Julian Bolton (center) is congrartulated by Coby Smith (l) and Commissioner Heidi Shafer after a veto-override vote cleared his way toward appointment as County Commission attorney.
It looked for a while like a close-run thing, but in the end, the members of the Shelby County Commission, meeting in special session on Monday, got the 8 votes they needed — two-thirds of the total membership of 13 — to override County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s veto of their prior vote to appoint their own independent attorney.
There are still some hoops to be gone through before former Commissioner Julian Bolton assumes his duties. At some point, those duties have to be formally defined, for example, along with such other nitty-gritty matters as salary and tenure.
Most importantly, a contract will have to be signed for Bolton, and, since County Attorney Ross Dyer, contending the Commission’s action violates the county charter, has indicated he will decline to sign one, the whole transaction will probably need to pass through Chancery Court.
Beyond its procedural aspect, the issue here concerns an ongoing power struggle between the Commission as a body and the administration of Mayor Luttrell. Though the conflict may have been in the cards all along, given the coming to the fore of some of the strong personalities on the Commission, the disagreement between branches of government first came into strong focus during budget discussions in the spring.
An argument flared up between Luttrell and his CAO, Harvey Kennedy, on one hand, and a bi-partisan Commission majority, on the other, over the actual amount of a county surplus at the end of the fiscal year vis-a-vis the amount, $6 million, publicly announced by the administration, which opposed the wish of some commissioners for a one-cent property-tax decrease. Disagreement sharpened when, after passage of a budget resolution, the administration conceded the likelihood that the actual surplus had been far larger.
Commission chairman Terry Roland, one of the prime movers for an independent Commission counsel, adjourned the Commission’s committee meetings at 10 a.m. Wednesday, midway between the deliberations of the public works committee and the budget and finance committee and convened the special full Commission meeting, which had only item to discuss, the override.
Commissioner Eddie Jones called for an immediate vote, but Commissioner David Reaves objected — forcing a 7-4 vote calling for debate on the override. Several commissioners expressed doubt on matters ranging from how the process of appointment should proceed to who should be the appointee to what was the bottom-line need for the independent counsel.
Roland was explicit in answering the latter point: “We do not deny that Ross our legal counsel, but we need someone to turn to without being cc’d to the Mayor and Mr Kennedy. Each of us [commissioners] is closest to the people.” The chairman cited three letters he and other commissioners had received from former members of the county’s charter commission, all contending, as he said, that the charter commission “never intended for us not to have our own counsel.” (One former member of the charter commission, Coby Smith, would later address the Commission, confirming what Roland had said.)
Among the objectors was Bartlett Commissioner David Reaves, who said, “I am not opposed, but I am opposed to process by which this one is happening. I like Julian, but he was brought in very early. Are we bringing in the right person?..I am not sold….I say we don’t override but bring this back in different form when we can say what we want and who’s available.”
There was more back and forth, during which Commissioner Heidi Shafer, a strong supporter of the independent-attorney concept, said that Bolton, who had been thoroughy vetted, had been selected out of a limited number of former commissioners who were both lawyers and available to serve.
Commissioner George Chism, on the other hand, cited John Ryder, an assistant county attorney, as questioning the legality of an independent attorney and strongly urging the Commission “not hasten into this.”
In the end, a vote was called for, which netted the 8 votes necessary for approval of the override. Opposing it were Reaves, Chism, and Mark Billingsley. A surprise Aye vote had come from Commissioner Steve Basar, who in brief remarks early in the debate, had sounded a dubious note on the matter. Once the vote totals were postedl Commissioner Reginald Milton changed his vote to Yes, making the final tally 9-3 in favor.
Absent from deliberations, due to his attendance at a status conference, had been Commissioner Van Turner, a lawyer himself, who had previously circulated copies of “a common-sense resolution for special counsel,” which argued, as a means of avoiding “friction,” that Bolton be engaged as not an attorney per se, but as a “day-to-day policy advisor with a set monthly retainer.”
it remains to be seen if Turner’s proposal has its day in court. The hiring of Bolton, sustained now by a veto override, will almost certainly have one.