Public confidence in local government has experienced several setbacks of late. The lengthy meeting conducted on Monday by the Shelby County Commission constituted yet another one.
It can be argued that the commission responded correctly by rejecting a series of ordinances seeking pay raises for a variety of county officials and for members of the recently established unified Shelby County Schools board. The raises proposed for the school board members were substantial — from $4,200 per annum to $25,000. Those for the Shelby County sheriff and other county officials were more in the category of cost-of-living increases.
It can also be argued that the commission's action in denying these raises was ill-advised. However one sees the case, the larger point was that, during the almost two hours of debate consumed in considering the pay increases, an impression was left that elected public officials — without whose existence democratic government could not exist — were scarcely to be trusted, much less rewarded. Commissioner Walter Bailey called the debate "disrespectful" toward the people who serve in government, and he had a point.
Another questionable moment occurred when the commission indulged in prolonged discussion regarding the matter of whether the commission's own term-limit strictures applied to volunteer members of advisory boards, of which Shelby County has several.
One appointee to the Public Building Authority, state representative Johnnie Turner, was kept waiting in the dock for what seemed — both to her and, finally, to most members of the commission — an interminable time while the term-limits issue was bruited about. Ultimately, she passed muster, but she had harsh words for both her initial handling by the commission and for the county administration's indifferent advance vetting of the term-limits point.
Another appointee to the building authority, 12-year veteran Kevin Kane, the longtime head of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, was not so fortunate. Despite the generally high regard in which he is held, Kane fell one vote short, an outcome due both to the term-limits debate and to the fact that he is part owner of a Beale Street business, potentially subject to a conflict of interest, it was argued.
All of that was but a warm-up to the last issue of the day, a 9-0 commission vote of no confidence in Shelby County election administrator Rich Holden. The administrator has been under fire for some time on account of the series of electronic glitches, botched election outcomes, and personnel shortcomings that have bedeviled the commission and the local election process for the past several years. It can be argued, as the administrator's defenders do, that Holden is being scapegoated, and there was certainly some obvious personal and political special pleading directed against him from the audience.
However, election commissioner Norma Lester, a Democrat, and retiring county commissioner Wyatt Bunker, the Republican who brought the "no confidence" motion, both spoke to the main point: that of accountability.
"It was a question of 'principle over politics,'" Lester said, and Bunker made a point of noting his loyalty to "the public over the party."
All in all, the integrity of public service took a drubbing on Monday, and hopefully there was a lesson there that took — for the accusers as well as the accused.