POLITICS

Chairman Bailey pulls the pin but has to stick it back in the grenade.

Posted by Jackson Baker on Fri, Feb 7, 2003 at 4:00 AM

NO DEAL Momentous things occurred during the committee meetings held Wednesday by the Shelby County Commission -- notably a vote to rescind the litigation fees recently ruled unconstitutional by the state Attorney General -- but one of the potentially most dramatic events had a life-span of only a minute or two. That was when Commission chairman Walter Bailey, making a late entry into a mid-morning meeting of an ad hoc staff-reorganization committee chaired by Joe Ford, pulled the pin on a grenade from a box his mates thought had been tucked away after the traumatic Calvin Williams episode, then carefully replaced the pin when there was general alarm. The commissioners had been engaging in an extended and somewhat desultory colloquy over such issues as: (a) whether acting commission administrator Grace Hutchinson should be permanently so employed or whether there should be an open search for the job; (b) how many staff members there should be and what their pay and functions should be. The discussion -- based on some thoughtful recommendations by Ford, a veteran of a similar reorganization as a city council member a decade ago -- was necessitated by the resignation under pressure last month of former commission administrator Williams. Williams, it will be remembered, had been the subject of some blaring publicity about -- inter alia -- conflicts of interest concerning his temporary employment agency, his browbeating of County Assessor Rita Clark, and his reported involvement as a middle-man in paying off a female employee of the Juvenile Clerk’s office who had a sexual harassment case against Williams’ pal Darrell Catron. Catron, now apparently a cooperative witness in a case against others involved in dubious county transactions, had numerous other legal problems. Williams’ problems, too, had been mounting to the point that he had to go. Hutchinson, his deputy and a long-term county employee of impeccable reputation and nose-to-the-grindstone reputation, succeeded him on an interim basis. One of the points that had not been debated at the point that Bailey entered the committee room and took his seat was the revised nature of the administrator’s duties. Williams had been a wheeler-dealer and broker on the grand scale; not only did he cut his own deals, he helped various commissioners cut theirs. Hutchinson is much more the civil-servant type, at the opposite end of the job description, and the discussion ante Bailey had assumed that kind of profile for the position. That’s when Bailey pulled his pin. Let’s face it, he reminded his mates, “we’re all politicians.” Accordingly, the commission administrator should be gifted at politics, too, a “political person” able to “help us out” when bargains needed to be struck and impasses unblocked, or when a consensus needed to be reached. Therefore, there should be two chief administrative positions -- one, charged with budgetary and general administrative backup, to be held by Hutchinson or someone like her and another for -- a broker type. There was, it is fair to say, general consternation at this, and there were no takers -- or none, in any case, willing to publicly second Bailey’s remarks. The chairman had not alluded to Williams, other than to note that his own potential vote against retaining him had been based on the deposed administrator’s ultimate inability, under fire, to be a “consensus” maker. But Bailey seemed to have had the Williams mold in mind. Speaking of “consensus,” Michael Hooks spoke for what was clearly one Wednesday morning. “We should never ever get a person as ‘political’ as our last administrator,” he said. And, as far as simple consensus-building was concerned, the low-key, unobtrusive Hutchinson “has proved her political savvy…but -- he underlined the point -- “she’s not a 14th commissioner.” Moreover, Hooks noted realistically, “We would never be able to decide on another Ôpolitical’ person.” The amens around the table were a crescendo. With that, Bailey withdrew his proposal as quickly as he’d introduced it and conceded the point. That had to be bad news for the experienced political types -- among them, former city council members Kenneth Whalum Sr. and Jerome Rubin and veteran pol Joe Cooper -- who’ve put their names in the hat to succeed Williams. In the end the commissioners voted for a 90-day open search and stated their preference for a chief administrator who would function , basically, as a budgetary aide and office administrator, and who would be paid in the neighborhood of $90,000 (as against Williams’ $101,000). There would be an add-on deputy, making two such in all. The county’s personnel office would be invited to assist in -- but not dominate -- the search process. In the end, acknowledged several commissioners privately, it was likely that Hutchinson would get the job. But in the meantime there would be a fair and open search. No deals. And no deal-makers, either.

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