The County Commission Girds for One More Battle over Rules — and Power

At the root of the matter, scheduled for another go-around on Monday, is an ideological struggle —and possibly the fate of Justin Ford’s chairmanship. (Revised, with new information)…


Shafer: “This is all about overthrowing the chair.....let’s just let it be out there and be naked!"

Last week’s stormy wrangling over the County Commission’s rules during a meeting of the body’s general government committee may have merely been a warm-up to an even more raucous discussion of the issue at the Commission’s general session in the County Building’s auditorium on Monday.

What started out as a simple power struggle between nearly balanced factions on the version of the Commission elected on August 7 has become a procedural morass in which fundamental aspects of the Commission’s basic existence are bogged down in legal conundra, logical tautologies, and circular quandaries so perplexing that it’s hard to see just how any kind of resolution will come to be.

Consider: One of the matters at issue is whether a majority vote or a super-majority is required to amend the Commission’s rules so as to require a majority vote rather than a super-majority to amend the Commission’s rules.

Need that repeated? Never mind; it’s just as baffling the second time around.

And that question of how and whether to change the rules is complicated further by the question of whether there are any valid rules to be changed in the first place. In a ruling week before last on a suit brought by 7 Commissioners charging chairman Justin Ford with violating the rules, Chancellor Jim Kyle stated that there no such rules, inasmuch as the new Commission has not yet adopted any rules.

At the Commission’s Monday meeting, confirmed general government committee chairman Van Turner, there will be a formal motion to present an amended version of the previously extant permanent rules. Will Turner, who doubles as co-counsel (with Walter Bailey) for the plaintiffs and coordinator of the planned resolution, present the motion for it?

Maybe not; Commissioner Heidi Shafer last Wednesday challenged Turner’s ability to preside over the general government committee discussion of the matter, inasmuch as he was one of the plaintiffs. At every juncture on Wednesday, even during later discussion of other matters, Shafer further noted the fundamental contradiction at work in any consideration of the rules issue: If there are no rules, then there are no rules to discuss the rules. And there are no rules to change, anyhow.

In any case, Turner said on Sunday, somebody will attempt to introduce the aforesaid motion to adopt permanent rules, although, as he predicted, “there will probably be somebody who objects to the motion.”

That somebody will doubtless be Shafer, who has emerged as the de facto leader of the faction that includes Democrat Ford and four other Republicans besides herself As Shafer sees it, what’s really at stake here, and has been at stake since the September reorganizational meeting that elected Ford chairman and not veteran Democrat Walter Bailey, is an effort by Turner, Bailey and four other Democrats, plus Republican Steve Basar, to remove Ford as chairman.

“This is all about overthrowing the chair. That’s what this is about. And let’s just let it be out there and be naked,” she said on Wednesday, going on to compare the prospect to the instabiity of European “no-confidence” votes or the back-and-forth leadership changes of “banana republics.”.

There is no question that Bailey wanted to be chairman and felt that Ford had made a cynical bargain with the Commission’s Republican majority to gain the chairmanship. There is no question, either, that Basar, a middle-of-the-road Republican who had previously been vice chair and had expected to be elevated to chairman, was, and is, aggrieved that he was abandoned by other GOP members during the chairmanship vote.

(In the confusion of the moment, Basar had added his vote to that of the other Republicans to make Ford chairman, but has clearly re-thought the matter since.)

Beyond all the complexities is a reality at the heart of the power struggle. The choice of chairman had ultimately come down to one between Ford, a Democrat who routinely makes common cause with the Commission’s Republicans, and Bailey, a Democrat who almost never does. The outcome of the vote for chairman in effect defined the Commission’s ideological center of gravity, and that’s what all the fussing is really about.

Lending some credibility to Shafer’s interpretation — that the root of the matter is a wish by the Democratic-Basar ad hoc coalition to overthrow Ford and to establish rules requiring only a majority vote to do so — was the presence in the amended-rules package to be presented Monday of a new clause stating that the chairman’s position exists “at the will and pleasure of the Commission.”

That point, however, was struck from the motion on Friday by County Attorney Marcy Ingram as having “insufficient” legal basis. Turner theorized on Sunday that there may be a provision in the county charter guaranteeing that an elected chairman can complete a one-year term.

Ingram apparently has left untouched other provisions of the amended rules package establishing a majority as the basis for deciding most votes as well as the removal of a line in the previous rules stating that the chairman “shall approve” agendas.

On the point of how agenda items are to be approved, several amendments offered in the proposed new rules are instructive. Basically, they not only eliminate the chairman as an approving entity for agenda items, they strip him of any power whatsoever in that regard and make him wholly subservient to the Commision.

Witness the following new clauses:

Section 6(a): Submitted items shall be referred to the appropriate committee for recommendation by the Chief Administrator of the County Commission upon submission without the approval of the Chair….

Section 6(f): Eliminates agenda approval for all meetings by the Chair….

Section 6(g)(ii): The Chair shall allow an item to be added to the agenda of the County Commission, if it is time-sensitive or as deemed necessary or by a majority vote of the Commission….

It was Ford’s refusal to include on any agenda so far an item presented by Basar and Bailey requesting a rules change in favor of majority votes on rules changes (here we go again!) that was the proximate cause of the current stalemate.

As Bailey defined it on Wednesday, the issue was “the right of a Commissioner to be heard” and not to be thwarted by “an arbitrary veto on the part of the chair,” one which, in fact, had been “tyrannical.” Republican Terry Roland, however, in speaking for the other faction and backing up Shafer, would also invoke the t-word, saying that not to question the court’s authority (yet another aspect of the dispute) would itself permit “tyranny.”

In any case, Chancellor Kyle has apparently retained jurisdiction and expects to reconvene the disputing parties on Friday.

In the meantime, the Commission will have had the opportunity on Monday to make the matter moot by adopting new permanent rules. Or not.

County Attorney Marcy Ingram will no doubt have her hands full on Monday in ruling on various disputes accruing to the matter.

If she gets to, that is. Yet another complication is that the Commission will be asked on Monday to approve the appointment by County Mayor Mark Luttrell of a new County Attorney, Ross Dyer. Whether that comes before or after the hashing out of the rules matter remains to be seen.

As if things weren’t already confusing enough, right?

The resolution containing the proposed new rules of order for the Commission, along with relevant legal and other documents, can be found here: 

See related PDF Resolution_Permanment_Rules_of_Order_2014-18_Term_w_Exhibits.pdf


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