Public officials and candidates for public office know when they run for election that they will be held to higher standards than others, and that they will be scrutinized and judged on their conduct and actions, past or present. Against that standard of accountability, voters could find good reason this week to reconsider their support for Sheriff Jim Hammonds and Greg Vital, who is seeking the Republican nomination in Tennessee's 10th state Senate primary election on Aug. 2.
Hammonds, reporter Ansley Haman learned this week, blatantly violated county government's anti-nepotism policy by hiring his son, Jimi Hammond, as the full-time webmaster for the sheriff's office. He did so, moreover, the day before the County Commission approved a new fiscal year budget that showed the sheriff's office running an unauthorized deficit of $4275,000 to $400,000, despite a state statute that requires sheriffs to operate on a balanced budget.
Vital rightly came under scrutiny for his claims -- in person recently in a candidates' forum, and through a history of professional background about himself -- that he "graduated" from college, when he did not.
Sheriff Hammond recently has casually dismissed criticism of his questionable activities — his regular association with a former deputy who went to prison more than decade ago for supplying drugs to jail inmates when Hammond was chief deputy; the large group of friends and political donors whom he as enrolled as members of an honorary "posse"; the cost of his official car. He apparently is equally indifferent to the unease of several commissioners about both his nepotism and the budget deficit he has refused to eliminate.
The sheriff's budget deficit is a pending a review by the state comptroller, and it should elicit a more strenuous response from the commission when that review is finished. The commission, however, has no authority over the sheriff's personnel policy with regard to nepotism per se: His office and other independently elected county officials are established under the state's constitution. But commissioners can and should use their budget authority to help persuade him, and other elected county officials who indulge in nepotism, to abandon that troubling practice. It is rightly seen as an abuse of power.
When questioned this week by this paper's political reporter, Chris Carroll, Vital called his statement that he had "graduated" from college, a statement he made at a candidate forum hosted by the Hamilton County Young Republicans, "a Freudian slip." One critic, in a letter to our editorial pages, more aptly called it a "fraudian slip" -- a deliberate falsehood apparently intended to misrepresent his educational achievement. Another called it an outright lie. It would be hard to argue either description.
When asked later about professional materials for his development projects and descriptions of his biography in other websites and publications which described him as a graduate Southern Adventist University, he said he didn't know whether he or someone else provided the information about his educational background. That disingenuous remark seemed equally dishonest, and reflected refusal to accept accountability.
Vital subsequently said he was "sorry for misleading" people. "It's a mistake. I made a mistake, and I apologize to the folks I may have misled. I'm done with it." The risk Vital has taken with that "may have misled" remark is that voters themselves may not be done with it.
In fact, Vital has been a forward-looking advocate in several avenues of community needs and environmental protection, and is otherwise a credible candidate for the state Legislature. Both he and Hammond would improve their credibility and public standing by frankly owning up to embarrassing mistakes, and showing genuine contrition. Absent that, they risk the trust of the public.