Politics » Politics Feature

Remote Control: Local Government Bodies Practice Social Distancing



For the first time during its regular public meeting on Monday, the Shelby County Commission went on full remote — meaning that the 13 commissioners, along with Mayor Lee Harris and other administration officials, made their presences known singly and via purely audio-visual means — each from his or her own computer, wherever it was located. Some participants were at the county's Emergency Management and Homeland Security Center at the Shelby County east campus at Mullins Station. Others were at home or in their individual workspaces.

All things considered, things went smoothly — though that happy outcome was partly due to the relative lack of controversy in this week's agenda.

Perhaps the closest thing to a bona fide dispute arose when Commissioner Willie Brooks introduced an add-on item conferring a grant of $109,995 on the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Memphis at Craigmont High School. Budget chair Eddie Jones and Commissioner Edmund Ford, who maintains a skeptical eye on any expenditures relevant to school issues, nixed that one.

Then and at several other points in the meeting there were pointed references by various commissioners to an expected shortfall in future revenues resulting from the various contractions on the local economy due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The main points decided on Monday were resolutions committing the commission to continue meeting electronically through at least the month of May.

Among other actions, that included a resolution "in support of legislation to amend the Open Meetings Act to authorize local governments, and instrumentalities thereof, the ability to conduct their business meetings by electronic medium."

The uniformity and sweeping applicability of that one to other local jurisdictions was consistent with the respective announcements on Monday by Mayor Harris, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, and the mayors of Shelby County's other municipalities of "stay-at-home" orders that discourage any meetings not deemed "essential" and effectively limit public gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Meanwhile, the Memphis City Council was scheduled to follow the county commission's lead in holding its own regular meeting this week by remote electronic means essentially similar to those adopted for the commission meeting, with each of the council members in effect broadcasting to their colleagues and to the public from their own space.

• Even as local governments keep buzzing along via electronic means, the state legislature has taken a hiatus, opting to call a recess last week instead of formally adjourning, and thereby maintaining at least the prospect of returning to work after a target date of June 1st.

Left hanging were such unresolved issues as open-carry gun legislation favored by GOP Governor Bill Lee, the "fetal heartbeat" measure and other anti-abortion measures, a revived effort to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee, and a long-deferred measure to expand the status and medical wherewithal of nurse practitioners.

What the lawmakers did succeed in doing was to adopt an ad hoc spending plan, reduced by some $90 million from preliminary budget estimates as a result of the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The resultant financial squeeze caused a still-simmering dispute between the governor and various legislators over what to do with $40 million in funds allocated for the first year of Lee's private school-voucher program, slated for Shelby and Davidson Counties.

Considerable bipartisan resentment persists among opponents of vouchers, who saw the measure eke out a one-vote approval in the state House last year, achieved through some questionable sleight-of-hand on the part of then-Speaker Glen Casada. Later deposed by the House Republican caucus, Casada has been replaced this year by new Speaker Cameron Sexton, a voucher foe. Those legislators who aren't enamored of vouchers would prefer to see the $40 million, or some component of it, re-routed to follow through on teacher raises promised by the governor in his January State-of-the-State address and now in danger of being scuttled.

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