Shelby County commissioner Terry Roland, addressing a luncheon meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club last Thursday, had something of a field day inveighing against an assortment of adversaries.
A sampling of his views on various subjects, rendered in the commissioner's distinctive idiom:
Ambitious politicians: "We've got to come together as one people against these cotton-picking politicians. Some of these people on this county commission that's making these decisions right now, they're trying to jockey themselves to get ready to run for some of these clerk jobs.
"What's that about? What it is, they've got seven years on the county commission. Now they got to the clerk's office and whatever they make in that clerk's office, which is much more, that's what they're gonna retire on ... . The same people who promised you the world, they haven't delivered, have they? Ain't gone deliver, 'cause they're going to run for clerk next year."
"Do-gooders" and the tax rate: "How many people in here rent? You think the people that owns that property are not gonna go up on your rent? All these do-gooders on the county commission who vote for these tax increases will say 'My folks won't have to pay the tax, but their folks will have to pay that tax, because whoever owns that property is gone raise it [the rent] up."
The Memphis parks controversy: "All this fighting over parks. It's because some developer somewhere wants that Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to build condos for the University of Tennessee. Here's what they're doing — getting the community fighting each other about it. All the time we're fighting they're stealing us blind. That's true! That's God's honest truth."
Charter schools: "Look at who's trying to get these charter schools, who's in office, and who's been in office — folks who voted to merge [school districts] to start with. Follow the money!"
School-merger proponents as responsible for looming county deficits: "If they'd have listened to me to start with, we wouldn't have been $30 million short — it was $157 million to make it a world-class system. We wouldn't have spent $5 million on attorneys who are good friends with the politicians we're talking about. We wouldn't be going up on property taxes."
Corporate Memphis: "Corporate Memphis is running Memphis and Shelby County, and the whole time corporate Memphis is running things, we don't have jobs ... . We're giving away all these PILOTs and stuff ... . Look up financial disclosures. A lot of them have PACs. PILOT programs have been there for years. I'm very upset that only $4 million of their tax money is going to schools. All that tax abatement!"
Municipal school systems: "When this all first happened, the municipalities said, 'Okay, let us have — what was it? — the chancellor model of schools, where they would still have a little autonomy but they would be part of the merged school system, but Commissioner [Steve] Mulroy, Commissioner [Walter] Bailey, they said, 'Heck naw, we gone sue! You see what I'm saying? That's not coming to the table. That's not working together. And that actually happened."
Highbrows: "These same folks who give you all that Memphis State rigamarole, 'constitutional' stuff, you know, trying to talk this far over your head, I promise you they ain't doing it for you. They're doing it for themselves ... . We've got to stop trying to measure everybody's integrity and thought processes by their education. You know what I'm saying?"
• Two of Roland's county commission colleagues are his latest targets. The Millington commissioner has levied ethics complaints against Sidney Chism and Melvin Burgess. Both are Democrats; perhaps more to the point, both are two sure votes for Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell's 2013-14 budget, which was approved on first reading last week by a commission majority but which must undergo two more votes before final approval at a third reading on July 8th.
Many of Roland's commission colleagues, on both sides of the partisan divide, consider it a given that his real motive — though he denies it — is to invalidate Chism and Burgess as voters at that third reading so as to thwart the mayor's budget, which Roland professes to regard as spendthrift and, as indicated above, a depredation upon the rank-and-file citizen.
Success at that, plus a shifting of GOP commissioner Steve Basar from an ambivalent position on the budget (outlined in a Flyer "Viewpoint" article last week) to a definitive no vote, would make it mathematically impossible for the budget and the increased tax rate it envisions to pass.
Roland is famous (or notorious) for insinuating — or stating outright — that he has big-time pull in the state government establishment, currently predominantly Republican. Though his boast is regarded with some skepticism, among both the commission's Democrats and Republicans, he continues to claim credit for having influenced legislative actions, particularly those relating to the enabling of municipal school systems in the suburbs.
On countless occasions during commission debate on controversial matters, Roland has dropped several names in particular — Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, state Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville, and state representative Ron Lollar of Bartlett. At other times, he has referred, more generically, to his "allies" in the legislature.
There was, for example, his memorable threat in March, when a commission majority voted to seek the expansion of the permanent Unified School System board from seven to 13. Roland responded: "Just like World War II, I'm going to Nashville to get my allies, and I'm coming back to bomb your Hiroshima!"
Late in May, Roland publicly released a letter to county attorney Kelly Rayne, informing her (and whoever else read it) that he had asked Norris and Lollar to expedite a request to state attorney general Robert Cooper to advise on three issues.
Those were: whether a commissioner employed by the school system could legally vote on school funding, whether a commissioner involved with an institution receiving benefits and services from the school system could so vote, and whether a commissioner who had applied for a charter school could do so.
Burgess was targeted by the first premise, Chism by the second and third. Since school funding is an integral part of the annual budget, Roland was actually or incidentally seeking to disallow the two named colleagues from casting votes on the budget at large.
In a follow-up letter last week to Norris and Lollar, Roland asked the two legislators to communicate to Cooper the fact that, as he argued, Burgess was not continuing in an existing position — presumably a fact providing more latitude in voting on school matters — but had been required, like all other holdover staffers from Memphis City Schools or Shelby County Schools, to reapply.
On the budget's first reading last week, Chism cautiously abstained on voting for the budget itself but voted to approve an increase in the tax rate. Burgess, declaring he would not be "bullied," voted on everything, prefacing each of his votes with a statement of disclosure regarding his employment.
Chism addressed the matter last Saturday, in the course of his annual political picnic on Horn Lake Road, an affair resumed this year after a one-year caesura, dismissing it as "without foundation."
He got some validation on the point from Basar, an attendee at the picnic, who in a separate conversation described the charge as a matter of "making a mountain out of a molehill."
That, of course, is for the attorney general to decide, though, in this and other matters, his opinion would be advisory and not legally binding. Generally, though, what he says has been reinforced in subsequent judicial rulings.
• Basically, the Chism picnic serves as a kick-off event for the coming year's politics, and politicians of all political stripes were on hand on Saturday. Chism dismissed criticism from Democratic Party activist Del Gill about his billing of this year's picnic event as nonpartisan. "It's always been nonpartisan," Chism, a Democrat, said. And indeed two prominent guests were Luttrell and Sheriff Bill Oldham, both Republicans. Among other attendees was a potential opponent for Luttrell, former county commissioner Deidre Malone, who used the occasion to announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for mayor. Other candidates for 2014 who spoke to the crowd included Reginald Milton, Eddie Jones, Patrice Robinson, Van Turner, Justin Ford, and Basar, all candidates for county commission seats. Ford and Basar are incumbents.