VOL. 129 | NO. 47 | Monday, March 10, 2014
Commission to Vote on Crosstown Funding
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Commissioners will vote Monday, March 10, on $5 million in public infrastructure funding for the Crosstown redevelopment project.
The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St. Follow the meeting @tdnpols, www.twitter.com/tdnpols.
The $5 million in capital funding is specifically for the part of the $180 million project involving the parking garage on the southern side of the site.
The county funding joins $15 million in city of Memphis funding approved by the Memphis City Council in December. The city money will be used for public infrastructure and partial demolition of some parts of the old Sears Crosstown building that was built in several stages from 1927 to the mid-1960s.
Construction on the project is expected to begin this spring.
In other action, the commission considers County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s appointment of five new members to the Shelby County Ethics Commission and the reappointment of six other members of the panel.
The action follows the panel’s first investigation of an ethics complaint by one county commissioner against another.
A three-member panel of the body heard the complaint by commissioner Terry Roland that commissioner Sidney Chism should never have voted on Head Start funding because of his family’s ownership of a day care center that at one time received the federal funding.
The panel concluded that there was no conflict of interest on Chism’s part and dismissed the complaint on a 2-1 vote.
While Chism and Roland disagree on the outcome, they agree that the rules of the panel should be changed.
“You shouldn’t have a position where a commissioner has to defend himself from an outside attorney,” said Chism, who also hired his own private attorney, Ricky E. Wilkins. “We’ve got rules in place. The ethics officer should investigate, give his findings to the ethics commission. The ethics commission at that point will move on his findings. That never happened with me.”
Roland sees a gap between state ethics rules and the rules the commission set for itself and others in county government. The state required every local government in the state to draft or update its ethics code in the wake of the 2005 Tennessee Waltz corruption sting. If they didn’t, the local governments wound up with the state standards by default.
“It’s proven that our ethics law that we’ve got is not as strong as state law, which puts us in violation,” Roland said. “Evidently the law we are working on now is not adequate.”
The difference between a direct and indirect conflict is what the decision of two of the three citizens on the panel, both retired judges, hinged on: the letter of the law – or the county code in this case. The third member of the panel, however, did not make such a distinction and said she believed Chism had crossed the line ethically.
“We’ve got to make this more understandable to the common people because that’s really who this is for,” Roland said. “To a layperson, receiving something means something different to a lawyer than it does to a layperson. How you can receive a benefit and not receive a monetary benefit? I don’t think that’s real clear on a direct or indirect conflict.”
Chism contends Roland’s complaint was motivated by political ambition,
“I’ve never been accused of anything in my life until I got here,” said Chism, whose second and final term on the commission will end Sept. 1.
He says Roland was specifically trying to peel off a key vote in a tight property tax rate vote last year in which those favoring a tax hike had no votes to spare. Chism recused himself several times as a result, delaying the passage of the tax hike into the start of the fiscal year that began July 1.
“It shouldn’t be a place where you can have political ambitions and file charges on somebody to get them tainted to a degree that the public has no more confidence in them,” Chism said. “Our rules say you have to have a direct conflict. State rules say an indirect conflict. I had neither one. The judges saw that. We have to be careful who we appoint to the commission.”
On that general point and no further, Roland agrees with Chism.
“That was the first time that that ever happened – that they had a hearing like that,” he said. “They were working in the dark. I hate to say this – they didn’t know what they were doing. … It needs to be clear.”