It was commissioner against commissioner in the highest profile use so far of Shelby County government’s current ethics policy.
And the dispute that affected the commission’s deliberations on a county property tax rate ended last week with a three-citizen panel dismissing County Commissioner Terry Roland’s complaint against fellow Commissioner Sidney Chism.
The panel’s decision, however, is unlikely to change the minds of either Roland or Chism or dispel the political tension on the council, which over the last four years has had more than its share of general differences along party lines.
Roland claimed that Chism’s votes on matters involving the county’s administration of a federally funded Head Start program were a conflict of interest because Chism and his wife co-owned a day care center at the time that received federal Head Start funds. He has said he no longer holds any ownership interest.
In the formal ethics complaint, Roland alleged that Chism profited from the votes.
The panel voted 2-1 Thursday, Jan. 26, in favor of dismissing Roland’s complaint. Retired U.S. Magistrate James Allen and retired Probate Court Judge Donn Southern voted for dismissal, while Susan Moresi, the third member of the panel, voted against it.
The panel heard testimony again before the vote in a case in which Chism hired attorney Ricky E. Wilkins to represent him, and the county hired outside counsel Brian Faughnan to make the case that Chism had violated the county’s code of ethics.
Among those testifying Thursday was County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
“I sort of debated the law with the independent counsel,” he said later.
Mulroy argued that Chism’s alleged conflict of interest was “at most, if anything, indirect” and “that state law had no place in the proceedings and that they were limited to the direct conflict of interest standard of the local law.”
Local legislative bodies across the state were required by state law to update their own codes of ethics and ethics policies as part of the fallout from the Tennessee Waltz corruption sting, which went public in 2005 with federal corruption charges against a group of state legislators.
The local legislative bodies, including the Shelby County Commission, could draft their own standards, or if they didn’t, the state’s code would become their legal standard.
Roland’s complaint against Chism is one of several he has pursued, including votes by County Commissioner Melvin Burgess on the Shelby County Schools budget. Burgess is chief of internal audit for Shelby County Schools in addition to serving on the commission.
Burgess could vote on schools funding and the budget, according to a legal opinion from the county attorney’s office, because he held the same position with Memphis City Schools before the schools merger and before he was elected to the commission in 2010.
Burgess repeatedly cited the legal opinion before every vote the commission took on schools funding.
And Chism repeatedly stated before each vote in which he participated that he no longer had an ownership interest in the day care center on Horn Lake Road.
Chism abstained on the June and July votes on second and third readings of the ordinance to raise the county property tax rate to $4.38. The measure failed on second reading by one vote and on third reading by a wider margin.
Roland was among those on the commission who were working to block the tax rate hike and keep it at $4.02.
The commission reconsidered at its July 23 meeting and approved the $4.38 county property tax rate, with Chism among the majority.
Meanwhile, Roland said he would formally contest Burgess’ vote in December on first reading of the still-pending ordinance to raise the annual pay of Shelby County Schools board members from $4,200 to $20,000.
Burgess voted for the measure after again acknowledging his position with the school system before the roll call vote.
Commissioner Mike Ritz has delayed a vote on second reading until February.