In the course of one of those report-to-the-public speeches in which an official both points with pride and views with alarm, Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, talking to members of the Memphis Rotary Club at lunch on Tuesday, did his ritual bullet-point list of areas of special concern. In order, these were: 1) economic development; 2) education; 3) public safety; and 4) what Luttrell called "the imperative of One Shelby."
As the county mayor elaborated on that latter term, One Shelby turned out to mean a number of things, some of them under the rubric of a "Growth Alliance" program administered by mayoral deputy John Lawrence. One important aspect of it, though, was the conscious avoidance of "contentious behavior among public officials." Luttrell said that even he, as a citizen, was offended by the high incidence of such behavior, and he attributed the poor turnout figures in recent elections — 18 percent in the last city election, 34 percent in the county election of 2010 — to the fact of such contention.
Maybe that part of it is a stretch, but we know what the mayor means. And a case in point was the latest swath cut through collegial civility by Shelby County commissioner Terry Roland, a Republican who hails from Millington. It is tempting to cut Roland some slack. His corner of the county retains some of the charm and swagger of a onetime rural outback as well as some plain ole country common sense.
And Roland has made contributions to the common welfare. Most recently, he was one of the leaders of the move to break the commission deadlock on redistricting, and it was a single-member redistricting proposal which he supported, Plan 2-J, that finally won the approval of Chancellor Arnold Goldin, who had to end the stalemate. (Never mind that Roland was at least partly motivated by self-interest — the desire to defend electorally the smaller sphere of his home turf and not a larger area encompassing parts of Germantown and Cordova.)
But Roland is also the rowdy who has twice threatened commission colleagues with fisticuffs, and his latest vendetta (which, so far at least, has not moved to the physical realm) prompted him last week to make sweeping public charges implicating Commissioner Brent Taylor, a fellow suburban Republican, in a train of allegations leading further to former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and to an obscure Turkish cleric/educator named Fethullah Gulen. The connecting element was that Taylor had agreed to serve on the board of Herenton's proposed charter schools, which the mayor may or may not have tried to associate with the Harmony Schools of Houston, which might or might not have something to do with Gulen, who may or may not ...
The daisy chain led nowhere in particular, and a county ethics official duly cleared Taylor of any misprisions. The whole thing was at best a wild goose chase, at worst a misappropriation of time, energy, and attention, and, at a time when public comity is needed at all costs, the very kind of thing that Luttrell was speaking of on Tuesday.