NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON'T — in this tableau, George Chism is reaching behind an applauding Melvin Burgess to congratulate County Commission chairman-elect Steve Basar, while Eddie Jones looks away and Terry Roland appears disappointed. All of this would be turned upside down an hour later.
Well, it’s certainly true that, as the expression goes, “politics ain’t beanbag.” Nor, to invoke another well-worn phrase, is it for the faint of heart. And it certainly does make for strange bedfellows. (Strange and fickle, we might add.)
All these common clichés and more applied to Monday’s meeting of the Shelby County commission, at which, early on, a new chairman for the 2015-16 year was elected — only to be unelected, an hour later, when what had begun to seem a routine, uneventful meeting was about to run its course.
Steve Basar, a Commission chair-elect for the briefest period ever, tried to make a joke of it when he realized it was really happening — that Eddie Jones, whose vote switch in the last round of early balloting had helped elect him, had actually moved for a formal reconsideration of that vote and that the body as a whole, by the majority of one (Jones having tipped the balance), had actually agreed to hold the vote.
“I want to say it has been a privilege and an honor to serve as the chairman-elect for the last hour,” Basar said, and he got a laugh — a nervous one, let it to be said — from the rest of the body.
From that point on, Basar’s statement, and his spirits, sailed due south. “….I’m hopeful this is just a bad dream here, and we’re going to get back to business, and I’m going to end up back on top again. But it would take some courage from some of the more independent-minded people here, who, I hope, will change their votes and will vote for me, where they haven’t in the couple of prior rounds. It would be very nice if that happened. Thank you.”
Fat chance, he must have known. Jones had passed throughout the first several ballots of the earlier vote and joined his fellow Democrats only on the last ballot just long enough to put over Basar, a Republican but the de facto Democratic candidate on Monday. But now Jones had not only jumped ship, he had nominated Millington Republican Terry Roland, Basar’s main opponent the first time around.
But Roland, whose chairmanship bid was a warm-up of sorts for his acknowledged long-range plan to run for Shelby County Mayor in 2018, had his loyalty problems, too. For reasons Roland could not fathom (but were probably those of simple ambition), fellow Republican George Chism, a first-termer, fancied the chairmanship, too, had let himself be nominated in the first time around and had been nominated again —by Democrat Van Turner — for the second go-round.
Democrat Melvin Burgess was totally baffled — “I thought we had it all done, that we’d completed the process. This is my second term, and I’ve never seen this before” — moved to defer. Fellow Democrat Walter Bailey, the Commission’s longest-serving member, waxed philosophical — “It’s just the nature of politics” — and supported the motion. Republicans Mark Billingsley and David Reaves urged instead that the Commission should go ahead and do what it was going to do, since, as Billingsley said, “we have a lot of work to do.”
In the end, The Commission voted for a deferral of the chairmanship matter on a 7-6 vote that is an accustomed quasi-party-line vote for this body, with Basar voting with the majority Democrats and outgoing chairman Justin Ford, a Democrat, with the minority Republicans.
The next attempt to elect a chairman will occur on September 14, a date selected to accommodate Jones, who has reason to be absent at the next meeting two weeks hence. Since, as County Attorney Ross Dyer advised, Ford’s term will expire at the end of August, vice chair Van Turner will preside as chair until the new vote.
After it was all over, Basar was still at a lot to explain what had happened. “It’s unfortunate for people to get threatened and bullied,” he said somewhat cryptically. “That’s the only way it can be explained. I’m a year older, and I’m more seasoned. I thought I’d seen it all.“ this last was an allusion to the fact that, a year earlier, he had been vice chair and expected an automatic ascension to the chairmanship but had been deserted by a majority of his fellow Republicans, who went for Ford.
It was at that point that Basar became a de facto member of the Democratic coalition and participated with them in a months-long effort to challenge the legitimacy of Ford’s election in a purge attempt which eventually resulted in certain limitations on the chairman’s power and a few related rules changes — one of which reduced from 8 votes to 7 the ceiling for reversing a ruling by the chair.
In the aftermath of the meeting, Republican member Heidi Shafer, who had voted for Roland consistently on Monday, would remind reporters of last year’s situation and of one a year earlier when then chairman James Harvey’s appointments had been challenged. “That’s what opened up the door for this circus,” she said. “Once you say anybody can unseat anybody at any time, this can happen.”
From her point of view, Basar was a double offender, since he had not only been a leader of the effort against Ford, he had also been among those unsuccessfully challenging Harvey’s appointments — one of which, crucially, had been the naming of Shafer as budget chair.
“You have to play by your own rules,” Shafer observed. “You reap what you sow.” As someone who had been keen to change the old rules, Basar had opened “Pandora’s box.” And, to complete this roundup of proverbial sayings, he had become “hoist by his own petard.”
Shafer expressed the notion that, between now and September 14, “what you’ll see is a lot of finagling and wrangling and bargaining,” with the end result that “we’ll come to some sort of agreement,” perhaps a reversion to the Commission’s previous set of rules, and an end to “this funny business.”
Something like that could well occur, but where that leaves the chairmanship issue is hard to say. Basar, twice bitten and presumably twice shy, may want to try again. Roland served notice that he definitely would. Chism might as well.
And Turner, who by the time of the September 14 vote, would have had a taste of the job, might decide he likes it just fine and wants to stay there.