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VOL. 122 | NO. 192 | Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Commission Drills Down Further On Ethics

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Commission is tinkering with county government's ethics ordinance three months after it took effect. Free tickets to University of Memphis football games and the use of the word "or" in a crucial part of the ethics rules are behind the proposed change.

The combination triggered a larger commission debate Monday about the need for the set of rules mandated by state law. Tennessee legislators required local governments to establish a set of ethics rules as a reaction to the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting that went public in 2005.

The commission voted 8 to 5 Monday in favor of the wording change on the second of three readings. It involves the section of the ethics rules that deals with limits on gifts to commissioners. The rule is that commissioners may accept gifts worth more than $200 if all commissioners are offered the same gifts.

But the way the section is written, it could be read to mean that not only commissioners but other county officials who aren't elected also must be offered the same gift for commissioners to be able to accept.

"There was a draftsman's error when we actually put it down on paper," said Commissioner Steve Mulroy. "Instead of saying 'and/or,' we said 'or.' This is really a tempest in a teapot."

Later in the debate, Mulroy said with a bit more frustration, "We are discussing the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin."

Big deal - or no deal

But other commissioners argued that conflicts are on the horizon with the University of Memphis that might cause problems even if taking the two tickets each with a face value of more than $200 is permitted by the rules.

"Now on the one hand, they are a public institution, not a lot different from us in some respects. On the other hand, they are by definition a prohibited source because frankly they are a contractor to county government," said Commissioner Mike Ritz.

The University of Memphis provides advice to the commission on computer technology and offers economic advice and forecasts to the commission as well as the county administration.

More immediate conflicts are on the horizon, Ritz said, including recent discussions of either an on-campus stadium or an upgrade of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, where the Tiger football team plays.

"If in fact there's an expectation to add to that stadium or to move it and build a new one, I can kind of hear the train leaving the track. Somebody's going to ask the County Commission for some money and it could be a lot of money. That bothers me," he said. "The University of Memphis has coming our way very soon and maybe on the next agenda a request on behalf of a developer to develop some property on Highland where the University of Memphis would be the beneficiary, but so would the developer."

Commissioner Henri Brooks defended taking the tickets despite having no interest in football herself. She said she gave the tickets to children in her district who couldn't otherwise afford to go to a Tiger football game.

"I would rather accept tickets for University of Memphis football games and give them to children ... than be wined and dined for breakfast, lunch and dinner by whomever," she said. "Let's not - stand down, OK. Let's not make a deal where a big deal is not to be made."

Commissioner Deidre Malone said she returned the tickets as a matter of principle.

"Don't be naive to think that if somebody gives you a hundred-dollar donation that that same person one day may not pick up the phone and ask for a favor," she said. "They possibly will. ... I am someone who has not accepted any tickets. I gave my tickets back because I just believed it was the right thing to do. But there is nothing wrong based on these guidelines with you accepting them and giving them to the community."

Commissioner Mike Carpenter conceded the matter before the commission was a matter of wording. But he said public perception also plays a role when the football tickets are added.

"There is a significant segment of the community that will look at us and say, 'You guys feel like you are entitled to these and you're not,'" Carpenter said. "I couldn't defend it."

Commissioner Sidney Chism said he doesn't hear the same clamor from his constituents.

"Who's driving this issue? Who wants to be satisfied that they put something in place because some past elected officials got in trouble?" he asked. "Some of them did get in trouble. That shouldn't mean to the public or anybody else that everybody that's elected to office is either a crook or ethically unstable. ... Where are you getting this from?"

Malone, Mulroy, Brooks, Chism, James Harvey, George Flinn, J.W. Gibson and Joe Ford voted for the ethics ordinance on second reading. Ritz, Carpenter, Wyatt Bunker, Joyce Avery and Commission Chairman David Lillard voted no.

The one-word change is due for a third and final reading later this month.

In Other Action:

  • The Commission approved a $26,700 contract with Granicus Inc. of San Francisco to provide live and recorded video streaming of commission meetings. The streaming would be on the commission's Web site and the funding comes from the commission's contingency fund. The commission approved last month $344,935 in contracts with Granicus and SIRE Technologies of Salt Lake City to create computer voting and document management systems for the commission. The Memphis City Council already has similar systems up and running from the same two companies.

  • The Commission delayed for two weeks up to $1 million in economic development funding for the Memphis Chamber Foundation. Several commissioners expressed concern about the chamber's role in funding groups that were part of the Coalition for a Better Memphis. The coalition scored candidates in the recent city elections based on their responses to lengthy questionnaires. Some commissioners said the scores represented a level of partisan political involvement. Others countered by pointing to the coalition's nonprofit status.

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