As Shelby County Commissioners were asking some pretty pointed questions Monday, Sept. 9, of those vying for an appointment to the countywide school board, Commissioner Heidi Shafer told Shante Avant, one of the contenders, “We’re not as scary as we seem.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Avant replied.
Avant’s appointment unleashed a torrent of conflict within the commission that had little to do with her or any of the others vying for the school board position.
Commissioners called each other “racist,” “sexist” and “crooked,” and accused each other of “character assassination” as well as trying to figuratively lynch each other, starting with the aftermath of the vote on Avant.
The commission’s partisan and personal divide resurfaced at the first meeting of Commissioner James Harvey’s tenure as chairman.
Integral to the division is that Harvey, a Democrat, was elected chairman by five of the six Republicans as well as his own vote and that of fellow Democrat Justin Ford.
Some, but not all, of Harvey’s fellow Democrats tried Monday to replace his choice of budget committee Chairwoman Heidi Shafer, a Republican, with previous budget committee Chairman Melvin Burgess, a Democrat.
The effort, led by Commissioner Walter Bailey, fell short on a 5-7 vote, with Democratic Commissioner Steve Mulroy abstaining and Ford voting “no.”
“I do take issue with her politics,” Bailey said. “Her politics had her vigorously fight to
decrease the (county property) tax rate. … It was irresponsible. It suggests to me that her approach … would not be in the best interest of a sound county government budget process.”
“Really, I think it’s silly,” Commissioner Chris Thomas countered, as he responded directly to Bailey. “I hate that you want a tax increase every time the door swings open, but I wouldn’t oppose you as chairman of the budget committee.”
After the vote, Shafer said she does intend to change how the budget committee operates to have less of the long sessions where the committee together goes line by line through the budget. She wants more early discussions about the budget as it is being formed and more one-on-one consultation with commissioners on particular concerns.
“I want to consider my colleagues and try to get them information as quickly as possible so we can work in conjunction with the administration to help them craft a budget,” Shafer said. “Normally what happens is the executive branch just crafts the budget and they bring it to us for approval or rejection.”
Shafer didn’t take part in the commission debate but said before and after that she considered the challenge to her chairmanship to be a case of sexism.
“I think it’s an underlying issue,” she said. “It still is, with some people, sometimes an issue.”
The other woman on the commission, Henri Brooks, however, said it wasn’t.
“We are not setting a precedent here at all,” Brooks added. “There may be some other things going on.”
And Brooks termed as “sexism” Shafer’s vote to remove funding from Planned Parenthood as well as Shafer’s vote against the county property tax hike the commission approved.
Leaders of the budget committee have remained in place across several rotating terms of chairmen on the commission – one of the longest reigns as budget committee chairman on the commission was that of the late Jesse Turner Sr. And sometimes budget committee chairmen are rotated out. Along the way, Democratic chairman have appointed Republicans and vice versa. And commissioners haven’t always agreed with their assignments. But an attempt to vote down the committee assignment of a chairman is a political rarity.
“It will calm down,” Harvey said near the end of the raucous first meeting where he had the gavel. “People have taken political positions and are posturing for their own political interest. … I don’t see labels and tags and core principles that violate freedoms and rights.”
Harvey began the meeting by laying out his leadership philosophy in anticipation of the conflict to come.
“Woe to those of you who call evil good, for you have abused power and called it politics,” he warned.
Meanwhile, the Shelby County Democratic Party’s executive committee got involved in the dispute and censured Harvey at a meeting last week. And a similar complaint has been filed with the state Democratic Party.
“Mr. Chairman, you said, ‘I’m a businessman, not a Democrat,’” said Dell Gill, a longtime Democratic partisan and member of the local Democratic executive committee. “We are Democrats.”
Harvey brushed aside the criticism and said he remains a Democrat.
“I voted against a Democrat today not because of party. I voted against a Democrat today from an administrative perspective,” he said. “We can’t run our city and our county on strictly party lines, Democrat or Republican. I embrace bipartisanship. I think after today you will find that people will start working together.”