It was Friday, August 31. A new Shelby County Mayor and County Commission had been sworn in, but all the talk was of a possible veto of two items by outgoing Mayor Mark Luttrell. Meanwhile, Commission chair Heidi Shafer stood ready to reconvene her body to override.
The genuine element of suspense was not to be alleviated until late in the day when Luttrell vetoed both items, leaving their final disposition up to new Mayor Lee Harris and a newly installed Commission, eight of whose members will be brand-new.
Luttrell waits out the veto matter on his last day in office.
The two items in contention were measures passed last Monday at the outgoing Commission’s last formal meeting. One was the Commission’s approval of an amended resolution to support a subdivision development in southeast Shelby County, adjacent to Collierville. The other was a resolution rescinding a previous resolution of 2007, with the net effect of restoring assorted health and life insurance benefits to county employees (specifically including two-term Commissioners) of eight years service.
Mayor Luttrell, dressed casually and preparing to remove his effects to make way for his newly sworn-in successor, Lee Harris, acknowledged early Friday that he had decisions to make on a whole body of things processed at the last Commission meeting. “I’ll do my thing, and the Commission will do its,” he said, not tipping his hand as to his intentions.
Early in the day, Luttrell could not guarantee how early he would decide on the two contentious matters. It was clear that a veto of one or both of them late in the day would clearly complicate the issue of when and how the Commission could react. And, in the course of a desultory last day conversation in his office, he seemed to be implying that, in fact, he intended to wait until the last possible moment — 11:59 p.m., if necessary — to present the Commission with a fait accompli veto (or vetoes) that could not bne answered by the current Commission but would carry over for possible action by the members of the new Commission.
Chairman Shafer as emcee of swearing-in ceremony
The subdivision proposal was one that was stoutly resisted by the City of Collierville and by various neighbors to the project, who maintained that the proposal of several hundred small-acre lots would be out of character with existing large-acre household tracts. On Friday, Luttrell said the development, if he let it stand, would occasion some significant additional service costs for the County, as well. "Roads, water, sewer connections, additional law enforcement demands, and more," as he said.
The benefits resolution would apply to outgoing two-term members of the Commission, among some 2500 or so other county employees and was estimated to obligate the County for $6 to $10 million in additional funding, according to chief Luttrell aide Harvey Kennedy. "The issue is too important not to give it adequate actuarial study, and the next administration and Commission can do that," Luttrell said.
Beyond the specific issues of the two controversial measures was the larger one of what has amounted to a bureaucratic Cold War that has been waged between the Luttrell administration and the Commission for the last two or three years. The two governmental spheres had over the years battled over an increasing number of issues related to spending and various matters of oversight and planning.
Commision chair Heidi Shafer had signaled that she was in touch with enough members of the expiring Commission to summon them for a last-minute override session — if successful, the 11th and 12th overrrude to a mayoral veto during Luttrell’s tenure. But Luttrell was in a position, by waiting until the very brink of midnight, to get the last lick in as a conclusion to what has been a two-year power struggle with the Commission, and that indeed seemed the likely way he would play things out.
The contentiousness between Mayor and Commission had continued even to the matter of Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony for Harris and the Commissioners, charter officials, and clerks who were elected in the August 2 election. Chairman Shafer said that, after learning that Luttrell had left planning for the event up to Harris, she took charge of arrangements for the Thursday ceremony.
Shafer noted that Mayor-elect Harris had of yet no wherewithal, budgetary or otherwise, to oversee such a ceremony. When asked about the matter of planning for the ceremony, Luttrell said he was merely following the precedent he himself experienced upon taking office eight years ago when, he said, then provisional Mayor Joe Ford told him it was his responsibility to organize a swearing-in event.
Luttrell said, however, that, contrary to informal reports, he had authorized funding for Thursday’s ceremony, from the County’s general fund.
Harris, the new Mayor-to-be, meanwhile was unpacking on Friday.
Down the hall of the 11the floor of the County building, meanwhile, Mayor-elect Lee Harris was hard at work on Friday unpacking and organizing for his term in a transition space provided to him and a core group of staffers. He had only one comment about the ongoing last-day confrontation between his predecessor and the outgoing Commission. Harris said, apropos the likelihood that mayoral veto action might carry one or both of the two controversial resolutions over into his term, “I don’t want to spend $10 million that the County doesn’t have.”
And that, in tandem with a putative last-minute veto opprotunity open to Luttrell, seemed to foreshadow both the short- and long-term prospects for at least the benefits resolution and perhaps both of them — giving the Mayor the satisfaction of one last win on his way out the door.