Politics » Politics Feature

From the Cyber Front

Tweeting survives on the commission, but a centralized county IT office is scuttled.



A resolution to prohibit tweeting by members of the Shelby County Commission while in session was briefly considered — and decisively rejected — as the commission's final action on Monday. And that was appropriate, considering the barrage of online tweeting, both inside and outside the county auditorium, that had accompanied a prior discussion.

That earlier debate, a heated one on a resolution by Commissioner Heidi Shafer allowing elected county department heads to opt out of a centralized county IT operation, had involved philosophical differences, a series of interlocking power struggles, and bottom-line matters of dollars and cents for taxpayers.

At issue was whether the commission should adhere to a plan, the result of a five-year study performed for the body by the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis, that had been authorized by a previous incarnation of the commission earlier this year, with only one dissenting vote.

Shafer's resolution — which commission tweeter-in-chief Mike Carpenter announced to his considerable online following would "gut savings," along with other undesirable outcomes — had been sprung last Wednesday on a session of the commission's Budget and Finance Committee.

Enough members of that committee, which is comprised of all commission members but was not at full strength that day, approved the Shafer resolution to amend the prior IT authorization of July 12th. But it remained an open question what the full commission would do on Monday.

In the end, Shafer garnered the seven votes needed for passage. They came from Terry Roland and Chris Thomas, GOP newcomers to the commission like herself; Republican holdover Wyatt Bunker; returning Democrat James Harvey; and Democratic newcomers Justin Ford and Melvin Burgess. Opposing Shafer were Budget and Finance Committee chairman Carpenter, a Republican; and three Democrats: Walter Bailey, Henri Brooks, and Steve Mulroy.

Breaking that down further, all five of the brand-new commissioners voted to reverse the previous commission's action. (A sixth newcomer, Bailey, was a commission veteran reelected this year after a four-year hiatus dictated by term-limits requirements.)

In that sense, the vote could be interpreted as a gesture of independence on the part of a reconstituted commission. Shafer, Roland, and Thomas have shown signs of forming a bloc, along with Bunker ("the Fab Four," says Carpenter, sardonically), while Ford and Burgess have conspicuously avoided aligning themselves with holdover Democrats on a number of issues. (For his part, Harvey is a permanent variable, independent and unpredictable on almost all issues.)

Proponents of Shafer's opt-out resolution availed themselves of traditional conservative rhetoric. She invoked the specter of a centralized bureaucracy and promoted the idea that allowing county departments to opt out furthered the goal of "accountability." And Trustee David Lenoir, in a curious speech on behalf of the resolution, waxed ideological on behalf of "free market" competition, as if the county's respective elected officers (sheriff, trustee, assessor, register, and several elected clerks) were all rival business entrepreneurs.

For their part, Carpenter and other opponents of the resolution stressed the goal of fiscal solvency, including the savings to taxpayers — projected to be as much as $4.7 million annually — that would result from a coordinated IT operation.

All the while, there was impressively brisk (and often exasperated) online traffic among tweeters following the debate from a distance. But behind all the hair-splitting and bloviating and cyber-sporting was the possibility — apparently independent of partisan issues — that all that was going on was what Bailey characterized as "turf protection," pure and simple.

In the wake of the Shafer resolution's passage, a proposal to create the position of chief information officer, at a salary of $155,000, stalled out on a 6-6 vote — opponents noting, in effect, that, in the absence of a central IT office, such a position might be the cart before the horse.

Proponents of both the office and an administrator for it will doubtless try again.

• As for the tweeting issue, it was resolved in fairly short order — with the right to tweet upheld against the same opposition (Shafer, Bunker, Roland, and Thomas) that attempted to restrict it in committee last week.

Bunker's inclusion in the coalition may be at least partly an act of atonement. A couple of weeks ago the commission was discussing a proposal by Carpenter to ban roadside sales of animals (a measure which would achieve final passage on Monday).

During debate on the issue, Bunker got off a sally about pit bulls, apparently meant as a comradely tease of Roland, who represents Millington. "In Millington, it should be noted, they're selling them for food, right?" Arguably, that could be seen as a tribute to the ruggedness of the folks up thataway.

The quip was immediately circulated by Carpenter, who famously exercises his hand-held for Twitter purposes during meetings and has numerous followers for his tweets, which rarely lack for candor.

Millington mayor Richard Hodges declined to see the dining-on-dog remark as a compliment, however, and he urged Roland to see to some sort of retribution.

That took the form not of a reprisal against Bunker for saying it but of the aforesaid resolution aimed at Carpenter for reporting it — though when Bunker attempted some additional humor at Monday's meeting, Roland shot back, "That's what got us into this situation — one of your jokes!"

Matt Kuhn, who was appointed by a reconstituted Shelby County Democratic Committee in 2005 to become a "new broom" party chairman, is offering himself in a similar role for the state Democratic Party.

In a letter last week to members of the state Democratic Committee, Kuhn said, "I'm exploring the opportunity to run as chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party and am actively discussing my candidacy with executive committee members as well as leaders of our party."

Kuhn thereby becomes the first declared alternative to current state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester, who already has announced his candidacy for reelection in January but is under fire from several disaffected Democrats alarmed by adverse results for party candidates in this month's elections.

Kuhn, now a resident of Lakeland, served as Shelby County party chair from 2005 to 2007. He subsequently served as an interim Shelby County commissioner to fill a vacancy, before resigning that post in December 2009 to serve as policy adviser to interim county mayor Joe Ford.

• Loosing a blast at former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., now head of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, the influential left-oriented Daily Kos blog wondered on Tuesday if the DLC was still in business.

Characterizing Ford as a "serial loser" (apparently on the basis of Ford's loss of a 2006 U.S. Senate race in Tennessee and his failure to get another one going this year in his adopted home of New York), Kos looked askance at a Ford op-ed in Fortune magazine advocating that President Obama recoup his electoral losses this year by following policies congenial to the Wall Street investment community.

Kos then observed that "the DLC's website is offline. It looks like they're officially kaput."

An exploratory visit to the site on Tuesday, however, indicated it was still online (though the number of "Blue Dog" members of Congress favored by the DLC was halved in the election).

On Tuesday, the site headlined an article by Ford, co-published in Politico last week and entitled (no, we're not making this up), "Yes, We Can Collaborate."

That article, which is similar to the one in Fortune, concludes with this advice: "Let's not wait for another season of 'change' elections to force Washington to change its approach to encourage job creation, innovation, and growth here at home."

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