Opinion » Editorial

County Commission and Luttrell Clash Over Opioid Suit

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Even as candidates are sorting themselves out for next year's elections to the Shelby County Commission and the office of county mayor, the current version of the commission is still involved in what has been an extended power struggle with outgoing Mayor Mark Luttrell. That conflict has now entered an intense new phase, prompted by a disagreement between the warring entities over strategies for dealing with the ongoing opioid crisis.

The current wrangle was precipitated last Thursday by commission chair Heidi Shafer's independent action in signing on with a national law firm to prosecute a lawsuit against a variety of drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and physicians. Luttrell objected to what he saw as a usurpation of administrative authority under the county charter and — pending the outcome of a scheduled mid-week vote by the commission on a resolution of support for Shafer's action — prepared legal action to abort it.

Ostensibly, the dispute is over a choice of law firms to pursue remedies for damages resulting to Shelby County and its citizens from the ongoing opioid epidemic, as well as over the nature and scope of the recovery effort, and the timetable for prosecuting it. There are legitimate differences of opinion on these matters, and there is no denying the importance of the opioid crisis or its effect on Shelby County. The fundamental differences between the Luttrell administration and what would seem to be a majority of the 13-member commission are rooted in the aforementioned power struggle, one which has the potential to overshadow the long-distance future of local government.

The  basic conflict began during budget deliberations a couple of seasons back, when a majority of commission members chafed at what they saw as the county administration's too-close-to-the-vest accounting of the county's fund balance. Even after the budget of 2015 was finally signed, sealed, and delivered, the commission and administration clashed repeatedly over funding matters, with the commission wanting ever more information about and oversight over the process. In the ensuing struggle, the commission sought to hire an independent attorney to help monitor fiscal matters. In the end, former Commissioner Julian Bolton was allowed to come aboard as a kind of ad hoc "policy adviser" to the commission. He is now, as it happens, serving also as local counsel for Napoli Shkolnick, the firm with which Shafer executed her agreement on behalf of the county and one that, she says, is assisting the opioid-related legal efforts of numerous other governmental entities nationwide.

Luttrell insists that the administration has been on course to develop its own timely legal strategy on behalf of Shelby County, has dutifully and fully kept the commission informed of its efforts, and that the current imbroglio can only create confusion and delay and impede a successful legal effort on the opioid issue.

The disagreement will doubtless be resolved by mediation or judicial ruling, and the county charter, which was extensively revised in the recent past, may have to undergo further alterations by referendum or convention. At the moment, though, both the opioid crisis and the ever-worsening strains within county government are serious problems calling for some immediate solution, even if only a stopgap one.

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