Yes, there is always the prospect — especially in this barbecue capital of ours — that when money is handed out by politicians, it might qualify as "pork." (Webster: "benefits dispensed or legislated by politicians to gain favor
with their constituents.") This is especially a possibility when a legislative body such as the Shelby County Commission, which has been notorious for its internal divisions, agrees on a formula for dividing a portion of a budget surplus into equal sums for the 13 members to distribute in their districts.
The sum to be divided somehow ended up — with the consent of county Mayor Mark Luttrell's administration, mind you — to be $1,300,000. It doesn't take a genius with numbers to see how easily that figure can be split 13 ways, into integers of ... hmmm, let's see ... an even $100,000. Wow, what a coincidence. Or is the right word synchronicity? Or pork?
The last possibility is the one that several members of the commission's audience arrived at on Monday to express their displeasure at a then-pending proposal to allocate the aforesaid $1,300,000 into 13 even parts for individual distribution. And, as we learned from two commission members (one of them an original co-sponsor of the idea), there was enough negative feedback from their constituents to shift them from their original intent to vote aye into going nay instead. In the end, the proposal was approved 10-3 — which is still a lopsided vote of approval for that contentious body.
But there is more to the proposal, and the vote total, than the concept of a self-aggrandizing giveaway. It didn't get spoken to on Monday, but the proposal also calls for the entire commission, as a body, to approve any given grant, once it is suggested by an individual member. To be sure, that process could invite the specter of collusion, if one has a suspicious mind. But it also could lead to the kind of genuine debate and cooperation and understanding of the peculiar needs of one's colleagues that an elected deliberative body needs. And it tends to eliminate the kind of jealousy that used to mar debates of what to do with grant money under the old system of direct, sharp-elbow competition for whatever money was available for nonprofits. If you're worried about unscrupulous wheeling and dealing, that was a system that overtly encouraged it.
Under the new system, each district gets its fair share of attention. Yet another new wrinkle worked into the resolution that passed is the explicit license for a commissioner to dispense one's allotted sum for basic infrastructure needs.
"We're gonna take care of your roads," Commissioner Terry Roland told one of the protesting audience members on Monday, and it's up to his constituents to see that he does.
The new grant-distribution formula is one of the several changes that would seem to follow naturally from the new single-member apportionment that occurred after the census of 2010. The single-member formula encourages, for better or worse, more hands-on engagement between commissioners and constituents, and we should set aside our innate cynicism long enough to give it, and its offshoot formulas, a fair chance to work.