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VOL. 129 | NO. 186 | Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Commission Balks at Ford Appointments

By Bill Dries

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When the Shelby County Commission moved back into its renovated chamber at the Vasco Smith Administration Building this month, the new chairman of the body, Justin Ford, had a new seating arrangement for the 13 members, including six newly elected commissioners.

Democrats and Republicans are seated next to each other on each side of Ford in the center chairman’s seat.

And for the commission’s 14 standing committees that make nonbinding recommendations to the full body, he picked seven Democratic chairmen and seven Republican chairmen.

But Ford’s fellow Democratic commissioners still have some issues with Ford’s election as chairman and probably with his record over the last four years of voting with Republicans on the body.

They took the unusual step Monday, Sept. 22, of not approving and sending back to committee next week his committee assignments and his appointments of commissioners to various civic boards.

Two weeks ago, Ford was elected the new chairman of the 13-member body with his own vote and the votes of all six of the partisan body’s Republican commissioners. The remaining six Democrats backed fellow Democrat Walter Bailey in the chairmanship fight.

Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey moved Monday, Sept. 22, to block the committee assignments of new County Commission Chairman Justin Ford questioning Ford’s ties to Republican commissioners.

(Daily News File Photo)

At Monday’s commission meeting, it was Bailey who moved to send both slates of appointments back to committee for review.

The seven votes to refer those assignments came from six of the seven Democrats – excluding Ford – and Republican Commissioner Steve Basar.

Both slates of Ford’s appointments had been recommended unanimously without debate in committee sessions last week.

Basar was mum on why he joined the Democrats on the issue.

Bailey acknowledged his call for more discussion was a continuation of the political ripples caused by Ford’s selection as chairman on the majority Democratic body.

“We’re suspicious because of the makeup of his support group,” Bailey said. “We’re talking about Ford and his Republican base … the most conservative wing on this commission.”

Last year, Bailey challenged the decision of then-chairman James Harvey – also a Democrat chosen as chairman with the votes of most of the Republican commissioners – to appoint Republican Heidi Shafer as budget committee chairwoman.

Shafer was reappointed head of the key committee by Ford. But Bailey said his call for a review of the committee assignments this year is not aimed at any specific commissioner on the other side.

“It looked like a pretty fair process,” Republican Commissioner Mark Billingsley said of Ford’s committee assignments. “It is time to move past parties. Let’s start leading together.”

With the commission not approving the committee assignments Monday, it is assumed Ford’s appointees will continue to chair their respective committees on Wednesday until or unless they are specifically challenged at that time.

The committee assignments are a routine act that the other commissioners usually assent to, reasoning that the new chairman should be able to make such calls. And most chairmen consult with commissioners to find out their preferences before making the assignments. Ford indicated Monday he did that. The caveat has always been that the chairman might not make everyone happy if more than one person wants to chair a certain committee.

What has not been routine for some time on the commission is the selection of the chairman who will make those assignments.

At the outset, the new commission continues to operate with members on both sides of the partisan divide who are willing to vote with the other side.

Basar crossed party lines Monday. On the previous commission, Republican Commissioner Mike Ritz often voted with Democratic members.

Ford has voted consistently with Republicans, including an unsuccessful 2012 effort to oust Democrat Sidney Chism as chairman. Ford became a frequent sixth vote for the five Republicans on the previous commission in place of Ritz. When Harvey also voted with them, they had the seven-vote majority needed to take action.

Likewise, Ritz was a frequent seventh vote for Democrats on the previous commission when Ford voted with Republicans but Harvey voted with Democrats.

Ritz benefited from Democratic cross over to become chairman in September 2012.

The early partisan skirmish over Ford may be more about discord in the local Democratic Party than it is about differences with Republicans.

Harvey was censured by the local Democratic Party’s executive committee at about this time last year, in part because of his election as chairman with Republican votes and his votes with Republican commissioners.

On the other side of the divide among Democrats on that commission, Chism was also censured for supporting Republican Bill Oldham’s re-election campaign for sheriff.

Despite Ford’s voting record on the commission, there was no similar attempt to censure him. But Ford did draw opposition in his May re-election primary, before running unopposed in the August county general election. Just before election day, Ford’s residency was questioned and investigated by the Shelby County Attorney’s office. Ford was adamant that he lived in the district he represented.

Attorney Marcy Ingram concluded in her report that the apartment Ford listed as his residence did not have utilities for two years but added that there was not enough evidence to conclude Ford did not live there.

PROPERTY SALES 97 410 20,632
MORTGAGES 116 472 23,745
BUILDING PERMITS 227 1,085 42,594
BANKRUPTCIES 60 300 13,180