All Too Human

A school-bonds proposal may have taken a mortal hit as the casino issue survives.

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After a claim of divine inspiration from Marilyn Loeffel and an hour's worth of holding forth by John Ford, what else should one expect from a single afternoon meeting of the Shelby County Commission?

Well, a vote on rural school bonds, for one thing, or so thought proponents of the now-sputtering measure designed to do an end-run around the established 3:1 funding ratio favoring city over county schools and to finance construction of a new county high school at Arlington, along with renovations at various other schools.

Shelby County School Board president David Pickler, who with county schools superintendent Bobby Webb, fellow board member Anne Edmiston, and other interested parties waited around all afternoon for a last-gasp chance at passage, saw the bonds resolution, which had languished for months, be summarily deferred by a 6-3 vote that took less time to rush through than it took Chairman Walter Bailey, a declared foe of the measure, to gabble out the vote totals for the record. "Next item," Bailey then prodded reading clerk Brian Kuhn.

Not that Pickler and the other county school officials hadn't seen the handwriting on the wall. It didn't take 20-20 vision to read the meaning of Commissioner John Willingham's abrupt departure midway through the meeting. "There went our seventh vote. We're dead!" agonized Pickler, who looked for emissaries to send after Willingham, reportedly on his way to a medical office as part of his prep for some heart surgery scheduled for Wednesday.

Pickler also left voice mails for Willingham at the barbecue maven's publicly announced cell-phone number, 848-RIBS. All to no avail.

Though he acknowledged that a genuine health emergency might take precedence over what he saw as the desperate need to beat a deadline on accepting bids for the proposed school construction, Pickler had a hard time being philosophical. "He [Willingham] made sure he got his casino vote in, then we had to wait out an hour's worth of John Ford, then he goes before we can get our vote!" he protested.

A corollary to that pronouncement, of course, was the assumption that Willingham, who has vehemently denied being a party to any trade-offs with other members, had agreed to cast an "aye" vote for the school-bonds proposal in return for passage of his long-sought measure authorizing a study of the prospects for casino gambling at The Pyramid.

Willingham's pet project -- which, like the rural school-bonds proposal, had been bottled up and postponed for weeks -- had finally been voted on, and it squeaked through with the bare minimum of seven votes from the 13 commissioners.

The crucial vote evidently had been that of Joyce Avery, a suburban conservative who carefully specified that she was "not a gambler" but was willing to vote for a study of some means, any means of finding a profitable use for The Pyramid.

"I challenge you, if you are an opponent [of casino gambling], find something else!" Avery said. As she noted, when the FedEx Forum south of Beale Street is completed next year, the NBA Grizzlies will vacate The Pyramid, and so, it is believed, will the facility's remaining major tenant, the University of Memphis basketball Tigers.

Commissioner Tom Moss, another reluctant voter for the proposal, stressed similar considerations when critical audience members, whose cards asking to speak on the issue had somehow been overlooked until the vote was cast, were finally permitted to express themselves.

"We are not voting for gambling, just for the study," said Moss, who asked that Chairman Walter Bailey instruct the complainants to confine their comments to that point. (Bailey allowed as how he was powerless to impose such constraints.)

Asked point-blank afterward if her vote for the casino study had been conditioned on a commitment by Willingham to vote for the rural school bonds, the dutiful Avery (who, in order to be on time for a pre-meeting committee hearing, had dashed away early from the annual picnic of the Shelby County Republican Women, which she had been hosting) said forthrightly, "Yes."

That qualified her, ex post facto, for some invective uttered earlier by Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, who broke -- or, perhaps one should say, parted -- new ground in criticizing her colleagues' approval of the casino study. Noting that at least one audience critic of the proposal had blamed "government corruption" for the vote, Loeffel associated herself with the sentiment, calling it "divinely inspired."

Making her own charge that "deals have been made," Loeffel then said she was "ashamed" to be a member of the board of commissioners.

(Although she evidently retains the loyalty of Chairman Bailey, whom she often votes with and hopes to succeed as chairman next year, Loeffel may have further estranged several Republican colleagues who have been privately critical of her often pious mode of expression. And she has begun to draw fire, too, from Democrats like budget chairman Cleo Kirk, who recently took her to task for opposing a variety of budget cuts while also rejecting the need for a tax increase.)

Perhaps Loeffel interpreted the follow-up to the casino vote as divine retribution imposed on Willingham, who -- along with Julian Bolton (notably), Chairman Bailey, and others -- had to engage in an hourlong verbal duel of sorts with state Senator Ford, who appeared on behalf of the Public Building Authority to contest a resolution, sponsored by Willingham, seeking funding and investigative power for an independent commission consultant to look into expenditures on the new arena.

The duel ended without shedding much light (though it showcased Ford's astonishing self-satisfaction and what Willingham conceded was the senator's "astounding" grasp of the arena issue) and with the passage of the resolution as another seven votes went Willingham's way.

But the debate ate up clock time, and not long afterward Willingham, who had evidently asked that both the casino item and the arena proposal be moved up the agenda for an early vote, was out of there -- to the chagrin of Pickler, Webb, et al., who saw their hopes for the Arlington school project departing along with him.

Moss and Commissioner David Lillard, the commission's drum major for the rural school bonds, were surprisingly charitable toward Willingham, opting instead to blame the administration of county mayor A C Wharton for scuttling the bond issue.

Some weeks back, Lillard had listened to Willingham express reservations at a committee hearing about some of the proposed Arlington school expenses and lambasted his colleague thusly: "John, you're always trying to find snakes where none exist. In fact, you're something of a professional in that field!"

But now he and Moss credited Willingham with sincerity and with being an honest broker on behalf of the administration's professed concerns about potential cost overruns. "When they finally got the costs down [from $49 million to an estimated $41 million], John was willing to go with it. It was the administration that was working against it," Moss said. Lillard nodded his assent.

In a postmortem (which could be just that) to the media, Pickler, too, eased up on Willingham -- concerning whom he had been near-apoplectic earlier -- and focused the blame in the direction of Wharton, who, as Pickler noted, had been referred to by Willingham as "the quarterback" and who had begun to backpedal on what had once seemed to be his acquiescence in the rural school-bonds initiative.

Had Bailey, whose resistance to the proposal reflected an aversion to breaking with the A.D.A. (average daily attendance) formula favoring city schools, been influential in dissuading the mayor? "No question that he has been a powerful opponent. We've had many powerful opponents to deal with," said the unhappy Pickler.

He did catch a break, however. Republican Loeffel, who had always been with the majority of the commission's Democrats on the Arlington issue, basing her objections on cost-cutting considerations, did not claim inspiration from the Ultimate Opponent on this one. The battle, if it continued, would evidently do so on ordinary human terms. ™

Council-Race Notes

Though he is the least known of the candidates who have declared so far in the closely watched City Council race in District 5 (Midtown, East Memphis), Mark Follis notes that he was the first to file for the position (on April 30th) and has been the subject of some word-of-mouth boosting from some reasonably influential Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

And the lifelong Memphian and former Peace Corps volunteer might claim support among one of the city's most numerous (if non-voting) constituencies -- its tree population. Follis is a commercial arborist, concerned with tree preservation -- an issue which has gained him much of his human support base. He also maintains that, unlike the other candidates in the 5th -- lawyers Jim Strickland and Carol Chumney, physician/businessman George Flinn, and veteran political figure Joe Cooper -- he has no entangling alliances.

"The primaryemphasisof my candidacywill becommon sense, anindependence frompowerful and monied interests, modest fund-raising, anddaily contact with the constituents of District 5(75 percent of my customer base)," Follis says.

™ Opponent Chumney got a major boost last week when consultant John Bakke, whose batting average in a variety of major political races has been impressive, joined her team.

Bakke, who acknowledged that he had also considered offering his services to candidate Strickland, said Wednesday that he and Chumney shared "too much history" for him not to get involved in her campaign. Chumney's father, Jim Chumney, is a professor of history at the University of Memphis, where Bakke was for many years a professor in the Department of Communications.

Bakke will serve as general consultant for Chumney, now a state representative from a Midtown district largely overlapping District 5, and will do polling for her. His numerous previous clients, from both major political parties, include former U.S. Representative Harold Ford Sr.; his son and successor, the present 9th District congressman, Harold Ford Jr.; current Shelby County mayor A C Wharton; former county mayors Bill Morris and Jim Rout; and former Governor Don Sundquist.

™ Two other council candidates joined Flinn as official endorsees of the Shelby County Republican Party last week. On Thursday night, the local GOP steering committee voted to back Wyatt Bunker in the District 1 council race against incumbent E.C. Jones; and Scott McCormick in the race for the Super-District 9, Position 1 seat now held by incumbent Pat Vander Schaaf. ™ -- JB

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