Between blowback over the video that may or may not have encouraged violence against members of the Knox County Board of Health and the sudden necessity to offload his chief of staff and another high-paid employee accused of cadging taxpayer-purchased property, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is up to his hind parts in alligators. Good thing he’s tall.
It’s also a good thing that he’s called in backup. I’m not going to flat out declare that moving Dwight Van de Vate into the mayor’s office as acting chief of staff is the only smart thing Jacobs has done since he accepted the resignation of former legislator Roger Kane (for whom he’d invented a job as a “liaison” to education), but I’d have to think awhile to come up with anything better.
Jacobs – a professional wrestler/insurance man who got elected by 23 votes in the 2018 Republican primary and is a first-time officeholder – ran as an anti-government Libertarian outsider who was going to “fix” government. He succeeded Tim Burchett, who was in the process of moving on up to Congress. Burchett cut his teeth working in political campaigns, served in both houses of the state legislature and is the senior elected official in Republican Knox County. But for him, Van de Vate wouldn’t have been available to step in and help Jacobs clean up the mess on the sixth floor.
When Jacobs was elected, Van de Vate was the senior director of Engineering and Public Works, the largest department directly under the control of the mayor’s office. A longtime employee of Knox County government, he began his career in 1984 as a correctional officer in the county jail. He moved up through the ranks pretty rapidly and became Sheriff Tim Hutchison’s public information officer in 1990 and was later promoted to chief deputy. Hutchison had a tumultuous reign that was buffered by Van de Vate’s skillful dealings with the media, a trait that didn’t go unnoticed by then-county mayor, Mike Ragsdale, who hired him away in 2004 for a run that was no less controversial than Hutchison’s tenure.
Burchett tapped Van de Vate to head E&PW (the folks in charge of codes enforcement, fire prevention, highway maintenance, planning and development, soil conservation, solid waste and recycling and stormwater management). He was president of the Tennessee County Services Association when Jacobs succeeded Burchett.
Influential developers (who are also generous financial donors to local political candidates of their choice) considered Van de Vate too much of a by-the-book rules enforcer and lobbied the new mayor to get rid of him. Jacobs obliged. Sources say Van de Vate was on his way to the unemployment line when Burchett, who by this time was headed for Washington, persuaded Jacobs to find a spot for him.
Jacobs offered Van de Vate a job as director of Community Development – smaller department, smaller paycheck – while filling higher paid positions with patronage hires recommended by his chief of staff, a banker who had helped in Jacobs’ campaign. Meanwhile Van de Vate, a cancer survivor for whom health insurance is a baseline necessity, threw himself into the work of overseeing the county’s efforts to reduce homelessness and housing insecurity and was never heard to complain (actually pretty much never heard from at all).
So, it wasn’t entirely serendipity that Van de Vate was available when it came time for Jacobs to offload his chief of staff and the director of Parks & Recreation. He just called for the cleanup man.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.