First-term City Council member Carol Chumney, who either knows something the rest of the political world has forgotten or is showboating to the point of reckless self-caricature, was a surprise add-on to the aftermath of the County Commission's Monday-morning committee vote approving the University of Memphis basketball Tigers' move to FedExForum.
After Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, University of Memphis president Shirley Raines, and university athletic director R.C. Johnson had each faced the mass of cameras, mikes, and reporters in a packed hallway, Chumney took her turn -- saying, in essence, that the council would give the matter, including some controversial financial proposals, proper consideration.
That Chumney chose to speak, in essence, on behalf of the council was, to say the least, an irony and probably a presumption. The former state legislator has angered several of her council mates by the combination of her general assertiveness, unusual for a newcomer, and specific criticisms of what she considered her colleagues' "petty" behavior in their ongoing, now largely dormant, conflict with Mayor Willie Herenton. She has also been accused of overworking and abusing the council staff.
For all of the above, she took a highly public verbal walloping last week -- first, in a committee meeting from Councilman E.C. Jones and council chairman Joe Brown, and later, in the council's regular public session, from Edmund Ford, who was angered by Chumney's challenge to a council move channeling federal funds to Clayborn Temple AME Church as a historic site.
That stand, like her proposal last week to abolish liberal pension arrangements for city employees, had at least a surface logic. On the Clayborn matter, she expressed concern about the use of public money on behalf of a church and wanted assurances the public would somehow gain additional access from the expenditures. (Plans are apparently under way to convert the antique facility, famous for being one of the venues hosting Dr. Martin Luther King in the days before his 1968 assassination, into a community resource center.) And Chumney is right to challenge a three-year-old pension arrangement that is a potential boondoggle for political appointees, allowing anyone with 12 years' service, appointive or elected, to qualify for full city pension benefits.
The problem with these and other proposals is that they are, for better and for worse, almost inextricably bound up with the personality and impact of Chumney herself, who in the best of circumstances cannot be accused of bashfulness and is all too vulnerable these days to accusations of grandstanding. In her self-publicizing efforts, indeed, she sometimes appears to be the deer who races in front of the headlights and chooses to stare into them. Giving Councilwoman Chumney the benefit of the doubt as to motive, we would nevertheless urge her to exercise both caution and collegiality in the pursuit of her goals.
And we wish she had stayed around to observe some of the later commission business on Monday -- notably, an extended discussion by commissioners on the eligibility requirements for youths seeking county-funded summer employment. Some thought a minimum grade-point average was necessary. Others discounted altogether the need for such a provision, on the grounds that already underprivileged applicants would be further handicapped by a GPA requirement. The arguments on all sides got very sophisticated indeed, and they crossed all party and racial lines. In the end, after a good deal of eloquent and impassioned exploration of the very purposes of publicly provided summer jobs, a compromise was reached which seemed to satisfy the entire body.
Nobody ego-tripped. Nobody insisted on getting his or her way. Nobody was dismissive of the motives or actions of anybody else. And they finally agreed.