Citizens who attended Mondays meeting of the Shelby County Commission acquired a good deal of revealing information.. They learned that FedEx pilot Cletus McDonel, a petitioner on Monday, runs a 9-minute mile. They learned that Commissioner Walter Bailey is a professed lover of Shakespeare. And they learned, perhaps most importantly, that a power struggle exists on the commission between veterans and rookies, or between haves and have-nots, or, as one dissatisfied commissioner evidently would have it, between slaves and their masters.
McDonels running statistics figured into proceedings only in that the Windyke resident, there to protest a new cell tower being voted on , measured the distance between his home and the potentially intrusive tower as well less than a mile. He knew, he said, because it took him only seven minutes to run to the site and nine minutes to do a full mile.
Although McDonel cited technical procedures that allowed cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to substitute smaller and more numerous relay devices instead of towering structures of the sort proposed Monday by Tower Ventures, he and other complainants failed to sway the commission, which voted to approve the construction in southeast Shelby County of a cell tower whose height will be something over 125 feet.
The new tower, which was spoken for by representatives of the Nextel and Sprint cellular-phone companies, is designed to fill in an area of weak or spotty reception just now, one which contains the sprawling FedEx complex.
The only Nay vote on the tower matter came from first-term commissioner Joyce Avery, who belonged to a somewhat larger minority on the major point of contention Monday. Ostensibly, the argument was over whether veteran commissioner (and recent commission chairman) Walter Bailey or Deidre Malone, another first-termer, should chair the commissions education committee.
Although the committee chairmanship itself was something of an issue, in that some commissioners, notably David Lillard, yet another first-termer, feared that Bailey might be too active a proponent of city/county school consolidation, the real challenge was to the existing power structure of the commission. After all, Malone, who was slated to be Baileys vice chairman within the committee structure proposed two weeks ago by chairman Marilyn Loeffel, is a consolidation proponent, too.
But Malone, a Democrat, has formed a working partnership with fellow freshmen Bruce Thompson and David Lillard, both Republicans and both eager, like her, to challenge the powers-that-be.
For most of the past year, Thompson had floated a candidacy to become chairman instead of Loeffel, who was chairman pro temp during the chairmanship of Democrat Bailey, a de facto ally, and, under usual procedures, was slated to ascend to the chairmanship as a matter of routine. As it turned out, she was elected unanimously last month, but only because Thompson realized he was shy of enough votes to defeat her and withdrew.
Lillard, for his part, has been a constant goad to the veterans on the commission -- especially Bailey and longtime budget chairman Cleo Kirk -- on the issue of revamping the bodys established budget procedures.
It was Lillard who made a motion Monday to amend Loeffels committee assignments so as to name Malone chairman of the education committee, with himself, an opponent of consolidation, as vice chairman. An offended Bailey, after noting that he was an admirer of the Bard, called the whole thing a matter of Shakesperean cloak-and-dagger maneuvers and said the newcomers machinations had put the commission in a state of perpetual unrest.
In an argument that ranged across partisan dividing lines, Bailey got some backup, notably from Commissioner Joe Ford, who defended the prerogatives of Chairman Loeffel and called the challenge from Malone et al. embarrassing. But Malone had her backers, too; besides Lillard and Thompson, they included Avery and Tom Moss, suburbanites who may have been influenced by a desire to have at least one anti-consolidation commissioner represented in the leadership of the education committee.
On the issue of bucking tradition, Thompson said pointedly that he and the four other first-term commissioners were elected precisely because change was needed and added, of Bailey's remark about newcomers fomenting unrest, "I choose to take that as a compliment."
Though Malone lost the vote and lost even her own motion to be excused from serving as vice chairman to Bailey on the education committee ("It's slavery," she protested audibly), she Ñ along with Thompson and Lillard Ñ is likely to be the fount of many a future challenge to seniority and its privileges.
This fight has just begun.
"I've just got to keep on running. Folks say the campaign is over. No, it is not. I just have to keep on running. Otherwise, the problems will catch up with me."
That thrust, delivered tongue-in-cheek by Mayor A C Wharton at Tuesday's meeting of Memphis Rotarians at the Cook Convention Center, is as good an epigram as any for the administrative style of the well-intentioned charmer who presides over the increasingly ragged financial picture of Shelby County. Wharton didn't solve any problems Tuesday. (Who has lately?) But he delivered several forthright judgments. Among them:
Passage by the County Commission of a rural school bonds issue to build a new high school at Arlington was arguably "one of the smarter things we've ever done," even though it may have "chiseled in stone" a precedent for separating the destinies of city and county systems.
Overall, the use of TIFs (tax increment fees) and PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) to attract industry to Shelby County are "a good deal that ... keep us in the hunt," even though county trustee Bob Patterson reckons the annual tax loss to the county at $34 million.
The state's appropriation of the lion's share of $50 million in federal funds attracted to Tennessee by programs of The Med is "dead wrong" and must be subject to change.
The "adequate facilities tax" on new developments Wharton proposed last year remains a good idea, and, of those who oppose it, the mayor said, "It's one-time-money. If somebody's operating on that kind of margin, they've got other problems."