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VOL. 126 | NO. 135 | Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Chism, Bunker Elected Commission Leaders

By Bill Dries

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Sidney Chism got his second term as chairman of the Shelby County Commission this week. And he did it with relative ease on the first ballot at the Monday, July 11, commission session.


Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, a Republican, claimed the job of chairman pro tempore after nine rounds of voting in which seven of the 13 commissioners were nominated, including Bunker.

He and Chism, a Democrat, are worlds apart politically and ideologically although they get along well personally.

Each has said at different times that being liked or being popular with other commissioners is not their priority. But neither goes out of his way to prove his partisan bona fides at the expense of the other. Each has provoked the other at times with lasting differences but no personal animosity.

Nowhere is the difference between Chism and Bunker as deep as it is on the issue that prompted Chism to want a second term as chairman – schools consolidation.

And nowhere is there a clearer portrait of how complex the political fault lines are on the commission.

“I had a desire to run for chairman and be chairman at least twice before I left,” Chism said. “I want to be able to do what’s necessary to get this school issue out of the way.”

All sides in the federal schools consolidation lawsuit are awaiting a ruling from U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays that is expected to set the terms for the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

The ruling is also expected to include a verdict on the “second track” schools consolidation plan Chism helped push through the commission with often strident opposition from Bunker, a former county school board member, as well as Bunker’s fellow Republican commissioners Terry Roland, Chris Thomas and Heidi Shafer.

All four accused Chism in different ways of railroading passage of a plan for the commission to appoint as soon as possible a 25-member countywide school board that would have a majority of its districts in Memphis.

The commission had already interviewed candidates for the appointments and was about to make selections when the process was stopped by Chism at the request of Mays who said it would complicate and change the case as he was trying to decide it.

Chism clashed with chairman pro tempore Mike Carpenter, a Republican commissioner who had voted with the Democratic majority on the “second track” consolidation plan and the move toward a countywide school board.

Carpenter complained and got enough votes in May for a resolution that required Chism to have the chairman pro tempore attend closed court conferences, attempted mediation efforts and private discussions with attorneys for the commission in Chism’s absence. Chism had preferred commissioner Walter Bailey, an attorney, to attend for the commission. At the next commission meeting, Chism mustered the votes to reverse Carpenter’s resolution and restore the chairman’s prerogative to pick Bailey.

Carpenter called it a “heavy handed power play.”

“Some people have access to information from our legal meetings that they want to share with one another and they don’t want to share it with the rest of us,” Carpenter complained.

“If we’re talking about power moves – that was a power move last week,” Chism replied.

Nevertheless, Carpenter was among the eight-vote majority that supported Chism’s second term as chairman this week on the first ballot.

And Chism passed on giving the critical seventh vote to fellow Democratic commissioner Henri Brooks that would have made Brooks chairman pro tempore. He abstained when it was a contest between her and Thomas.

But Chism contends partisan divisions on the commission are real.

He blames the advent of partisan county primaries in 1992. The first for the County Commission in 1994 resulted in a GOP majority on the body.

Democrats initially resisted going to a companion set of primaries. Chism was chairman of the local Democratic Party in 1995 and opposed following the Republican lead.

“They didn’t listen to me then. And that keeps us in the position, as long as we’ve got partisan politics, where we fight each other. And we need to get rid of it,” he said.

In the last two years, the view has gained public support from former local GOP chairman, Lang Wiseman, and other Democrats. But there has been little traction in a proposition that partisans on both sides agree would have to be a bilateral decision to walk away from the primaries.

The seven-vote Democratic majority on the commission was the only bright spot for Memphis Democrats in the 2010 county elections. Republicans swept every countywide office on the ballot.

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