Billy Orgel was no stranger to the ways of an elected legislative body by last year when he was appointed to become a member of the countywide school board.
For years, getting the approval of the Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Commission to locate a cell tower has been part of his business, Tower Ventures.
Orgel contributed to political campaigns and some of those who considered running for office even sought his advice on immersing themselves in the sometimes roiling water of local politics.
His own experience has been a new chapter in the local political textbook.
He is chairman of a school board that includes all nine members of the old Memphis City Schools board, all seven members of the old Shelby County Schools board and seven new board members appointed last year by the Shelby County Commission.
The 23- member board is by far the largest local legislative and policymaking body in the county.
Orgel is running unopposed in the August nonpartisan elections for the seven school board seats created by federal court order and settlement of the federal lawsuit over schools consolidation.
While some have expressed concern about the size of the board, which pares down to seven seats with the school systems merger in August 2013, Orgel makes no apologies for its size.
“I think when we come together it is pretty thoughtful and deliberate for 23 people,”
he said. “It’s not a bad number. People vote differently. They don’t all vote the same and they don’t vote in blocks.”
Orgel is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1985 to work in the family business.
Majestic Communications went on to become the largest retailer in the area of Motorola two-way radio equipment. Orgel expanded the business into cell phone towers and transmission through Tower Ventures.
He is also a franchisee of Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Rogers, Ark., an organizer and director of First Capital Bank in Germantown, and a commercial and apartment developer.
His first challenge as school board chairman had nothing to do with the details of the merger to come. It was knitting a meeting culture somewhere between the five-hour-plus meetings the MCS board had just about every week to the once-a-month sessions of the SCS board that could last as little as 15 minutes.
The two school systems had different ways of doing just about everything when the single board began governing both last October. Some of that has changed, and Orgel’s influence has been a larger factor.
He has succeeded in creating a new way of conducting the public’s business that is neither MCS nor SCS. And when he enforces the new rules, the body moves quickly along those lines without much debate.
Orgel attributes it to his early decision to bring on Dr. Charles Schultz as the board’s new parliamentarian.
“It does make a difference. I think having an expert is good. We follow an orderly process,” Orgel said. “I’m proud of the way the board acts. It’s a very diverse group. We are all getting spoken to from our different constituencies and asked to consider a lot of different items.”
Orgel has also learned to have two perspectives when it comes to the timing of elected bodies and the way those with business before the bodies view what is an efficient use of time.
“We had 43 agenda items tonight,” he said after a three-hour school board meeting last month. “So I always remember when I have a zoning case in front of one of our boards that I’m not the only thing on their mind. … We’ve got a lot to think about. Now I understand that if I’m going to ask somebody to support a project of mine, I’ve got to remember they have about 40 other things on their mind. Now I really realize that sitting in this position.”
Even before Orgel took his post on the school board, he served on the Memphis-Shelby County Port Commission and the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority that oversaw construction and financing of FedExForum.
In 2009, he was among those appointed to the Metro Charter Commission, the group that drafted the first government consolidation charter to go to Memphis and Shelby County voters in 39 years.
The charter won narrowly with the city of Memphis in the 2010 referendum that followed. But it lost big in the county outside the city and the charter had to win in the two separate referendums to become the new look of local government.