Michael Hooks was in his element Wednesday.
First of all, it was a day on which the onetime county assessor and current county commissioner visited the downtown office of the Shelby County Election Commission and pulled a petition to run for his old assessor's job on next year's election ballot. (Ironically, the fourth floor of the county office building - where Hooks and his commission mates moved from two floors up some two month ago -- also houses one of incumbent Assessor Rita Clark's administrative offices.)
Secondly, Hooks got off one of the most spirited improv riffs yet seen in local government circles of any kind. One of the items considered by the Shelby County Commission's land use committee on Wednesday was an application by developer Mark Lovell to construct a wedding chapel in the Collierville area. Upon the committee's approval of the application (pending approval by the full commission at its next meeting), Hooks then addressed Lovell about a wholly imaginary website (www.gethitched.com) on which he could, as a legally entitled county commissioner, perform marriages.
Said the commissioner: "I would like to make applicant aware that one of the powers vested in the county commission is to marry. So if you want to visit my website 'gethitched.com' we've got the attorney general's interpretation recently that I don't even have to be present with the present digital and video technology we can marry off-site, and mine includes and is not limited to a hologram so you can look right at me, and I can actually look like I'm there, and I'm not there. [laughter] Next item please."
Lovell, who had remained silent throughout the commission's deliberations on his zoning proposal, was moved to respond: "Is there an underscore between 'get' and 'hitched'?" he asked.
You had to be there.
Hooks sported a Hooks-for-Assessor lapel sticker Wednesday and, while discussing his planned race with fellow commissioners in the commission lounge during a break, offered them lapel stickers of their own. Reaching into his pocket, he came out with what he thought was one but said, "Uh oh, that's a nicotine patch."
The commissioner, who underwent what would appear to be a highly successful rehab for an acknowledged coccaine addiction, is now attempting to break the tobacco habit.
John Willingham had it on good authority, he said during a break in Wednesday's commission hearings: His opponent for reelection in three years would be -- ready? -- Jim Strickland, the third-place finisher in the recent election for City Council District 5.
Said Strickland, after a peal of laughter on hearing about the allegation: "Not a chance. A Democrat couldn't wiin in that district [#1, also served by Willingham's fellow Republicans Linda Rendtorff and Marilyn Loeffel]." Would he make a "Shermanesque" disavowal (after the Civil War general who said about rumors of president ambition: "I will not run if nominated; I will not serve if elected")? Strickland: "Oh yes."
Arrangements for the FedEx Forum may be a done deal, but some commissioners continue to grouse about the terms of the county's contract with HOOPS, the NBA Grizzlies' overseeing umbrella organization.
The commission -- through a unanimous vote by its Public Service & Tourism committee, headed by Willingham -- approved a contract with independent consultants Barnett Naylor/Hanscomb, a Memphis firm to report independently on matters concerning the arena and the deal with HOOPS
And Willingham, Bailey, and various others took umbrage at a clause of the 2001 agreement that amounted, explained county attorney Brian Kuhn, to an "incentive" for the deal, "a pre-negotiated payment of operating moving costs" for the former Vancouver franchise.
This was the now notorious Section 5.25 of the agreement that provided for a $3.75 penalty, payable to HOOPS, if the new arena was not playable by the beginning of the 2003 season. City and county officials recently received a letter from HOOPS which pointed out the incompleteness of the FedEx Forum and continued: "Consequently, Hoops demands that City/County pay the Hoops the entire amount of funds in the Capitalized Start-Up Costs Reserve Fund...."
On behalf of the county, Kuhn had answered that letter with one of his own, noting that not all the jots and iotas of the protocol had been observed and suggesting there would be a procedural delay in the payment. But he left no doubt Wednesday that the contract ultimately provided for what HOOPS claimed and said that the inevitable "peanlty" had been, in effect, an add-on payment agreed to at the time of signing.
"I'm just a small-time laywer," complained Commissioner Walter Bailey, a big-time lawyer. But, he went on, at no time before, during, or after negotiations and the signing of the contract with HOOPS, had the cited section been explained as a de facto prepayment of moving expaneses. "It's been said that there were meanings and sub-meanings," Bailey said. "Well, I wasn't part of that sub-meaning. This was a subterfuge."
Hooks agreed: "The chicanery involved is ridiculous." Added Marilyn Loeffel: "Smoke and mirrors." And there was general agreement that the tone of the HOOPS letter demanding payment had been offensive to the point of appearing imperious.
Even so, the payment of the "penalty" would appear a done deal. The thrust of Wednesday's committee hearing, though, was that the commission was serving interest that it intended to use its new consultants' arrangement as a fine-tooth comb to vet the contract and the rest of the arena-building process.
Both County Trustee Bob Patterson and County Finance Director Jim Huntsicker offered rosier-than-expected scenarios Wednesday about county sales-tax revenues, which have lately been higher than previously anticipated.
Under questioning, however, Patterson conceded that there was "significant cross-border bleeding" of sales tax revenue to Mississippi. That gave Willingham, Mayor Herenton's recent city-election opponent, an opportunity for one more piece of anti-Herenton rhetoric. The mayor had, he alleged, been observing crossing the state line for shopping purposes. "If You go to Wal-Mart [in Southaven] you'll see Mayor Herenton down there," he maintained.