Fear and Loathing in the County Building



Commissioner Brooks in the process of getting after it
  • Commissioner Brooks in the process of getting after it
There’s literally no predicting where rows will come from on an increasingly contentious Shelby County Commission.

The two barn-burning moments at Monday’s public meeting came from (1) an appropriation for preparedness training by first responders, so routine it was placed on the commission’s consent calendar; and (2) what appeared to be an equally routine request for approval of some rundown surplus property on Lamar Avenue.

Both fracases were precipitated by objections from Commissioner Henri Brooks, who actually represents what is an ethnically mixed area of transitional neighborhoods in central Memphis but increasingly sees herself as the voice of historical African American grievances.

When Brooks speaks of “concern among the community” about something, as she did on Monday and does so often, she is digging in for what comes to seem like a version of Armageddon.

The first occasion came Monday on a consent-calendar measure approving the expenditure of $157,795.06 in federal Homeland Security funds for technical rescue training locally. Simple, straightforward, and uncontroversial. Right?

Wrong, as Brooks saw things. She asked that the resolution be pulled off the consent calendar for discussion — something she frequently does whenever federal funds are involved, to make sure that the Title VI (non-discrimination) provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is being honored.

In this case, she wanted to be sure there were “no unreasonable barriers” to persons wanting to receive the training and that there was “cross-cultural” application of it.

Local Office of Preparedness director Bob Nations explained essentially that the training was for first responders engaged in extreme rescue situations and made the mistake of telling Brooks he wasn’t sure what she meant by “cross-cultural” in the context.

Citing the example of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left thousands of African Americans stranded in miserable and dangerous conditions in New Orleans, Brooks maintained that serious problems arose because of cultural differences and told Nations, “If you don’t understand that, then you need some cross-cultural training!”

Nations responded to the bait. “No ma’am, I don’t need cultural training. I’ve been one of those wading in six feet of water getting people out of trees and off of rooftops, and stuffing body bags with body parts.” He himself, he said, had been carted to the hospital in the course of rescue operations. “We don’t ask a lot of questions about nationality or skin color…We are cross-cultural. We don’t do training based on nationality or skin color or religion.”

He and his agency did not ask people in need of help to “check a box” as to their identity, Nations said.

Brooks had an answer in kind: She had picked cotton, been called the N-word, been maced at lunch counters, been forced to walk past segregated white schools on her way to school, made to drink from colored-only water fountains, been chased by dogs, forced to sit in the back of the bus, and been restricted to zoo visits on Thursdays. “So don’t tell me any of that stuff about checking boxes.”

Did Nations speak Spanish, she wanted to know. Did he understand “the dialect of the core city?” She appreciated his past actions, she said with high irony, but “I’m just questioning what you are doing now with the taxpayer dollar.”

In the end, Nations received pointed commendation from commission chair Joyce Avery and Commissioner George Flinn, and the commission approved the funding request with one abstention, Brooks’.

There had been brief expostulations from other commissioners at Brooks’ in-your-face challenge to Nations, as well as to her responding to entreaties to expedite the discussion from commission chair Joyce Avery. Brooks would favor Avery with rejoinders like “Don’t interrupt me. I am speaking. I am speaking!”

BUT THAT FIRST MATTER was but a tune-up for what was to come when the commission got to agenda item Number 17. This was a resolution “approving the sale of 1.291 acres of improved real property located on the southwest side of Lamar Avenue, immediately east of Kyle Avenue, to Curtis Broome, Sr. for $40,000.00.”

There were, as it developed in an increasingly tangled group discussion, numerous legitimate angles and complications to what seemed on the surface so simple a matter. County Land Bank supervisor Tom Moss had put buildings classified as “surplus property” up for bids, and Broome, who operates an appliance business, had made the only bid for the property.

Thereafter, everything was a matter of opinion. Broome either did or did not aspire to use the property for warehousing, or, alternately, for job training. Moss either had or had not gone by the book. He either had or had not ignored an attempt by a local development group to do something else with the property and to bring their case before the commission. And the aforesaid group, the Annesdale-Rozelle Neighborhood Association, represented by the Pigeon Roost Corporation, either had or had not asked for the property to be donated by the commission.

It was that last matter that particularly angered Brooks, who saw the affair as a parallel to the commission’s award last year of 140 parcels to rental-property developer Harold Buehler, a long-ago done deal that Brooks sees as an affront to the indigenous community and keeps trying to re-open.

She had begun Monday’s discussion on the property-sale issue by wanting to re-open the Lamar Avenue matter as well, but once she got a fix on the two sides as involving a mainly white community development group (though the CDC's actual membership may have been substantially African-American) versus a beleaguered black entrepreneur, she was all for approving the sale rather than submitting to a motion for deferral that would involve renewed consideration of both of the rival plans.

Addressing those on the commission who seemed sympathetic to the Annesdale-Rozelle group, she expostulated, “You’d rather give it away than sell it to a black man? I am incensed!”

Brooks had earlier addressed Stoy Bailey, a lifelong reident of the affected neighborhood and one of the spokespersons for the Annesdale-Rozelle group, this way: “You know, I really appreciate the benevolence of individuals who come from miles around and other countries into our communities, the black community, and want to do something. I can appreciate that. You know, I can remember reading about that when I was two or three years old when you had these benevolent individuals coming over to another continent to civilize the natives….”

Toward the end of the hour-and-a-half-long discussion, which involved matters of zoning and procedures and other complications too arcane to be gone into here, Commissioner Wyatt Bunker was interrogating Broome about his tax history. This infuriated Brooks, who has never forgiven her fellow commissioners for giving the aforesaid Buehler a pass on tax delinquencies. She accused Bunker of “badgering” Broome.

Bunker raised a “point of order.” He said, “If Commissioner Brooks can’t contain herself, maybe she should step outside. We gave her plenty of time to speak. So maybe she needs to keep it quiet…”

Brooks interrupted, “.I don’t need Wyatt Bunker to tell me…”

And was interrupted by Bunker in return, “You need somebody to tell you. You’ve been all over the boards today. You try to interject race into every conversation here.”

It went on that way, and things got so uncomfortable that Broome made what was probably only a rhetorical offer: “If it’s going to be this big a problem, I withdraw my request, because you know, this is ludicrous.”

In the end, the commission approved a deferral of the matter by the narrow margin of 6 to 5, and will presumably take it up in committee on Wednesday, April 7.

Petitioner Broome was certainly right in his final declaration that much of what went on Monday had been "ludicrous." The pecking order of local government and the news media’s sense of priorities being what they are, the Memphis City Council and its sometimes fantastical controversies get the lion’s share of attention.

But, as Monday demonstrated clearly, where absurdity and contention are concerned, the Shelby County Commission can hold its end up.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, late in the surplus property debate, spoke to “the tone of the debate.” Something had been bothering him for a long time, he said. Extraneous issues of all kinds, including race, but not that alone, had been inserted, along with accusations that this or that person, place, or thing had "subverted" the process."

As he noted about Monday, “On all sides of the debate, people have been getting nasty. I’m going to ask that we just stick to the merits.”

The commissioner is entitled to ask, of course, but he shouldn’t hold his breath waiting for it to happen.

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