Mark Padgett is a mayoral candidate bursting with energy — and brimming with confidence that his business experience as an Internet and software entrepreneur makes him the right person for the job.
"This race is all about who has the right kind of experience," Padgett said. "Government must be run like a business, with efficiency. The more money you save over here, the more money you have to spend to help people over there."
But Padgett's doubters question the extent of the 33-year-old's experience. Is six years of experience running a small business really enough to prepare someone to be a mayor?
"Everyone will just have to make that decision for themselves." Padgett said. "I am the only candidate who has started a business and met a payroll."
Mike Edwards, chairman and CEO of the Knoxville Chamber — who makes no endorsement in the mayor's race — was asked to comment on both mayoral candidates' experiences as preparation for the mayoral job. Padgett is facing off against Madeline Rogero, former city community development director.
"Experience is great, and the more experience you have, the better," Edwards said of Padgett. "Since so much of business growth today comes from startups, having a mayor who has done that would give him a good understanding of that particular segment of the economy, if not the whole economy. I would say he has a good understanding of the economic problems we face."
Padgett is the son of former County Clerk Mike Padgett and grandson of former City Councilman Bill Padgett.
His startup business is eGovernment Solutions, commonly called eGov. He launched it in 2005. The firm sets government offices up to provide a variety of online services to citizens, such as renewing motor vehicle tags and paying fines and property taxes.
The firm offers four payment options to its clients. These range from a flat, direct payment from the county to his firm, to an arrangement by which the county pays nothing and the firm collects user fees.
Padgett said recently that he has 10 employees, some full time and some on contract. He said the firm recently turned a profit. He would not say what his annual payroll is. Padgett was paid a salary of just under $30,000, according to his 2010 income tax return, which he provided to the News Sentinel.
He said that last year, eGov spent more than $1 million in payroll and contracts in Knoxville.
"But more importantly, we have changed the way governments do business," he said. "We have pioneered online services to some counties."
He faces a formidable business opponent: Business Information Systems, or BIS, which has contracts with 80 of Tennessee's 95 county clerks, 70 county trustees and about half of the registrars of deeds. Padgett said he competes by offering a wider range of options that clients can choose from.
Padgett gave the News Sentinel a list of 11 entities in 10 counties with which he does business. Nearly all are small, rural East Tennessee counties.
In Sevier County, eGov services both the county clerk's office and the General Sessions Court clerk's office. It has contracts with the trustees of Anderson, Claiborne, Hawkins, Hancock, Lincoln, Sumner and Warren counties, the Davidson County clerk, and the Sessions Court clerk's office in Monroe County. The News Sentinel contacted each agency on Padgett's list and verified the contracts.
"We were kind of a pilot for trustee's offices, and it's all worked out pretty good for us," said Anderson County Trustee Rodney Archer. He said eGov was only one of three firms that offered software geared to a county trustee office's needs.
"They built a custom software database for us." Archer said. The contract is for three years, and the $19,500 per year fee reflects the variety of software options he chose. Additionally, he said, Padgett has personally seen to it that the office gets the service and attention it needs.
"Mark is an 'on the job' kind of guy," Archer said. "I feel like he is personally committed to his business, and goes above and beyond to get things done. I believe that would carry over" into a public service position.
Monroe County Circuit Court Clerk Mary Cook, whose office oversees Sessions Court operations, said the contract with eGov is only for the online payment of traffic tickets. She said eGov collects a user fee, and the contract costs the county nothing.
Davidson County also pays no fees to eGov. Instead, eGov is paid with fees collected from online users.
Davidson County Clerk John Arriola was an early contributor to Padgett's campaign. He has since become embroiled in an ethics and money controversy that is unrelated to Padgett or eGov. Arriola did not return telephone calls from the News Sentinel.
The firm's initial contract with Sevier County was under former County Clerk Joe Keener, who has since resigned after admitting he stole nearly $100,000 from the office. That case does not involve eGov, but state auditors said payments to eGov were not made from the correct account in the clerk's office.
The contract was recently renewed. Keener's successor, Karen Cotter, did not return phone calls from the News Sentinel.
investor's past controversy
Tennessee Secretary of State records list Blake L. Bookstaff as the firm's registered agent. In 2002, his name surfaced in a "Today" show broadcast that alleged another company he controlled was linked to a scheme in which consumers were charged excessive fees whenever they misdialed popular toll-free numbers.
But in a subsequent consumer fraud lawsuit filed in New York state, Bookstaff and his company were not listed among the defendants accused of the practice.
Padgett said Bookstaff is only an investor in eGov and has no major role in running the firm. And Bookstaff has no role whatsoever in the mayoral campaign, Padgett said.
"Blake is just not a political person," Padgett said.
Bookstaff did not return telephone calls from the News Sentinel.
His entrepreneurship is a central credential that Padgett cites as a mayoral candidate.
As Padgett tells his own story on his campaign website, he launched his business "with $5,000 in savings and a borrowed laptop." Now, in 2011, according to his website, "he is a visionary CEO who has more than doubled his client base and created jobs during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression."
Padgett was asked if there was just one thing as mayor that he could persuade City Council to do, what would that be.
Padgett said it would help him attract businesses to Knoxville if he could show prospective business "pre-approval" indications that the council will officially approve zoning or infrastructure changes necessary for the business to relocate or expand.