Chism, at Annual Picnic, Hints He'll Vote for "Tweaked" Version of OECY

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Host Chism (right) takes drink break at picnic.
  • JB
  • Host Chism (right) takes drink break at picnic.

Time was when the big midsummer gathering of politicians and political junkies was on July 4th at St. Peter’s Villa and Rehabilitation Center at Poplar and McLean. When that complex expanded over much of its foregrounds some years ago, the tradition was interrupted.

What has somewhat filled the breach is the annual Sidney Chism political picnic, held for the last several years on park grounds on Horn Lake Road. Saturday’s was the latest installment, and, though the recent string of near-100-degree days seemed to have abated somewhat on the shady grounds, at least sporadically, attendance seemed a bit down from previous years.

Public officials and wannabe officials were in evidence, though. More than usually, however, they seemed to be there in shifts rather than all at once. The 3 p.m. hour featured Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart, who was taking care to see and be seen, though she declined to discuss until “the time is right” what she has indicated will be a 2012 Democratic primary challenge to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.

Chism himself was something of a cynosure, in his role as chairman of the Shelby County Commission, which will resume attempts to reach agreement on a budget this week. Another question to be resolved at Monday’s regular commission meeting is whether a previous vote of the commission to defund the Office of Early Childhood and Youth will hold up.

Hart (left) shmoozes with Tawanda Peete Smith.
  • JB
  • Hart (left) shmoozes with Tawanda Peete Smith.
On Monday, June 10, the commission voted 8-3 on a motion by Republican commissioner Wyatt Bunker not to appropriate the $417,000 being sought to maintain OECY. That prompted an energized public response from proponents of the office, including Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Rep. Cohen, both of whom urged the commission to reconsider.

One of the arguments on behalf of continuing the Office has been that it serves as a channel for as much as $6 million in additional state and federal funds.

When the commission’s budget committee revisited the matter last Wednesday, it deadlocked 4-4, with 3 abstentions. The three not voting were Democrat Henri Brooks, known to be cool toward Director of Community Services Dottie Jones, under whose umbrella OECY operates,; Justin Ford, the first-term Democrat whose inscrutability on hot-button issues is fast becoming proverbial; and Chism, whose critics suggest that his attitude is influenced by the fact that his rival for next year’s commission chairmanship, Mike Carpenter, is leading the charge for OECY.

The current lineup of forces is such that retention of funding for OECY will require at least two of those three abstentions on Wednesday to become Yes votes on Monday.

Asked about the matter at his picnic, Chism said it was likely he would end up voting to fund OECY, but only if the current proposal is “tweaked” to accommodate a number of factors, including Brooks’ desire and his own for more direct African-American leadership in the Office. He also suggested that some reform ideas proposed by Republican commissioner Heidi Shafer should be considered.

At Wednesday’s budget committee meeting, Chism had expressed ire about being targeted by “a P.R. campaign” on behalf of OECY. Part of that came from OECY administrator Julie Coffey, who had urged backers of the Office to lobby commissioners on its behalf and, Chism said, had done so on the OECY website. Chism said Saturday he had heard that Coffey would be leaving her post in August, creating the opportunity to hire or promote an African American into her position.

That outcome, he suggested, might kill two birds.

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