Politics » Politics Feature

Ready To Run

A city budget deal and Ware's resignation signal the start of an election season.



Nobody was terribly surprised by the resignation late last week of District 7 city council member Barbara Swearengen Ware — or "retirement," as she preferred to call it, in the manner of former Mayor Willie Herenton, who left office in July 2009.

What had been surprising was the prior week's announcement by Ware, who had been suspended following her indictment last October for "official misconduct," that she intended to file for reelection to her seat.

It is generally supposed that Ware's stated intention to run again sped up conversations between herself and the district attorney general's office and that somehow the message got delivered that such a course was inadvisable. In any case, she ended up accepting diversion and thereby avoided standing trial for using her office to circumvent the city's automobile inspection process over the years. Whether it was an explicit part of the bargain or not, Ware reversed course on her reelection bid.

That guaranteed that at least one council seat, the one Ware is vacating, will be the subject of intense competition during the forthcoming municipal election season. As of the beginning of this week, nine petitions had been pulled from the election commission by potential contestants for the District 7 seat, which serves downtown and a large section of North Memphis.

More are sure to come, with the better part of a month to go until the filing deadline of July 21st. Meanwhile, the council has set itself a deadline of July 22nd, the day after, to appoint an interim replacement for Ware.

The clear indications are that aspirants will have to choose between serving temporarily or trying to win a regular four-year term in the seat.

Names in the hat so far include Scott Banbury, Ricky Floyd, Steven Pound, Kelly Price, Ian L. Randolph, Derek Richardson, Artie Smith, Coby Smith, and David Vinciarelli. University of Memphis law professor Lee Harris, who ran for Congress in 2006, has indicated he, too, is interested.

Though the other 12 council seats are likely also to be contested, the incumbents seem to be in good shape to hold on. The same is true for the mayor's office, with incumbent A C Wharton regarded as a clear favorite to rout a potentially large field of opponents, including Shelby County commissioner James Harvey and Memphis City Schools board member Kenneth Whalum Jr.

Whalum has pulled petitions for three races — mayor and two super-district council seats, the District 8, Position 3 seat now held by council chairman Myron Lowery, and the District 9, Position 2 seat now occupied by budget chairman Shea Flinn. Clearly, he'll have to narrow his choice, especially since the District 8 and District 9 super districts are separate and don't overlap.

Many potential candidates for this or that council seat may be waiting to see what the final district lines turn out to be when council attorney Allan Wade finally announces them at some point before the filing deadline.

• Ware's absence from the council had been a significant factor in the prolonged stalemate over a city budget, one that was finally resolved in something of an 11th-hour manner late last Tuesday night.

To a degree largely unknown to the public at large but familiar to her colleagues and to veteran media council-watchers, Ware was an influential and persuasive presence, capable not only of breaking the 6-6 tie that pertained on many an issue but of shifting opinions from one side to the other.

With Ware on hand, there almost certainly would have been no deadlock like the one that ensued last Tuesday when Wharton's balanced-budget proposal came asunder due to the rejection of a proposed automobile registration fee.

Thereafter, council members held out for some sort of reduction of the city's sanitation department, on one hand, and, on the other hand, a proposal of some sort to raise new revenue.

After some conspicuous huddling of the two sides during longish "breaks" in the proceedings, a proposal came from Councilwoman Janis Fullilove that the city set aside a fund — it started at $6 million and later got upped to $13 million — expressly to allow city sanitation workers to request, and get, voluntary buyouts in sums ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 apiece, calibrated to age and tenure in some way yet to be determined.

The buyout concept had been safely extracted from a volatile package proposed a couple of weeks back by Councilmen Kemp Conrad and Reid Hedgepeth. What had made that package combustible and prompted a mass turnout by city union workers and supporters, two weeks earlier and at Tuesday night's council meeting, was Conrad's core proposal for a privatization of sanitation service.

Once Fullilove moved for the buyout, there was none of the shock among her colleagues that might have accompanied a surprise proposal. This one clearly had been group-vetted and had the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It provoked only modest discussion, and, on cue, Mayor Wharton materialized in the well to assure everyone that, by golly, he could work with this idea and dot the i's and cross the t's of it.

Of course, he could, since, in general terms, he had already signed off on it.

But that was just part one of the deal. Part two came next, with a proposal from Flinn that rescued a previously discarded proposal by Harold Collins to restore the 18 cents that had been cut from the tax rate back in 2008. That was when the council gambled that it could renege on its annual payment to Memphis City Schools in the amount of $57 million.

The idea back then had been that state law requires school support only from county government. And surely the courts would see things the council's way, wouldn't they? The courts didn't, ruling that maintenance-of-effort provisions required the continuation of the city payments, and the council, having blown most of its savings that year in an abundance of ways, some reckless, has been faced ever since with the wrenching problem of paying off MCS for the shortfall.

After members had had a chance, during the second of two prolonged breaks, to vet the numbers on the 18-cent proposal, they came back in session and in short order approved this part two of the deal, contingent on the buyout, as the buyout had been contingent on the tax proposal.

The only debate concerned whether Flinn's original formulation, assessing the tax for the duration of "Memphis City Schools as an entity," would pass muster, or whether another variation, to make the 18-cent assessment a one-year-only tax, was preferable.

The difference was crucial and break-time discussions had hinged, among other things, on a sense that MCS superintendent Kriner Cash might be more inclined to agree on a settlement figure with the city if the tax weren't so open-ended. That sealed the deal for the one-year-only version (renewable, of course, a year from now).

For the record, one year's worth of the 18-cent add-on tax, coupled with some MCS-bound back-payment money already in the budget, would get the city's potential payoff amount up above $30 million. Cash is reportedly holding out for something close to $40 million.

In any case, a deal was done that will hold for at least a year.

The reality, though, is that the labor-management aspects of the budget dilemma, those which underlay the controversy over the sanitation department, have not gone away or been resolved. They will return to haunt the council again next year, at which time the public employees' union AFSCME, reduced in force, will find it has a significantly weaker hand to play.

And so, too, will the tax issue come back to plague the council. Almost certainly, MCS will still exist in some form or another a year from now, and almost certainly, too, major money will still be owed a still adamant MCS by the city. The council will be debating the 18-cent add-on or some version thereof in June 2012.

• Perhaps emboldened by a recent poll, conducted by Yacoubian Research, that showed him with a net approval rate of 62 percent in his 9th Congressional District, U.S. representative Steve Cohen has joined with two other members of Congress, Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), to introduce a bill that would allow states to legalize marijuana and tax it as a cash commodity.

MCS board member Tomeka Hart recently announced that she intended to oppose Cohen in the 2012 Democratic primary but has not yet taken steps to begin formal campaigning.

The same Yacoubian poll showed Memphis mayor Wharton to possess a 61 percent approval rate.

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