Anyone attempting to locate Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell on the political spectrum might soon think himself lost on a road map reflecting back-and-forth meandering, abrupt directional switches, and confusion as to an ultimate destination.
The key word here is "might." Actually, there is an admirable consistency to Luttrell's sense of mission and gestalt. He is a centrist who, while he found himself cast as the Shelby County Republican Party's ticket leader during the county election cycle of 2010 (and was vital to the GOP's striking success that year), never made any secret of the fact that he deplores partisanship in local government.
Over and over, he has made it clear that if he had his way, elections for county offices would revert to the nonpartisan mode that governed them until the early 1990s, when first the Republicans and then the Democrats began holding local primaries for these jobs.
Yes, Luttrell was on a platform with such-and-such a Big-Time Republican at such-and-such a time and place and endorsed So-and-So against a Democratic opponent, but such pro forma appearances and declarations are the dues that any politician pays for participation in a party-oriented system, which, so long as it exists, makes it prohibitively difficult for acknowledged independents to win.
There have certainly been Luttrell policies, both as mayor and as sheriff, that can be contested on ideological and other grounds. But his conduct during the various battles over school consolidation over the past year and a half has clearly been that of an official seeking a solution amenable to all sides — as well as one who is determined, like Luttrell's Memphis mayoral counterpart, A C Wharton, to maintain local prerogatives.
Luttrell, who attempted to broker a compromise during the earliest moments of the consolidation crisis in late 2010, has for the past several months been a member of the post-Norris-Todd Transition Planning Commission (TPC). As such, he has served as something of a mediator.
The county mayor has made it clear that he accepts the realities of Norris-Todd, including that act's escape clause permitting the suburban municipalities, as of August 2013, to form their own school districts, distinct from a merged city/county system. But he opposed a bill introduced last month by state representative Curry Todd (R-Collierville) that, in effect, would have handed off existing county school structures to those districts free of charge.
"I don't think the state ought to be dictating to Shelby County how we dispose of our property," he told the assembled members of the Shelby County legislative delegation in Nashville.
It was also Luttrell, however, who successfully urged the TPC to hear out the suburban mayors on their future educational plans — which the planning commission will do at its regularly scheduled Thursday meeting this week.
When county commissioner Walter Bailey first proposed a resolution, the week before last, mandating the terms of compensation which should accrue from any transfer of school properties from the Uniform School Board to the proposed suburban school districts, Luttrell objected that the resolution would tend to close off discussion between the various principals to the dispute — city, county, and state.
When the resolution was recast last week, yielding negotiation over such matters to Luttrell himself on behalf of the county commission and the board, it passed.
"We do need to protect our interests," Luttrell said, assuring Bailey: "My passion rivals yours in protecting the assets of this community." While eschewing any "fear of Nashville" per se, he said, "I do believe Nashville should stay out of our business."
As further confirmation that the county mayor, while serving as an honest broker, intended to maintain the interests of the whole county, he floated some doubt regarding the legal liabilities of Shelby County government to provide financial support to any new municipal school districts.
And he specifically cautioned the residents of the suburbs, who are scheduled to vote in May referenda regarding creation of such districts: "I would hope that the municipal districts would do their due diligence and make sure that they have answers to some of those questions before they take this to a referendum. ... We know there will be state and federal funding, but to what extent there will be county funding is just not clear at this moment. We just don't know."
Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.