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It's Always Something

Shelby County Commission, TPC encounter unexpected obstacles.

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Commissioner Brent Taylor takes on Sheriff's Department over sky drones.



No sooner has one divisive issue on the Shelby County Commission reached something of a consensus than another has sprung up to bedevil the contentious body that, more than any other, represents the diverse points of view within greater Shelby County.

When Terry Roland, the Millington conservative who has clashed with his fellow suburban Republicans on redistricting issues, presented Plan 2-J for one more go-around last week in committee, he was explicit about one of his reasons for doing so. "What we have now is not a battle over the districts, it's a battle of charter over state," he said.

Elaborating on that, he expressed a fear of adverse consequences for the commission, which has been unable to achieve the two-thirds majority on a redistricting plan required by the county charter, if the redistricting issue has to be resolved in the court of Chancellor Arnold Goldin.

There had arisen a dispute on the commission regarding the issue of whether the super-majority provisions of the county charter could be overridden by a state law requiring only a simple majority for redistricting plans. This disagreement had even come to transcend somewhat the stalemated argument between adherents of single-member districts and proponents of large, multi-member districts.

As one result of the charter vs. state dispute, special redistricting attorney Ron Krelstein had resigned rather than conform to a commission resolution requiring strict fidelity to the charter's super-majority requirement. Krelstein had already filed a brief arguing that Plan 2-J, which had concluded its third and final reading with a majority of seven, had met the requirements of state law and should pass muster.

The matter is in Goldin's court because of a suit filed by three commissioners — Roland, Mike Ritz, and Walter Bailey — seeking to force a decision in favor of single-member or smaller districts. Roland and Ritz, concerned about the charter/state issue, had recently removed themselves from the suit, but Bailey remains. (Steve Ross, a candidate for the commission this year, has filed a separate suit.)

Should the charter's super-majority provisions be stricken down, Roland argued last week, the result could be a "perfect storm," with consequences for other matters for which the charter requires a super-majority — specifically tax increases. Property assessments are likely to be down this year, and school taxes are likely to rise. "To give seven people that kind of scope is very, very dangerous," said Roland, who said that coming up with nine votes for 2-J, likely to be chosen by Goldin anyway, would obviate a challenge to the charter.

His argument seemed to resonate with several former opponents of 2-J, which posits single-member districts (though it was conceded that Roland, who has keenly wished to run in a Millington-based district rather than in one including expanses of Germantown, Cordova, and Collierville, may have had another reason for reviving 2-J.)

On Monday, with attorney Rick Winchester, who has replaced Krelstein, advising the commission that Chancellor Goldin, who has scheduled a hearing for May 11th, is running "out of patience," the commission engaged in minimal debate and produced nine votes for 2-J, with only three commissioners (Brent Taylor, Justin Ford, and Chairman Sidney Chism) excepting.

So far, so good. But then came the new storm — over surveillance drones, which the Sheriff's Department wishes to purchase. This argument, too, was prefigured last week in committee. Several commissioners had expressed concerns that the drones — remotely controlled mini-copters capable of real-time video — could result in abuses and invasions of citizens' liberties.

The same concerns were vented Monday in the commission's public meeting, resulting in a coalition of opponents, including Tea Party advocates like audience member Lee Cochran, who fretted about "Homeland Security fascism" and what he called "conspiracy reality," and an unusual mix of Republican and Democratic commissioners.

Taylor, a conservative who had been vocal in his concerns last week, said he remained "troubled over civil liberties and privacy issues," concerned that "the unmanned drones ... could be diverted from initial mission to ones of a clandestine nature."

Chuck Fox, CAO for the Sheriff's Department, attempted to defuse such concerns and had distributed copies of a department manual of "standard operating procedures" for the drones which specified that uses would be limited to specific matters — which, besides the presumed matter of hunting down fugitives, included looking for lost or stranded people in case of Katrina-like emergencies or inspecting damaged infrastructures.

Some commissioners — Roland and Chris Thomas, most vocally — endorsed the request by Fox, who pleaded that federal guidelines on acquiring the devices involved time limitations and necessitated action by August. But misgivings were expressed by a coalition including Taylor, Ritz, Steve Mulroy, and Heidi Shafer. Shafer noted the prospect of "mission creep," and Mulroy said, "The question is not whether they get drones or not, the question is whether with a blank check or with adequate restrictions."

There were several head-on confrontations — Taylor and Ritz versus Fox, Roland versus Taylor (whose ire was aroused by Roland's remark that "I'm tired of hearing of 'what we used to do on the City Council,'" where Taylor had served several terms). But in the end the commission endorsed Mulroy's motion for a referral of the matter back to committee, with the expectation that the Sheriff's Department would meanwhile reconfigure its request in light of commissioners' concerns.           

• The most recent meeting of the Transition Planning Commission on school merger, which took place on May 3rd, was passing strange in many respects.

It was probably the first TPC meeting in a while, for example, that made no reference at all, even obliquely, to the looming prospect of an organized breakaway from a unified school system by Shelby County's suburban municipalities. Given that state Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) had in the preceding week willed (and wiled) enabling legislation into being for the suburbs, this was odd indeed.

What happened on Thursday was elaborate discussion by TPC members concerning the details of meshing the existing educational policies and logistical strategies of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools — even to the details of transportation fleets and bell times. Everything was based on the presumption of having to plan for a 150,000-student system covering the whole of Shelby County.

Though it has in the several months of its activity evolved a preliminary merger plan (called "Multiple Achievement Paths") that would extend maximum autonomy to Memphis and suburban schools, as well as to new charter schools and a state-administered Achievement School District for "failing schools," the TPC has kept itself focused on the ultimate goal of true consolidation.

Asked after last week's meeting about the apparent anomaly involved in the TPC's focusing on the elaborate aspects of a whole-county merger plan while the General Assembly had opened the lid early for the suburban separatist movement, both TPC chair Barbara Prescott and Richard Holden, co-chair of the TPC's educational policy and logistics committee, downplayed the difficulty of translating the commission's plans into a smaller focus for a system that wouldn't include possibly 50,000 or so suburban students.

Prescott and Holden indicated the changes, if necessary, would be adjustments of scale, but the earlier discussions Thursday had seemed to emphasize qualitative as well as quantitative differences between MCS and SCS, presenting an apples-vs.-oranges scenario.

Though unrelated to the TPC discussions per se, the commission's work going forward is bound to be affected somewhat by the astonishing news on Friday that TPC member Tommy Hart, a former Shelby County commissioner, was arrested on charges of embezzling thousands of dollars of prize money contributed by bowlers competing in tournaments at a Southaven bowling establishment owned by Hart.

As a member of the TPC's educational policy and logistics committee, Hart had been vocal in debate on the several issues discussed by the TPC on Thursday. In general, Colliervillian Hart has served as one of the TPC's spokespersons for a middle way and has been a mediating force between urban and suburban factions on the commission.

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