April was famously designated by poet T.S. Eliot as "the cruelest month," and, while many lovers of springtime would take issue with that assessment (which was founded on numerous ironies of outlook on Eliot's part), it could indeed be a hard month for the two Democratic members of the Shelby County Election Commission.
That would be Myra Stiles, the commission's longest-serving member, and James Johnson, the commission's former executive director. Both are held in high personal esteem by local Democrats and by Democratic members of the Shelby County legislative delegation, but Stiles and Johnson have been the subject of nearly non-stop criticism — some of it public, much more of it privately rendered in party circles — for what many local Democrats see as their lack of vigilance in questioning the results of the county general election last August.
It will be remembered that Republicans swept that election, despite the GOP's being an acknowledged minority party in Shelby County. Because of an election-day electronic snafu in which a few thousand eligible voters were erroneously listed as having already participated in early voting, an indeterminate number of such voters were turned away when they came to cast their ballots on Election Day itself. The error was ultimately corrected — within an hour or two of the polls opening, said Election Commission officials; much later than that, argued angry Democrats.
Most estimates — presumably including that of Chancellor Arnold Goldin, who would ultimately dismiss a legal challenge to the election results — were that the number of votes that might have been affected were insufficient to change any of the election outcomes. But a number of protest meetings were held by Democrats, who contended that the electronic gaffe, along with other irregularities, made the results questionable at best.
During all of this Stiles and Johnson kept their distance from the protests, and Stiles would issue a public statement in defense of the good faith of the GOP-dominated Election Commission.
Rightly or wrongly, the two Democratic election commissioners may thereby have made their replacement next month by other Democrats an inevitability. Though public reaction to the August election has moved well off the front burner, Goldin's ruling is still under appeal, and local party spokespersons have declined to back off from their skepticism about the election results.
Moreover, many rank-and-file Democrats, including several on the legislative delegation which will decide on the party's Election Commission members next month, remain disappointed that a greater show of vigilance — if only a pro forma one — was not put forth by Stiles and Johnson on the commission.
For his part, Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini, one of the three-member Republican majority, commended Stiles and Johnson for what he said was their consistent collegiality, hard work, and good faith. For obvious reasons, that endorsement may not count for much among the Democratic legislators who will make the decision in April.
• Brian Stephens, a former Republican member of the Election Commission and a founding member of the Cordova Leadership Council, is hoping that the same Republican majority in the current Tennessee General Assembly that made for quick passage of the Norris-Todd bill on local school merger will benefit a mission of his own this week. And Stephens, who maintains good relations with Democrats as well, will work both sides of the aisle.
As spelled out in this week's Flyer Viewpoint (p. 17), Stephens and others are suspicious of the intentions of well-known strip-club owner Steve Cooper, whose Stella Marris restaurant in Cordova is closed for remodeling and for which Cooper is now seeking a compensated dance permit from the City Council.
Such a permit allows dancers in clubs to be paid and to receive tips for their dancing. But there are "loopholes" in current law that allow for activities bordering on sexual improprieties, or even crossing that border, Stephens says.
What he seeks to get from the legislature is enactment of stiffer penalties for abuses of a compensated dance permit. As of now, violations may range from $50 for a first-time offense to $1,500 for consistent, repeated ones. "And that's pocket change for these guys," Stephens says. "I'd like to add some zeroes to the fine."
He and other members of the Cordova Leadership Council are also lobbying the City Council to clarify the restrictions involved in a compensated dance permit so as to rule out activities — including nudity and improper trafficking with customers — that are defined as violations under existing laws governing sexually oriented businesses.
• Next Monday is D-Day for U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays to decide on whether or not to issue an injunction against the Shelby County Commission's intended appointment of 25 members of a unified all-county school board.
On Wednesday of last week, the commission interviewed almost 200 applicants for the districts it had previously created for a provisional board to function in the wake of the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County schools that was authorized in a March 8th citywide referendum. A maximum of three applicants per district received straw-vote recommendations for the commission's final decision on board members scheduled for this Monday, but the appointment session was postponed by commission chairman Sidney Chism in response to Mays' request at a preliminary hearing on Friday.
A commission majority has maintained that it — and only it — has the authority to make appointments, and its calendar calls for an active board by August 2012, a full year earlier than what is prescribed by the Norris-Todd bill, enacted by the General Assembly in January and promptly signed into law by Governor Haslam.
Shelby County Schools, along with the state Education Department, had filed in Judge Mays' court for a declaratory judgment against the commission's action.
The united SCS front against the commission's action was broken last Wednesday when Ernest Chism (no relation to the commission chairman), a senior SCS board member, allowed himself to be interviewed for the Position 7 post. The commission's grateful acceptance of Chism's acquiescence, culminating in his inclusion on the list of commission recommendees (a maximum of three per district), was in contrast to the treatment given MSC board president Freda Williams, an outspoken merger opponent who was denied the commission's recommendation for District 25.
Three other MSC board members, Betty Mallott, Stephanie Gatewood, and Martavius Jones, were recommended; all were part of the MSC majority favoring merger — though Mallott had not initially been a supporter of the charter surrender that was the necessary prelude to consolidation of the two extant school systems.
Asked by commissioners about the frequently heard challenge, mainly from three boycotting District 4 (suburban) commission members, that members of the MCS majority who voted for charter surrender had in effect jumped ship and should not be reappointed, Gatewood responded, "Are they here? They're not part of the process anyhow."
As Wednesday's interviewing process wore on, commissioners came and went in shifts as their itineraries permitted — though a hard core group, including Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who chaired the event, and commission chairman Chism, stayed at the task throughout. At several points, commissioners expressed appreciation at a candidate field so good that it seemed to them an embarrassment of riches.
• The 2011 Memphis mayoral race is officially on: Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, who nearly made a run for city mayor in 2009 and has ever since talked up a race against the winner of that special-election race, incumbent mayor A C Wharton, ever since, is now in it for real.
A "Campaign Kick-Off Fund-raising Event" was held for Harvey Tuesday evening at the Blue Suede restaurant on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
Businessman Harvey has made it increasingly clear that he intends to make an issue of Wharton's industrial recruitment policy — one that he regards as offering too many concessions at the expense of the city's revenue base.
Harvey has been especially critical of the $20 million incentive offered by the city (and matched by the county) in order to attract a large new Electrolux plant from Canada. And he insists that elected officials should be actively involved in recruitment efforts and kept informed about the nature of incentives being offered.