So the issue of privatizing the county's jail and Corrections Center didn't die, after all, despite what appeared to be a definitive kiss-off uttered by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and Sheriff Mark Luttrell late last year. Somewhat to the surprise of observers who had seen Commissioner Bruce Thompson wage a lonely, close-to-the-vest campaign on behalf of privatization, Wharton and Luttrell found themselves taken to task by a broad range of commissioners when the two officials were summoned before Thompson's law-enforcement committee this week.
It wasn't so much that the commissioners -- Democrats Julian Bolton and Deidre Malone figured prominently in the questioning, along with Republicans Thompson and John Willingham -- were taking up the cudgels for privatizing the two county facilities. It was more a matter of their insisting on due diligence in the venting of the issue -- as well as stricter attention to the commission's own protocol.
"We were 'managed' out of the process," complained Bolton about what he and the others saw as a preemptive rejection of privatization by Wharton and Luttrell. Malone went even further, working up a bill of particulars about the two executives' action, beginning by characterizing it as "hasty" and concluding, "It does seem a little shady."
Various commissioners have suggested, both publicly and privately, that Wharton and Luttrell, each of whom faces reelection this year, may have been motivated by a desire to get so contentious an issue out of the way. But the mayor and the sheriff insisted again before Thompson's committee that their objections had been based solely on pragmatic considerations -- that privatization would not save money or lead to better management or assist in what Luttrell said was his primary concern, the building of a new jail to replace the present "inefficient" one.
Wharton added that it was not in the best interest of Shelby County to surrender control of the county's two incarceration facilities, especially when compliance with federal court rulings -- and the liability for transgressing them -- would still lie within the purview of the county.
This may be true enough, but the commission still did the right thing by reviving what had been thought to be a dead issue and getting agreement from Wharton and Luttrell to participate in a forthcoming public hearing on the matter.
On that occasion, it may be possible for the rest of us to form proper conclusions on such issues as whether privatization would offer the taxpayers substantial savings, as Thompson and others indicate, or whether the process would bring more ills than benefits.
A Good Idea
It was refreshing last week to hear an innovative (and bipartisan) proposal from state representative Brian Kelsey and state senator Rosalind Kurita at a joint press conference -- namely, that a constitutional amendment be passed, giving the state's voters the authority to elect the state attorney general, who is currently appointed by the state Supreme Court. Why not? We're always in favor of extending the franchise.