Harvey Offers Advice to New County Commissioners

By Bill Dries

Who swears in the judges who will be swearing in other county leaders later this month when they all begin their terms of office?

That was one of the questions new Shelby County Commissioners had for outgoing commission Chairman James Harvey the day after the election last week.

And Harvey was consulting county attorneys on the point.


The commissioners take the ceremonial oath of office Aug. 29 at the Memphis Cook Convention Center ahead of the Labor Day holiday weekend that follows.

Harvey had the six new Shelby County Commissioners in for lunch Friday in the commission’s library. Together with interim Commissioner Mark Billingsley, whose appointment to the commission earlier this year was followed by his election Thursday to a full term, the commission has a majority of seven newly elected members.

Harvey also invited Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell to the luncheon on the commission’s turf in the county administration building.

“I think we are all a little more relaxed than we were at this time yesterday,” Luttrell told the group.

Like Harvey, Luttrell addressed public perceptions about differences between the mayor and the commission.

“This is built to be an adversarial system of government,” Luttrell said 40 years to the week after voters approved the changes to the Shelby County Charter that created the office of Shelby County mayor. Prior to that, the chairman of the County Commission functioned as what is a county chief executive in other counties in Tennessee.

“I expect you all to question us hard,” Luttrell added.

Harvey sought to get at some of the rancor among commissioners that defined the commission in its current term of office, which has just weeks left in it.

“Try not to forget, different people in different communities have different needs,” Harvey wrote in his letter to the group. “Often times your personal opinion could impair your ability to make the right decision for certain communities that you find yourself unfamiliar with during critical thinking.”

Harvey gave much the same advice as he and the six commissioners sat around the table in the commission’s library – but he was blunter as he specifically pointed to the sometimes incendiary exchanges commissioners have had with each other in the past year.

“Somebody’s got to be quiet and close their mouth,” Harvey said. “You’ve got to hold yourself together.”

The outgoing commission has one more scheduled meeting before the end of its term on Aug. 31. But that commission will not be electing a chairman for the first year of the coming term at the Aug. 18 session as it would in a non-election year for the commission.

The chairman will instead be chosen as the first order of business of the new commission at its first meeting in September.

Harvey believes it is possible at least one of the new commissioners will try to win election as chairman and just as likely that one of the returning incumbents will seek the chairmanship as well.

“You’ve got to lobby now,” he advised the new commissioners. “There are some on the floor who are lobbying now.”

“No,” joked commissioner-elect George Chism in mock surprise.

For those without their eye on the chairman’s position, Harvey also said they should be aware of the limits of being chairman of the body.

“Most chairmen think government belongs to them,” he said. “You don’t have to humble down to the chairman.”