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VOL. 125 | NO. 230 | Friday, November 26, 2010

Commission Approves Optional IT Centralization

By Bill Dries

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It could be called a virtual piece of political turf.

This week the Shelby County Commission found more than enough political considerations in the question of who should control county government’s information technology.

A move to centralize IT operations, including those of the county’s elected clerks, was a split vote.

The commission approved the principle of a more centralized IT structure but built in a feature that leaves it up to the clerks to opt into the system.

The commission then voted down the creation of a chief information officer position to oversee the already forming system – a move the Luttrell administration said would destroy the intent of a more centralized system.

The technology aside, the debate highlighted a long-standing political fault line between county government and the group of elected county clerks who are established in the Tennessee Constitution.

There is a tension between the county administration and the set of clerks offices that predates any of the current officeholders. The tension and debates about control are a function of the structure of a government with one foot in a home rule charter and the other in the Tennessee Constitution.

The autonomy of some of the clerks was limited in a set of 2008 county charter amendments that re-established their offices as positions in the county charter instead of the state constitution. They have the same duties but they have a more difficult time going around the county administration to get funding for more personnel.

The IT system will have a steering committee and representatives of the clerks are a voting majority on the committee.

The Shelby County Sheriff, Property Assessor and Juvenile Court Clerk have agreed to participate in the new IT system. They are three of the four biggest users of IT services in Shelby County government. The fourth is the Shelby County Trustee.

Trustee David Lenoir indicated at a committee session on Nov. 17 that he could support any version of an IT system the commission was considering.

But at Monday’s commission session, Lenoir said he had “concerns” about a more centralized system, including what he said would be his “personal liability” for millions in tax collections each year.

He also said he had a “philosophical” problem with the centralization.

“I believe in free markets,” he told commissioners. “I don’t like the fact that I’m being required to participate in centralized IT. I was elected to run the office of Trustee and run it as efficiently as possible. I think it’s forceful and I think it interferes with the operations of my office.”

Commissioner Walter Bailey said the stand amounted to “turf protection.”

“It smacks of it,” Bailey said. “We don’t need a hodgepodge system of technology.”

Commissioner Mike Carpenter saw the possibility for “chaos.”

“In the worst circumstance, an elected official could use it as leverage,” he said, referring to a pull out from the IT system if that official’s full budget request gets voted down by the commission, which controls the funding the elected officials get.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker termed such fears “scare tactics.”

“They’re not going to opt in and opt out at a whim and be coy about this,” he said. “If they do, we still have budget control over these elected officials. … We’ll force them to make the right decision.”

County chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy said the Luttrell administration would have preferred to not have the opt-in provision proposed by Commissioner Heidi Shafer. But it was something the administration decided to live with once the vote count became apparent.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be very difficult for an elected official to establish a completely separate operation,” Kennedy said before the vote. “This won’t alter what we are going to do.”

Shafer argued the county now has more than 80 percent of the county’s IT use in the centralized system. And she said the others will be part of the plan once they have assurances and proof that they are entitled to as elected officials.

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