The Commission’s New Math

Votes for Shafer and Avant may signify a shift of attitude on the County Commission.



Those mad (as in angry) suburbanites who have been railing in local online comment spaces about the Shelby County Commission’s “8-to-5” voting ratio for the last two or three years can lighten up and adjust their arithmetic.

On the evidence of Monday’s Commission meeting, the numbers appear revised — to the point that, a year from now, people on the other, city side of various issues might be grumbling about the “same old seven and six.”

Commissioner Heidi Shafer
  • JB
  • Commissioner Heidi Shafer
For, on the basis of the two key votes on Monday —the Commission’s naming of Shante Avant to fill a vacancy on the Unified School System board and its vote of approval for new chairman James Harvey’s appointment of Commissioner Heidi Shafer as the body’s budget chairman — the Commission may now have not only adopted some new math but reversed philosophic direction in the process.

Two members of the long-standing coalition of seven Democrats and one Republican that has determined Commission policy on school-merger issues and the budget, among other matters, have shown clear signs of defection. They are Democrats Harvey and Justin Ford.

It was the latter who cast the decisive vote Monday to defeat a motion by Democratic Commissioner Walter Bailey that would have rejected Shafer, a fiscally conservative Republican, and retained instead Democrat Melvin Burgess as budget chair.

Harvey’s appointment of Shafer to replace Burgess had been a red flag to Bailey and other Democrats, who saw it as a quid-pro-quo concession to the suburban Republican commissioners who had swung their votes to him late in the course of last July’s protracted three-way chairmanship contest involving Harvey; former chair Mike Ritz, a breakaway Republican; and liberal Democrat Steve Mulroy.

Contributing to the suspicions of Bailey et al. was the fact that the GOP vote switch back then had been preceded by Harvey’s dramatic announcement reversing his prior support of the budget and tax-rate increases sought by County Mayor Mark Luttrell and aligning himself with objections to those increases by the suburban GOP commissioners.

Ford, himself a frequent ally of the Republicans on disputed issues, had also gone from favoring the Luttrell proposals to opposing them, but, unlike Harvey, had reverted to his original support in a final Commission vote that had enabled their passage.

But on Monday Ford joined Harvey and the GOP contingent in backing Shafer and opposing Bailey’s motion to reject her budget chairmanship. Supporting Bailey were three other Democrats — Burgess, Sidney Chism, and Henri Brooks — along with Republican Ritz. Mulroy abstained, but, if Ford had voted with Bailey, he, too, would likely have concurred and become the 7th vote for the Bailey motion.

Instead the finally tally was 7 against, 5 for, and 1 abstaining — a reprise of sorts of last July’s circumstances and further indication of a possible realignment of voting sentiment on the Commission.

Shante Avant, after getting Commission nod
  • JB
  • Shante Avant, after getting Commission nod
A further omen of that sort had been the earlier election of Avant to fill the school board District 6 seat vacated by Reginald Porter, who resigned it to become the Unified System’s chief of staff.

Avant the deputy director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, had always been regarded as well-credentialed and a chief contender for the vacancy, but her victory over four other applicants who received nominations from the Commission may have owed something to her relatively circumspect response to questioning by Mulroy, who tried to pin her and the other applicants down regarding three issues confronting the school board.

They were: whether “fair market value” considerations should be attached to the relinquishing of board-owned school properties to prospective new municipal school districts in the suburbs; whether an “inter-local” agreement between the Commission and the board should have precedence in such matters over legislation by the General Assembly; and the degree to which memorandums-of-understanding with local teachers’ associations should be respected by the board.

Avant’s responses — particularly regarding the disposition of school property — were sufficiently open-ended to gain her support from both Democrats and Republicans to occupy what many believe will be the swing seat on a board balanced between inner-city and suburban interests.

Avant received a clear majority of 8 on the first ballot, triumphing over the other four nominees: Cherry Davis, Rosalyn Nichols, David Page, and Rhoda Stigall.

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