Poker Hands

That's one way of describing matters before the Shelby County Commission these days.

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John Willingham, the suburban Republican who has somewhat unexpectedly become the swing vote on several issues that confront a tenuously balanced Shelby County Commission, was standing near the doorway of the county building's auditorium after Monday's commission meeting when one of his colleagues, Deidre Malone, passed by on her way out.

"Don't be mad at me, Deidre," said Willingham, referring to a vote he had just cast -- the deciding one -- to authorize the issuing of $38 million of rural school bonds for the financing of some overdue county school construction. Malone, an inner-city Democrat, had been on the short end of the 7-6 vote and, like most of her party colleagues (Joe Ford being the exception), saw in the vote for rural school bonds a precedent that could undermine the current funding formula favoring city schools.

"Just be careful with that casino proposal of yours," said Malone with faintly arched eyebrows.

"That's a threat," Willingham observed glumly after Malone had passed through the swinging doors into the lobby area. And well it might have been.

Malone and her Democratic contingent were not the only ones who were sweating out a borderline vote. So is Willingham, whose proposal to convert The Pyramid into a downtown casino/hotel was turned down two weeks ago by another 7-6 vote but is still hanging fire, thanks to efforts to revive it by one of the original nay voters on the proposal, Commissioner Tom Moss.

Moss, like most of the commission's Republicans, has been a supporter of the proposal, brought formally by David Lillard, to fund a new school in the Arlington area and provide improvements at other county school sites by departing from the traditional state Average Daily Attendance (ADA) formula for allocation of school construction funds. That formula has mandated a 3:1 spending ratio, whereby for every dollar spent on capital construction by the county school system, three dollars must be paid into the city system.

In the last several years, and in the 2002 election campaign in particular, the ADA formula came in for severe criticism by county officials and political figures, who see it as unfairly burdensome and restrictive in an age of revenue shortages and fiscal belt-tightening. Representatives of the inner city, conversely, either defend the formula as necessary to upgrade deteriorating city schools or want to bargain over changes in the formula so as to safeguard the interests of the city school system.

Meanwhile, of course, both Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton have offered competing plans to reform the way the county's two school districts interact and are funded -- Herenton coming out boldly for consolidation and condemning the city school board, while Wharton has made a series of compromise proposals that most recently have included his acceptance of the funding plan voted by the commission Monday as a first step toward reform.

That plan, a compromise, would allocate $11 million of the $49 million total sought by the county system from a long term reserve held jointly by the two systems to fund construction resulting from annexations and other future developments. The remaining $38 million would be raised by the issuance of rural school bonds, requiring a probable 6 cent increase in the county property-tax rate.

Deferred for several weeks, the school-bond issue narrowly squeaked through Monday thanks to the vote cast by Willingham, who had previously been counted as undecided and leaning to the other side of the issue. But Willingham -- a city resident whose fiscal conservatism coexists with a maverick antiestablishment streak -- has developed into a member whose attitudes and votes have often proved unpredictable and pivotal.

Best known locally as a barbecue maven, Willingham also has a history in both government -- he served the Nixon administration as an administrator in the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- and construction. Indeed, he is even now hatching a comprehensive proposal that would in essence put Shelby County Corrections Center inmates to work doing precast molds that would be used not only in the renovation of The Pyramid but in construction of schools and railway projects.

Typically, the project appears grandiose and complicated to the point of appearing Byzantine at first glance. Typically, it would put Willingham in conflict with members of the local business/government establishment -- in this case, with members of its construction and contracting end. And, typically, it is an instance of Willingham's capacity for thinking out of the box.

Willingham is alone among Republican members of the commission in his openness to school consolidation proposals, and his casino project, which was originally greeted with open skepticism, has been gathering momentum, failing to gain acceptance last month by a vote of -- what else? -- 7-6. Willingham was the solitary GOP proponent for his measure, along with five Democrats. (One Democrat, commission chairman Walter Bailey, went the other way.)

The casino proposal's failure may, however, prove to have been short-lived. Almost immediately, commission members partial to the rural school-bonds proposal began lobbying Willingham, who had opposed the bond issue, to open his mind. At its last prior commission vote in March, Willingham joined with Marilyn Loeffel, another opponent, to defer a final vote on the bonds until Monday. On that occasion, social conservative Loeffel made it clear that she would ultimately be voting no (as, indeed, she did on Monday) but was willing to accommodate others, expecting, as she said pointedly, "the same courtesy in return."

For a gambling opponent, Loeffel is one of the most dedicated poker players on the commission, frequently playing her hand for tradeoffs with other members. Willingham, who otherwise doesn't get on too well with Loeffel, seems to have learned something from her on that score. In any case, in several discussions with other GOP members in which the concept of quid pro quo was never mentioned outright or even suggested, he did agree to open his mind.

So did others -- notably Moss, after some rewriting of the Willingham proposal in order to further buffer the county against financial liability. What the proposal now provides is official commission sanction for the efforts of Lakes Development, Inc., a Minnesota-based company experienced in prior casino projects, to pursue two prospects: 1) that of consigning a narrow riverfront property including The Pyramid to Native Americans for casino-development purposes; or 2) looking for loopholes in state law that arguably allow for casino gambling. The latter prospect would involve negotiations at some points with such formidable -- and perhaps proprietary -- legislative personalities as state Senator Steve Cohen, currently embroiled in efforts to fashion a state lottery.

In any case, the current proposal, carefully vetted with county attorney Donnie Wilson, contains no financial liabilities until and unless the county should license a casino operation, in which case Lakes would have first dibs on the project or would be paid a sizable forfeit. The county is meanwhile free to pursue a variety of other uses for The Pyramid if, as is widely anticipated, the University of Memphis decides to relocate its basketball games to the soon-to-be venue of the FedExForum.

In that form, the proposal proved amenable to Moss and others, and expectations were that Moss, as a voter on the prevailing (nay) side two weeks earlier, would ask for a reconsideration of the casino proposal on Monday -- the same day, coincidentally or not, that rural school bonds would be coming up for a do-or-die vote. Both proposals looked like borderline winners -- provided that all prior proponents of either stayed put.

Whether that carefully secured balance came undone or whether further negotiations were under way or whether Moss merely wanted to be sure of his legislative underpinnings, on the very eve of Monday's meeting he decided against asking for reconsideration of last month's casino vote. "The proposal is not the same one that we originally voted on," Moss explained Monday, arguing that the commission would need to take up the rewritten casino proposal anew, in which case he would gladly co-sponsor it along with Willingham.

But that won't happen until the commission meets again in two weeks, and, until then, efforts to pursue converting The Pyramid into a casino/hotel complex remain an unknown quantity. And so, hypothetically, did the balance of votes on the commission.

That is the proximate context for Willingham's formal statement, upon casting his vote for rural school bonds Monday, that he reserved the right to ask for reconsideration at the next meeting. He indicated to reporters that he wanted to see the county school administration of Dr. Bobby Webb further pare projected construction costs for the Arlington facility or that he wanted "answers" to a variety of other (largely unspecified) questions, but, whether he meant it so or not, his threat could be construed as a hedge to keep his newly gained casino-proposal alliance in line.

But, as Malone's parting shot Monday would indicate, Willingham isn't the only commission member who can imply -- or carry out -- threats. So clouds remain over both the rural school-bonds issue and John Willingham's pet Pyramid scheme -- clouds that won't be dispelled until April 21st, if then.

· Two other long-pending matters got dealt with Monday. First, a proposal to extend the unpaid vacation benefits for former chief commission administrator Calvin Williams died in committee as potential votes for it, never numerous, dwindled to the vanishing point. Secondly, the commission voted to name acting administrator Grace Hutchinson the successor to Williams, who was forced out in January amid a barrage of conflict-of-interest allegations.

The contest came down finally to Hutchinson and former Memphis police director Winslow "Buddy" Chapman, but there had been other interesting developments before it got to that. One major contender, Chamber of Commerce administrator Jesse Johnson, failed to supply a requested verification concerning his resume and was thereby disqualified. Another, Memphis City Council administrator Lisa Geater, abruptly withdrew, and yet another, veteran political figure Joe Cooper, turned out to have been eliminated in a semifinal round by a miscount. He was paired with Chapman in a runoff vote Monday, though, and was eliminated again.

Ultimately, Hutchinson was always expected to be the commission's choice -- with Geater at one point, before votes began mysteriously shifting away from her, considered a close runner-up.

· During a committee meeting Monday, Commissioner Bruce Thompson at one point noted that his colleague and close friend David Lillard had voted against the tide on a matter and jokingly called him, to general laughter, "Councilman Vergos." All things considered, that was a compliment. City councilman John Vergos has, in his two terms of representing Midtown Memphis, made a name for himself as one who stands for his beliefs and what he perceives as the views of his constituency against all odds and all comers.

A tireless advocate of the environment and of educational reform, Vergos announced this week he would not seek a third term. Prospects for succeeding him, so far, include lawyer Jim Strickland, activist David Upton, and radiologist/radio magnate George Flinn.

· Another political showdown will take place Saturday at Hamilton High School when Shelby County Democrats will either reelect current party chairman Gale Jones Carson, who doubles as Mayor Herenton's press secretary, or elect in her stead state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, who has support from a number of other local elected officials. The vote is expected to be close. ·

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