Monday was one of those rare days when, at least for a while, the Shelby County Commission seemed to be setting off more fireworks outside the commission chambers than inside them.
It wasn't that this week's regularly scheduled meeting was tame. It had the usual number of acid-tinged exchanges and cross-purposes, and at least one important matter — that of the commission's long-delayed reapportionment — was buttoned down for good.
When the commission, after a spirited but relatively brief debate, voted 8-5 to drop any potential appeal of Chancellor Arnold Goldin's decision on upholding Plan 2-J for 13 single-member districts, that chapter seemed finally to have concluded.
A clear majority had long accepted the plan itself, but not nine, the number specified in the county charter as necessary to approve redistricting. In deciding in favor of 2-J, which had amassed seven votes on its third and final reading, Judge Goldin had ruled that state law, which requires only a majority, trumped the charter requirement.
Five of the six Republican members of the commission — Terry Roland, Wyatt Bunker, Heidi Shafer, Chris Thomas, and new member Steve Basar — voted to maintain the opportunity for appeal. Chairman Mike Ritz, the other Republican, joined the commission's seven Democrats in voting to suspend any further appeal.
The vote may have implications for the future, in that the charter's nine-vote provision for specified internal matters, including redistricting, has been effectively weakened, although Goldin, in his ruling, had specifically avoided applying it to other matters, including what remains as a nine-vote threshold to initiate tax increases.
Beyond specific cases, partisan politics may have been at the root of the GOP members' attempt to keep alive prospects for appealing Goldin's ruling. The nine-vote threshold had constituted something of a barrier to party-line dominance by a majority. During the debate, Roland had tweaked Democratic commissioner Walter Bailey for appearing to reverse his position on the nine-vote threshold, citing Bailey's defense of it with regard to a redistricting issue in 1993.
"That was when Republicans had the majority," maintained Roland. In fact, however, party primaries for commission positions did not become the rule until 1994. Bailey's position in 1993 seems to have had more to do with racial aspects of reapportionment that were then at issue and would be later adjudicated by the late U.S. district judge Jerome Turner.
Another issue that was resolved Monday — sort of — was that of how to apply oversight to the commission's legal expenses in pursuing litigation to prevent or retard the creation of municipal school districts in six Shelby County suburbs.
The commission voted to entrust to its own audit committee a review of its expenditures to the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. An amendment by Roland to hire outside auditors for the task was defeated, with Democrat James Harvey terming the proposal a "witch hunt."
Also resolved Monday was the election of a chief administrator for the commission to succeed the departed Steve Summerall. The matter had been hanging fire for months, and there were rumors of a movement among certain commissioners to block deputy administrator Clay Perry from acceding to the position, but, in the end, Perry was selected from among 11 finalists for the position on a third ballot. Democratic commissioner Steve Mulroy withdrew a pending proposal to allow the administrator to appoint his own deputy.
For a while, however, none of the foregoing seemed to hold a Roman candle to some apparent commission-generated pyrotechnics elsewhere — in this case, in court.
During the course of the day, a published report suggested that a timer had been set on a new commission bombshell with the filing last Friday of a revised brief with U.S. district judge Hardy Mays, who is charged with adjudicating the commission's ongoing litigation on the municipal schools matter.
As of last Thursday, October 4th, Mays had received briefs and supporting documents from all parties relating to what he had designated Phase One, the issue being whether state legislation passed in spring 2012 enabling a speed-up in creating the municipal districts was unconstitutional because it designated only Shelby County.
Mays has indicated he would rule on Phase One during the next several weeks, and most observers assume his ruling will come before election day, November 6th, when the suburbs — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington — are scheduled to elect school boards.
Millington has been pursuing independent litigation in Chancery Court challenging what would appear to have been a narrow defeat in August of a half-cent sales-tax increase to fund its schools. For that matter, a controversial half-cent countywide sales tax on the November 6th ballot complicates the financial picture of all six suburbs, since its passage would supersede the half-cent tax hikes, which passed handily in the other five suburbs. The county tax would alter the funding available to the suburbs, diluting it in most cases.
Mays has publicly declared that Phase Two of the litigation, dealing with the commission's allegation that the proposed new municipal districts would ipso facto foster resegregation, would begin on January 3rd.
As reported online in The Commercial Appeal on Monday and in a page-one story on Tuesday, the commission had on Friday amended its original complaint to include an explicit statement of its intention to withhold funding of the new municipal districts should they be judged to be unconstitutionally culpable on the resegregation issue.
The CA article quoted several suburban officials as seeing the amended complaint as constituting a hardening of the commission's position, but two commissioners who actively support the suit said such a reaction was out of proportion to reality.
"Nothing has changed. This is no big deal," Chairman Ritz said. "All this amendment does is spell out what was already implicit in the original complaint. We are the body charged by state law with funding all education in the county, and we obviously cannot fund any school system that is judged unconstitutional. And our contention is that these municipal districts would be unconstitutional."
But Ritz said the amendment does not seek to hasten a decision by Mays or to call for any judgment by him prior to disposing of Phase Two in the trial beginning in January.
Commissioner Mulroy, a professor of law at the University of Memphis, concurred that any fuss made over the amended complaint would be of the proverbial mountain-out-of-a-molehill sort. He said the only reason for specifying the funding issue in the amended complaint was to answer a charge by the suburbs that only potentially affected individuals could bring suit to halt the municipal districts and that the commission itself had no standing to do so.
"All the amendment does is establish that we are the funding body for all county education, and that fact gives us all the standing we need to litigate this issue." He agreed with Ritz that no new actions were being proposed by the amended complaint and that no expedited action was being sought of Judge Mays.
• 9th District congressman Steve Cohen got back last week from Georgia — no, not that Georgia, the one that used to belong to the former Soviet Union — and, as he said on the phone while waiting for a plane change in the Newark airport last Tuesday, he could barely contain the elation he felt from having observed a political sea change in that land-bound Eurasian nation.
Cohen was in Georgia as a member of the Helsinki Commission and as an international monitor, appointed by House speaker John Boehner, charged with observing parliamentary elections Monday in the Republic of Georgia.
What the congressman got to see, as he told the Flyer, was a nation in the act of asserting its will for change. The election process, he said, seemed both "free and fair," and the outcome was a defeat for the ruling party of incumbent Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who conceded the election to a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom Cohen described as "a Bloomberg type."
News reports have characterized the pending transition to be a victory for democracy, and Cohen concurs in that judgment. Georgia is catching up with the West in other ways, too, said the congressman, who toured the province of Gori and spent time in the capital city of Tbilisi, where he patronized an Elvis-themed restaurant, a Beatles Café, and a giant-sized McDonald's.
Meanwhile, George Flinn, Cohen's election opponent as the Republican nominee in the 9th District, could boast some pop-culture luster for his campaign, releasing a new four-minute music video on his behalf by rapper Al Kapone.