ability to inhibit the Sheriff Department’s Human Resources office from conducting the hiring process. The reforms were significant, very much needed, and in the best interests of the people of Knox County. Those reforms were killed by politicians aligned with “JJ” Jones and Gina Oster.

Richie Beeler and Charles Busler were two members of the county commission that I thought would support the reform. Instead, they helped to kill any attempt to reform, yet had no compunction in voting against an unelected Board of Health. Terry Hill, Courtney Durrett, Justin Biggs and Dasha Lundy all played their own part and went along with the Jones faction in rejecting the reforms.

Right now, the merit council has pending before it the case of Martha Dooley, an employee who dates back to the administration of former Sheriff Tim Hutchison. Incidentally, Hutchison was one of those who has nothing but high praise for the merit council as it now exists. That should tell one all he or she needs to know. Dooley objects to Sheriff Spangler taking her government vehicle away from her along with her gas card when she was assigned to another position within the sheriff’s department. Dooley is appealing to the merit council and look for Oster and company to give Dooley her perks back to her.

It was former sheriff and current candidate “JJ” Jones who referred to former county commissioners Ivan Harmon and Scott “Scoobie” Moore as “model public servants” in an interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Harmon is a career politician who has held a political office or job for most of his adult life. Moore was actually removed from office as a county commissioner by a judge for committing perjury after the “Black Wednesday” trial. The “Inmate Industries” organization inside the sheriff’s office they were running and started under Jones was the subject of a recent highly critical report issued by the Tennessee State Comptroller’s office (please see https://comptroller.tn.gov/content/dam/cot/ia/advanced-search/2021/police-or-sheriff-department/KnoxCountySheriffsOfficeInmateIndustriesReport.pdf). As a result of the findings and the sheriff’s office’s investigation, Tom Spangler fired them. They want their jobs back and appealed to the merit council, which with its current members is likely to do so, because of politics and cronyism. A body designed to keep politics at a distance has become infested with politicians and political motives.

The sad reality is “JJ” Jones was being completely sincere when he referred to Moore and Harmon as “model public servants.” By Jones’ standards, they were and the merit council, in its current makeup, will give us more of the same, especially if Jones is returned to office in the next election.