Chumney Agonistes

The City Council's newest member finds herself at the center of a firestorm.



It was widely speculated that once 5th District City Council member Carol Chumney seemed to throw in her lot with Mayor Willie Herenton in his off-and-on confrontation with the council (as she did last week in an op-ed piece written for the Flyer), she would have serious problems with her councilmates.

Indeed she does, and those problems may in fact antedate what has undoubtedly been a negative reaction to her published commentary.

Last Tuesday, even as Chumney's commentary -- in which she chastised unidentified council members for "petty" and "divisive" attitudes -- was being readied for publication, council chairman Joe Brown was writing a memo to Chumney in which he reported complaints of staff members that she was imposing an "excessive amount of work" on them.

Each of the council staffers, as Brown pointed out, is responsible to more than one council member. Chumney -- who, along with other projects, had prepared an elaborate questionnaire for residents of her district as well as notices of forthcoming public meetings -- shares the services of staff members Suzanne Martin and Lisa White with two other council members, TaJuan Stout Mitchell and Tom Marshall.

Responding to Brown's memo later last week, Chumney said she had heard no complaints from the staff and wondered "if there isn't some other reason for the complaint." She added: "I wonder if you mind if I mail a copy of your memo to some of my constituents who will be very pleased that I am working the staff so hard that you have to intercede?"

That prompted another memo from Brown in which he said "you have confronted the staff and sent e-mails criticizing their work" and added, "Now, you threaten ... to publish derogatory remarks about their job performance." Brown referred to actions of Chumney's that were "demeaning, punitive, and retaliatory" and said, "This has gotten out of hand." He then informed her that he was apportioning the staff members' time so that Chumney would have the services of Martin and White only on Thursdays.

Chumney answered: "I stand by my prior memo and e-mail and will continue to require professionalism and accountability for my staff."

The plot thickened. At some point, Chumney complained that both Brown and council attorney Allan Wade were paying too close attention to her internal council correspondence.

In a letter to Brown, Wade said he involved himself in members' activities, written or otherwise, only at their request and responded to Chumney's complaints thusly: "I respect her choice to shield her work from me. I would, therefore, respectfully request that you instruct the staff not to forward to me copies of any correspondence, memoranda, documents, e-mails, or other materials authored by, addressed to, received by, or in any way pertaining to Ms. Chumney's Council business."

Several of Chumney's council colleagues have not been so circumspect or deferential. Said E.C. Jones of her Flyer Viewpoint commentary last week: "I resent her allegations that the rest of us are 'petty.'" Said Jack Sammons, comparing Chumney's tenure so far with that of her maverick predecessor's in District 5: "She makes [John] Vergos look like a team player." Various council members have complained privately that Chumney is indifferent to council protocol and, though a freshman member, frequently cites her 13 years of prior legislative experience in an effort to pull rank on her mates.

Chumney isn't backing off. She issued a press release this week headed "Chumney Brings Her Work Ethic and Openness to the Memphis City Council."

In it, she refers to herself as having been "one of the most hard-working and effective legislators" and says, "I am asking for a higher standard of professionalism and accountability ... I will not be bullied into conforming to mediocre or lackadaisical response and will demand respect for my constituents' concerns."

Further: "The staff at City Hall doesn't work for Carol Chumney, Joe Brown, or anyone else. They work for the people of Memphis. While Council members may not agree from time to time, we all have the responsibility to the people who elected us. If we're working hard and all serving our constituents well, we'll all get along just fine."


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