POLITICS: '101'

Sometimes the personal and political mesh.

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'POLITICS 101'

The role of personality -- and of personality conflict -- just can’t be overlooked in governmental matters, especially when, as in the case of Shelby County Commission chairman Marilyn Loeffel and commissioner Bruce Thompson, they may reflect genuine policy disagreements.

Loeffel is a Cordova homemaker who represents the social conservatism of her sprawling suburban area, while Thompson, an investor and entrepreneur, hails from the more laid-back environs of East Memphis. Both Republican commissioners express concern for fiscal solvency, but Thompson, who campaigned in 2002 for strict budgetary controls and against unbridled development, sees Loeffel as being lax in both respects.

Further, Thompson has groused both publicly and privately that Loeffel often votes no on public spending projects while making back-door arrangements with other commissioners to enable them. For her part, Loeffel sees Thompson’s objections as masking political ambitions that last year brought the first-term commissioner to the brink of challenging her for the chairmanship.

All this boiled over at a meeting Monday morning of the commission’s Housing and Economic Development committee, chaired by Deidre Malone, another first-termer and a Democrat who frequently allies herself with Thompson. The issue was that of the commission’s two appointees to the PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) Evaluation Committee of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board.

This committee, which has members from both the commission and the Memphis city council, oversees the increasingly controversial issue of tax-break incentives for new and existing industry. Loeffel had proposed to name Malone and GOP Commissioner Tom Moss, a homebulder, as the commission’s representatives. Malone had asked off, suggesting Thompson, her committee co-chair, as a replacement.

Loeffell demurred and sounded out Democrat Julian Bolton, who agreed to serve with Moss on the PILOT oversight panel. The chairman announced her choices at the Monday morning meeting of Malone’s HED committee. Thompson then made bold to question the chairman on the matter.

“Hell hasn’t frozen over yet; therefore, I appointed Commissioner Bolton,” announced Loeffel, putting her disregard for Thompson on the record.

To Thompson’s protest that the chairman had disregarded the wishes of Malone, whose committee had nominal responsibility for the PILOT appointments, Loeffel later responded that Thompson had not been so attentive to protocol last year when he was contemplating his race for the chairmanship. At the time Loeffel was first vice chair under then chairman Walter Bailey and, according to commission tradition, was next in line for the chairmanship.

Loeffel summed up her decision on Monday succinctly. “Politics 101,” she said.

Personal matters may also affect the final disposition of a still pending proposal to put the commission on record as favoring the conversion of The Pyramid into a casino. Though other proposals are beginning to surface (see “Better Bets” in Viewpoint, p. TK) the casino proposal, advanced by Commissioner John Willingham and in legislation proposed in Nashville by state Representative Larry Miller, has gathered some momentum.

A commission resolution to back Miller’s bill, which would begin a constitutional-amendment process to enable casino activity at the single site of The Pyramid, narrowly failed two weeks ago -- thanks mainly to Loeffel’s delaying tactics and behind-the-scenes activity against it..

Though formal action to reconsider that vote was put off this week, it remains a possibility for the next commission meeting on April 26th. Thompson, a no voter on March 29th has already signaled his willingness to look at the matter anew, provided that some sort of advance referendum by Shelby County voters could be incorporated into the proposal.

This week’s contretemps over the PILOT committee issue might conceivably open the commissioner’s mind even further on a matter concerning which chairman Loeffel is intractably opposed.

The personal element is also a factor in the pending settlement of a suit by Clark Construction Group, Inc. against the City of Memphis and the Memphis Cook Convention Center board. County government would be responsible for paying half of an estimated additional $17 million that would be awarded Clark for its work on the new Convention Center, and the commission has been asked to approve the proposed settlement, though its ability to nix an agreement outright is in question.

In any case, the death last week of a beloved public figure -- former Shelby County Commissioner Morris Fair -- has put off the commission’s reckoning.. In what turned out to be a gallant last hurrah, Fair -- terminally ill from cancer -- had appeared last month before two commission committees investigating the settlement and made a detailed case against it, arguing in essence that Clark was itself responsible for both construction delays and cost overruns and should not collect additional monies.

Under the circumstances, even the involvement on Clark’s behalf of former U.S. Senator and Ambassador to China Jim Sasser (locally represented by entrepreneur and longtime Sasser confidante Karl Schledwitz) became irrelevant.

Both sides saw a commission vote on Monday as inappropriate. The matter will presumably come up again on April 26th.

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