Monday's public meeting of the Shelby County Commission saw the commission, as a whole, still trying to forge a new, more independent role for itself but experiencing a bit of erosion in its resolve.
The meeting began with Chairman Justin Ford continuing in his new mode of permitting audience statements on the front end of proceedings rather than, as was long customary, at the conclusion of business. Commissioners got an earful of complaints about its budgetary provision of $1.3 million to be divided equally between the 13 members of the commission for purposes of making grants within their districts.
"Charity" grants, the critical audience members were calling them, in a bit of a misnomer, inasmuch as the money — amounting to $100,000 per district — had been defined during the course of several recent commission debates as applicable to a district's infrastructure needs as well as to this or that community organization with a civic or charitable purpose.
Indeed, Commissioner Terry Roland, of Millington, who had been among a contingent of Republican commissioners who had lobbied hard but without success for a one-cent reduction in the county's property-tax rate, was able to use that setback to respond to one of the critics, telling her that his share of the grant money would go, at least partly, to "fix your roads."
Since there hadn't been enough votes during the budget process to allocate at least some of county Mayor Mark Luttrell's $6 million budget surplus to a property-tax cut, the commission could at least use the back-door route of district grants to take care of district needs, Roland said. It was an agile argument and one not without irony, inasmuch as part of Luttrell's argument against the proposed one-cent tax reduction had been that funding needed to be reserved for infrastructure repairs.
Even so, the audience complaints — apparently the tip of an iceberg that had included numerous phone calls, emails, texts, and personal intercessions from citizens — induced a change of mind in two previous supporters of the grants: budget chair Heidi Shafer and David Reaves, both Republicans. They joined fellow GOP member Mark Billingsley of Germantown — formerly the lone holdout against the grants, as he reminded the audience — in casting a nay vote.
The process was too "subjective," Billingsley argued. Reaves and Shafer acknowledged that, and while they still thought the district-grant formula was a good idea, they were bowing to the will of their constituents.
Democrat Reginald Milton, author of the grant idea, held firm, insisting that government had "a role and responsibility to serve all its citizens." Fellow Democrat Melvin Burgess told the two defecting Republicans, "We don't represent the same districts. I represent District 7. Mine is a poor district."
The ultimate vote, 10-3 in favor of the grants, indicated that there was still a fair degree of solidarity among the commissioners regarding the issue of self-assertion.
There had been an expected party-line division on the issue of third and final approval of the $4.37 county tax rate, same as the current one, with five Republicans — Shafer, Roland, Billingsley, Reaves, and George Chism — voting no in an 8-5 outcome, but most other issues saw the same degree of unity as was demonstrated on committee day last Wednesday, when the commission took on the Luttrell administration on two issues — an administration switch from Nationwide Insurance to Prudential as administrator of a county deferred-compensation plan for employees and an insistence that the commission had a right to its own attorney.
On Wednesday, commissioners went back and forth with spokespersons for the administration on the attorney matter. After a prolonged executive session, closed to the media, it was agreed that, while the county charter forbade the commission's having a full-time attorney of its own, it permitted the commission to engage separate counsel for specific ad-hoc purposes, as, for example, during the late school-merger controversy, when the commission hired an outside law firm to litigate for its position.
Otherwise, the charter empowered the county attorney's staff, headed by Ross Dyer, to represent county government in general, the commission, as well as the administration.
As a final add-on item to Monday's agenda, Democratic Commissioner Van Turner introduced what was, in effect, a reprise of last Wednesday's two controversies by proposing that the commission engage an attorney to look into the Nationwide-Prudential matter. The fat was back in the fire.
"It's hard to serve two masters. It says that in the Bible" was how Roland posed the issue.
As might have been expected, the Turner proposal generated yet another extended back-and-forth, with Dyer and assistant county attorney Kim Koratsky insisting that they needed time to research the matter, which included the side issue of who would pay for an additional attorney. On that latter point, a consensus seemed to develop that the commission's contingency fund would be the appropriate source.
Any possible solution to the controversy may have been sidetracked when Turner's resolution, already a two-in-one, became a de-facto three-in-one, with his suggestion that former Commissioner Julian Bolton could serve as the ad-hoc attorney on the Nationwide-Prudential matter.
That brought on an explosion from Reaves, who pronounced himself "sick and tired" of the whole controversy. "I'll support the school lawsuit, not this," he said, referencing a possible action in support of Shelby County Schools' ongoing effort to challenge alleged underfunding by the state.
And Reaves was especially scornful that Turner's resolution included the offer of a job to Bolton.
"I can help the commission resolve this impasse. I'm not looking for a job. I just want to help," responded Bolton.
"Will you serve for free?" shouted Reaves. "You're asking for money."
Eventually, that flare-up ended, with other commissioners endorsing Bolton's ability and integrity. Bolton and Reaves shared a relatively polite tête-à-tête after the meeting.
Meanwhile, though, Turner's resolution was sidetracked, referred back to the general government committee, which Turner chairs and which had been the starting point of last week's twin controversy. Dyer and company had gained the leave they sought to research the relevant issues, and the whole thing had bogged down into a truce of sorts.
• Next Thursday, July 16th, is filing deadline for the 2015 Memphis city election — which means that some long-unanswered questions will finally be resolved.
How complete is the field for city mayor? That's one general question that needs answering. And, in particular, will Kenneth Whalum Jr. run for mayor? And, if not, will he seek one of the other offices — Council District 5 and Council Super District 9, Position 2 — for which he drew petitions last April?
One question involving former school board member and New Olivet pastor Whalum was long ago resolved, with the fraying away of any semblance of an arrangement with Memphis Police Association head Mike Williams, whereby only one of them would be a mayoral candidate. Both Williams, directly, and Whalum, indirectly, have since debunked that idea.
Meanwhile, spiffy new electronic roadside signs have begun to appear advertising the candidacy for the Super District 9, Position 2, seat of Joe Cooper — remember him? — who has also said he will offer free bus transportation to the polls for anyone needing it.
Cooper's signs pledge his vote to restore the lost benefits of police and fire employees, and he credits Williams with being his authority on the matter.
Another Cooper idea for dealing with fiscal scarcities in city government is to sell naming rights to City Hall, and he cites as precedents the corporate titles adorning football stadiums in Nashville and elsewhere. Er, any potential bidders out there?
By next week, we should also have a fairly complete reckoning of what various candidates' financial disclosures for the second quarter were. Stay tuned.