Politics » Politics Feature

Virtual Deadlock: County Commission Fails to Resolve COVID Funding


Several things have not changed during the transformation of Shelby County Commission meetings from open affairs held in the public auditorium of the Vasco Smith County Building Downtown to the current audio-visual affairs conducted online, with the commissioners and supporting county personnel all connecting virtually from their own separate computer spaces.

Sharing the screen during part of Monday's prolonged County Commission meeting were (top row) Commission Chair Mark Billingsley and Commissioner Tami Sawyer; (bottom row) County Trustee Regina Morrison Newman, County C.A.O. Dwan Gilliom, and CFO Mathilde Crosby. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Sharing the screen during part of Monday's prolonged County Commission meeting were (top row) Commission Chair Mark Billingsley and Commissioner Tami Sawyer; (bottom row) County Trustee Regina Morrison Newman, County C.A.O. Dwan Gilliom, and CFO Mathilde Crosby.

The meetings still engender seemingly endless back-and-forth bickering and bartering, still suffer from the longueurs, and still move toward their drawn-out conclusion in the most anti-climactic ways imaginable. 

Which is not to say that grave and significant matters do not get dealt with, along with not-so-momentous but still intriguing matters such as Commissioner Tami Sawyer’s conclusion that someone was “a piss-poor communicator.”

Who did she mean? It was hard to tell, since Sawyer’s opinion was of the open-mic variety, spilled unintentionally and only fragmentally during a lull in the proceedings Monday. Sawyer quickly realized she was being overheard, got her mic turned off, and the agenda item under discussion went on being discussed as it had been.

An hour or so later, however, Commission Chairman Mark Billingsley could not resist saying aloud, “I hope that wasn’t me you were talking about.” Sawyer, who had meanwhile apologized for her lapse, allowed as how “Yeah, it was,” then gave a mischievous chuckle to indicate she was kidding, and never did acknowledge who had actually been the subject of her observation.

Actually, all the commissioners, as each of them has demonstrated more than once, have decent talents for communicating. The problem Monday was that nobody ever quite managed to convince a majority of the others  regarding the one subject that proved most time-consuming and most vexing — how to fund a $2 million commitment to the Shelby County Health Department and the Emergency Management Agency to help deal with the coronavirus emergency, part of $10 million altogether that needed to be pared from a forthcoming county budget that was already threatened with mega-deficit.

Was the money to come out of proportionately deducted portions of monies counted on by the various departments of county government, as County Mayor Lee Harris had proposed? Or could it instead be carved in one big hunk out of the county’s Public Works budget, as Sawyer, Edmund Ford, and budget chair Eddie Jones had all proposed?

The problem with the mayor’s idea quickly became evident in complaints called into the meeting from various elected clerks protesting the potential diminution of their funding. The problem with the Sawyer-Jones-Ford plan was that it would violate two desiderata by causing layoffs and by canceling county contracts. In the end, neither of those alternatives, nor any other, would pass muster with a commission majority, and the solution was postponed until the commission convenes again — virtually — in committee meetings on Wednesday of next week.

The most remarkable thing about Monday’s meeting, a “Webinar” affair as indicated, was that, despite various technical glitches, such as people’s mics going off — or on — at the wrong time, the meeting developed its themes in the same slowly accretive way as always, threats, like Ed Ford’s to start calling out administrative improprieties, got made the same way as before. Tempers flared and subsided in familiar ways, and key players determined the political flavor of certain outcomes merely by shifting from one partisan group to the ranks of the other in the case of a particular vote. All of this, according to the long-established patterns characteristic of boisterous public meetings with everybody on hand to stare everybody else down.

And, just as it was when they were all together in one place, they had difficulty in finding a place in the proceedings to hang up and say goodbye. Somebody always had some last words that had to be said. And that’s how bare-bones agendas, like Monday’s, become five-hour meetings.

In all fairness, the time and energy spent in trying — and failing — to devise a framework for making truly serious financial cuts for the sake of a cause so urgent as confronting the worldwide scourge of COVID-19, to pay for the PPEs and other paraphernalia of constructive self-defense, was not wasted. They’ll get it right next time now that they’ve worked out the kinks.

Meantime another thorny matter, that of what to do about the issue of paper ballots in forthcoming county elections, was postponed on the quite logical grounds that the Shelby County Election Commission has not yet crossed its own Rubicon on the matter. It will, though, and almost certainly in time for the Commission’s next installment of Webinar.

The August 6 Election Roster as of Now
SHELBY COUNTY SCHOOLS BOARD: Five of the nine Positions are up. 
District 2: Incumbent Althea Green is unopposed.
District 3: Incumbent Stephanie Love has opposition from Aaron Youngblood and Jesse Jeff.
District 4: Incumbent Kevin Woods is opposed by Kristy SullivanTamarques Porter, Allison Fouche, Clyde W. Pinkston, and Joann Massey.
District 5: Incumbent Scott McCormick will be opposed by Paul Evelyn Allen, Sheleah Harris, April Ghueder, and, if his signatures check out, Mauricio Calvo.
District 7: Incumbent Miska Clay Bibbs will apparently be opposed by Trevor Johnson Banks, whose signatures are undergoing verification.

State House, District 83: Republican Mark White (incumbent) is unopposed in his primary, as is Democrat Jerri Green in hers.
State House, District 84: Democrat Joe E. Towns (incumbent) has two known primary opponents, Dominique Primer and Phyllis Parks, with another, William Frazier, awaiting verification of his nominating signatures.
State House District 85: Challenger Alvin Crooke is challenging first-term incumbent Jesse Chism.
State House District 86: Long-term incumbent Barbara Cooper has four Democratic challengers: Dominique Frost, Daryl Lewis, Rob White, and Austin A. Crowder. Kenny Lee has filed as an Independent.
State House District 87: Democratic Minority Leader Karen Camper has the primary to herself.
State House District 88: Incumbent Democrat Larry Miller is opposed by Orrden W. Williams, Jr.
State House District 90: Incumbent Democrat John J. Deberry Jr. had three Democratic challengers, Torrey Harris, Anya Parker, and Catrina L. Smith.
State House District 91: Incumbent Democrat London Lamar has a possible challenger if Doris DeBerry Bradshaw’s signatures check out.
State House District 93: Incumbent G.A. Hardaway has the primary to himself.
State House District 95: Incumbent Republican Kevin Vaughan is unopposed in his primary, as Democrat Lynette Williams is in hers.
State House District 96: Incumbent Democrat Dwayne Thompson and Republican challenger Patti Possel are unopposed in their respective primaries and await a rematch November.
State House District 97: For Democrats — Allan Creasy, Gabby Salinas, Clifford Stockton III, Ruby Powell-Dennis — seek their party’s nod for this open seat, while Republicans John Gillespie and Brandon Weise seem destined to tangle in their primary.
State House District 98: Democratic incumbent Antonio Parkinson may have a primary challenger if Charles A. Thompson’s signatures check out.
State House District 99: Republican incumbent Tom Leatherwood has a serious challenger in his primary, former Shelby County GOP chair Lee Mills.
State Senate District 30: Democratic incumbent Sara Kyle has a party challenger in perennial candidate M. LaTroy Alexandria-Williams.
State Senate District 31: First-term Republican Paul Rose has primary opposition from Scott Throckmorton, while Democrat Julie Byrd Ashworth’s signatures are being checked for verification in her primary.

GENERAL SESSIONS COURT CLERK: Democratic nominee Joe Brown and Republican nominee Paul Boyd are matched. 

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