VOL. 125 | NO. 75 | Monday, April 19, 2010
A story from The Memphis News
On newsstands throughout the city
Commission Races Hinge on Public Issues
By Bill Dries
WHAT DOES THE COUNTY COMMISSION DO?Next month the Shelby County Commission will mark an anniversary.
May 1 will make 190 years since the Shelby County Quarterly Court met for the first time.
The old court with members who were called squires was the predecessor to the commission, which is the legislative body for Shelby County government.
Its powers and relationship with the office of county mayor make the 13 members more powerful than their counterparts on the Memphis City Council.
Before the 1975 restructuring of county government that created the office of county mayor, the chairman of the old quarterly court functioned as a county executive, performing the administrative duties of county government.
The chairman of the commission no longer has those duties, but the mayor’s office does.
The 13 county commissioners are elected from five districts that cover all of Shelby County.
Four of the districts have three positions each. District 5 is the only exception. It is smaller and has one representative.
The commission has a chairman who serves a one-year term. The concept is for every commissioner who wants a turn at serving as chairman to get a turn.
Not all commissioners want the job, though, and some attempt to serve several terms as chairman.
Like most other matters on the commission, it is possible with seven votes.
The commission’s agenda consists of zoning matters, appointments to boards and commissions, resolutions and ordinances.
Through those, the County Commission sets the county property tax rate, approves a county budget and approves the expenditures of taxpayer money.
The resolutions and ordinances get most of the attention.
A resolution states the intent of the commission.
Resolutions are often used to express the body's sentiment on matters it does not have a direct voice in, such as certain proposals before the Tennessee Legislature.
An ordinance is a policy of county government. Unlike a resolution, which is voted on once, an ordinance must win approval on each of three readings or votes.
If an ordinance is significantly amended on the second or third reading, the final vote is delayed to give commissioners time to consider the change.
The commission meets twice a month and meetings usually run about an hour or two with a light agenda – four hours or so if a lot is going on.
Two issues figure in to the 11 competitive races for the Shelby County Commission – the future of the Regional Medical Center and local government consolidation.
Any push card for a credible candidate includes either something about how to save The MED or the candidate’s opposition to consolidation – or both.
Democrats have tended to gravitate toward The MED and Republicans to consolidation.
The consolidation issue dominates the campaigns for the three positions in commission District 4.
The district covers all six of Shelby County’s suburban municipalities – Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington.
Commission chairwoman Joyce Avery is leaving her Position 1 seat in District 4 after a second term that has included being the first woman county mayor following A C Wharton Jr.'s resignation in October.
The race for the seat is the most hotly contested of the commission races.
Outgoing Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas announced early that he would be going for the seat – a return to local legislative politics after four terms as the clerk.
Thomas began his political career in 1992 as a Memphis school board member.
“I told people around me I wanted to stay (clerk) until my daughter graduated from high school – which is this May,” Thomas said.
Thomas was drawn to the County Commission because he said he is concerned about spending and the size of county government.
“We’ve got to get back to the state-mandated items and the county charter,” he told The Memphis News. “Other than that, I’m not saying we wouldn’t do anything. But I’m saying we need to make sure that’s what we’re focused on.
"Then if there’s money left over, let’s see what we need to do.”
Two other candidates are in the running in the May GOP primary, which will determine who gets the seat. There is no Democratic primary opposition.
Jim Bomprezzi, a retired Memphis police officer and the former mayor of Lakeland, is in the GOP primary field.
Also running is county commissioner John Pellicciotti, who was appointed to the Position 3 seat but opted not to run for it. Instead he went for Position 1, hoping to transfer the advantages of incumbency.
“We’ve got to get our taxes lower,” he said. “We’ve got to get our spending under control.”
Pellicciotti is proposing to save money by merging computer programs used by county elected officials.
“Every one of the agencies and the clerks and offices have their own IT group,” he said. “We can achieve massive savings and improve the quality of service everybody is getting if we consolidate those into a single group.”
But the clerks, including Thomas’ position of Probate Court clerk, are elected offices with some degree of independence from the county government administration.
Pellicciotti doesn’t fault all of them for going their separate ways.
“They went and started their own IT groups because the county wasn’t providing the service they needed. So we’ve got to provide that level of service,” he said.
Thomas and Pellicciotti have been eyeing each other warily.
The hostility surfaced when Pellicciotti authored a resolution to censure Thomas, as well as General Sessions Court clerk Otis Jackson and Chancery Court clerk Dewun Settle, over notes in their audit reports.
Pellicciotti criticized Thomas for failing to reconcile bonds and investments held for others over the past four years.
“We’ve got to hold these people accountable because their primary trust is how they handle taxpayer dollars,” Pellicciotti said.
Thomas said the audit note does not indicate a problem.
The censure resolution does not rise to the level of an ethics violation, according to an opinion by Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn.
Kuhn also said the censure resolution is simply a statement with no penalties or action involved against the elected officials.
Meanwhile, the seat Pellicciotti now holds by appointment is a contest between Millington businessman Terry Roland and George Chism.
The Position 3 seat has seen a lot of change in the past two years.
Republican David Lillard was elected to it in 2002. Lillard later was tapped by the Tennessee Legislature to be the new state treasurer when Republicans became the majority in the House and Senate with the 2008 legislative elections.
The County Commission used its Democratic majority to appoint Matt Kuhn, a former chairman of the local Democratic Party, to the position. It gave Democrats an eight-vote majority.
Roland was among those who competed for the appointment. He vowed he would be back in the 2010 elections to reclaim the seat for the GOP in what vote totals show is a predominantly Republican district.
“If the MED falters, or God forbid, closes – I want everyone in this room to understand, it will affect your care. No matter whether you use the institution or not – it will affect your care.”– Dr. Albert Makuska, Commission candidate
Kuhn then resigned to become an adviser to interim Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford. Pellicciotti, a Republican, won the appointment but deferred to Roland and said he might run for another position, but not the one he was appointed to.
Roland has based his appeal on a lack of representation for Millington on the commission. He’s also been among the most vocal opponents of consolidation efforts.
As Roland has campaigned, he’s also forged a political partnership supporting Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp in the Republican race for governor on the August ballot.
Democrats have their own skirmishes in several other commission primaries.
Get in line
The busiest of the contests is the Democratic primary for District 2 Positon 3, the seat Deidre Malone is leaving after two terms.
The most active candidates have been Melvin Burgess, who has run for the seat before; Norma Lester, a longtime Democratic executive committee member; and Reginald Milton, another executive committee member.
Also in the six-person field are Tina Dickerson, Eric Dunn and Freddie L. Thomas.
Few sparks have erupted among the rivals.
But the two-person contest in District 3 Position 3 makes up for that.
Edith Moore, a retired IBM executive, won the commission’s appointment to the seat vacated by Joe Ford when he became interim county mayor. Moore upset Ford’s son, Justin, to win the appointment.
But the two are battling for a full four-year term in the seat.
And Moore is aware she is up against a family name.
“We are changing the face of the candidates,” she said. “We are, for the first time in a long time, giving the constituents of our county choices – viable choices.”
Ford works in his father’s funeral home and says his profession as an undertaker is a form of public service.
“There is a clear generation gap here in Shelby County,” he told a Young Democrats gathering on Mud Island recently. “I’ve watched people like you all send Obama to the White House. But it cannot just stop there. It has to continue locally.”
Ford has also been critical of Moore, without mentioning her by name, for promising things the office doesn’t cover.
“I make no promises on the campaign trail,” he said. “It makes no sense to me – things you cannot do. We’ve forgotten what we’re doing is public service. I don’t have to be an elected official to be a public servant. I do it every day.”
Moore moved back to Memphis after retiring from IBM in Atlanta in 2002.
She saw many of the same political figures whose campaigns she had worked in before leaving Memphis in 1982. Moore said she went for the appointment as younger Memphians are leaving because there is little possibility of political change.
“I have a daughter, college educated, who left Memphis because of no opportunities,” Moore said after winning the appointment. “We need that young talent. We need to bolster the education system. We need to look at the waste in funding. We need to work with The MED and other businesses to bring those talents back.”
Across the aisle
Republican commissioner Mike Carpenter opened his campaign for a second term in District 1 Position 3 in East Memphis with a bipartisan crowd of supporters including Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Sheriff Mark Luttrell.
At the time, Carpenter had no opposition. But he told supporters he was prepared for the prospect.
It came the day of the filing deadline from Joe Baier, running in the Republican primary.
“I’m angry about the way the city is run – not the county. That’s OK – but the city,” Baier said at a March political gathering where various candidates got a minute or two to make their pitches to GOP activists.
The group was less than impressed when Baier admitted he had voted for Barack Obama for president in the 2008 Tennessee Democratic presidential primary.
“All the doctors were terribly frightened that Hillary Clinton would be elected,” he said.
Then Baier added that he had contributed money to former Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr.
“But I never voted for him,” he explained. “That wipes my slate clean. If I’m elected … I will vote right down party lines. I will be a conservative Republican. I will do what’s right for this city.”
Medicine and money
The Republican primary for the District 1 Position 2 seat Dr. George Flinn is giving up matches Dr. Albert Maduska against Heidi Shafer.
The Republican primary showdown will decide who gets the seat.
The race doesn’t have any of the heat the Thomas-Pellicciotti match up has, but Maduska and Shafer come to the retail political experience from unique places.
Maduska is a recently retired physician who decided to run based on the financial problems at The MED.
He taught at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center for almost 40 years until he retired last year. He ran the obstetrical anesthesia service as well.
“I think we will probably solve the short-term funding problem,” he said at a recent political gathering. “But we’re going to be wrestling with a lot of other problems with The MED. If The MED falters, or God forbid, closes – I want everyone in this room to understand, it will affect your care.
"No matter whether you use the institution or not – it will affect your care.”
If The MED were to close, it would also have a big impact on UTHSC drastically altering the mission of the university, whose students work at The MED.
But Maduska warned there will be an impact on the city’s private hospital giants as The MED’s patients go somewhere else.
“It will cause disruption of the private services in those hospitals,” he said. “The resources necessary to provide for them will take resources away from the other units of the hospital. We all have a stake in what happens at The MED.”
Shafer has been an aide to Flinn at his medical practice as well as in his role as a county commissioner.
“I’ve had six years of some of the best education there is because I’ve been in all of the meetings and watched the legislation,” Shafer said. “I’ve seen how things really work and what things work and what things don’t work.”
She’s also watched commissioners with opposing views work things out and then put matters to a vote.
“I believe in the marketplace of ideas,” Shafer said. “I know people always want to say, 'Why can’t politicians get along?' But that’s not really the job. The job is to fight for ideas and stand up for what you think is right.
"Then hopefully somewhere between the two polar sides, you get something that is for the best will of the people.”
Shafer didn’t immediately set out to run for the seat once Flinn committed to run in the GOP primary of the 8th Congressional District.
Flinn suggested it and she thought about it.
Shafer comes from a grassroots political background, including petition drives to put county term limits on the ballot in the 1990s and a later drive for a referendum on financing of FedExForum.
“I could care less if I’m never on the front page of the paper,” she said.
Ebb and flow
All five of the guaranteed new commission members – running for seats with no incumbent – will claim their seats with the May 4 primary results.
They join a body in September that in the past four years has included a full spectrum of political beliefs.
In 2006, Shelby County voters elected a 13-member commission with eight new members. It wasn’t an anti-incumbency move.
Most of the turnover was from term limits and commissioners not seeking re-election for other reasons.
Regardless of such factors, the new commission immediately began a re-examination of all things county.
There was a move to add more Juvenile Court judges as Curtis Person was just taking office following the 40-plus-year rule of Kenneth Turner in the court.
Person sued the commission, which was split on the matter despite its vote, and won.
Single-source local funding of the city and county public school systems was discussed with new urgency.
The commission passed a resolution backing the concept, which would mean county government would continue to provide all local funding for county schools and take over the $90 million or so the city of Memphis has provided to city school until recent years.
County government is already the majority local funder of the Memphis school system.
The Commission also had a bruising debate over several months primarily involving maintaining and expanding term limits that produced three separate sets of proposed changes to the Shelby County charter.
The first two went to voters in 2008 and one was accepted, the other rejected. That was followed by a third set approved by voters in a later referendum that year.
And like the City Council, commissioners discussed new funding arrangements between the two governments.
The best example of the new arrangements is the health department, which had been funded jointly by the two governments.
Then city council members approved a cut of all city funding, contending the health department provides countywide services that Memphians shouldn’t pay twice for – from the city and county property tax rates.
The health department became, in effect, a county government service instead of a city-county agency administered by county government.