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VOL. 132 | NO. 57 | Tuesday, March 21, 2017

County Commission Passes on State House Appointment

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners will not appoint someone to the open state House District 95 seat in advance of the June 15 special election for the seat.

The commission voted down on a 5-6 vote Monday, March 20, a move to start the appointment process by taking applications on a 5-6 vote.

Despite the close vote, there was little commission debate on the matter.

The Shelby County Election Commission was to set the ballot Tuesday afternoon for the April 27 primaries and the June 15 general election. There did not appear to be any withdrawals by the Monday noon deadline for any candidates to get out of the race. There were seven contenders in the Republican primary, a lone Democratic primary candidate and two independent candidates who automatically advance to the June general election.

“I don’t see any sense in us going through with this,” commissioner Terry Roland said of the appointment.

But five of the commission’s seven-member Democratic majority voted to move ahead with the appointment. Democrat Justin Ford voted with the five Republicans present not to make the appointment. Democratic commissioner Eddie Jones was absent from Monday’s meeting.

The commission also approved $320,000 in funding for the special primary and general elections for the state House seat as well as another $40,245 for a special Lakeland election in May to fill a vacant commissioner’s seat.

“Not to throw anyone under the bus, but when people run for office it’s serious,” said commissioner Mark Billingsley. “Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into.”

State Rep. Mark Lovell resigned from the District 95 seat less than a month after he arrived in Nashville following an allegation of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching of a legislative employee.

Lovell denied any improper conduct but a House investigation concluded the allegations were true.

Lakeland Commissioner Michele Dial resigned the seat she has held since 2015 this month triggering the special nonpartisan election there by virtue of it being the second vacancy on the city’s five member board of mayor and commissioners. The commission filled the first vacancy but by law the city must have a special election for the second resignation.

The commission also approved a resolution by commissioner Steve Basar asking the city to lift a moratorium on development in the Pinch district in lieu of approval of a master plan the city is developing for the area between the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Pyramid that would be a partial expansion of St. Jude’s campus.

“The plan, if you look at it, is not sustainable,” Basar said. “We’ve seen absolutely nothing.”

With no building permits issued under the moratorium, Basar argued and most commissioners agreed that current landowners are being unfairly delayed in plans for their property.

Billingsley, the only no vote against the resolution, said the move “gives me pause and concern.”

“Why would we consider this?” he said of proceeding as the plan is on its way to the Land Use Control Board. “I don’t think it’s thoughtful. What’s behind it?”

He also asked if Basar had disclosed a conflict of interest – a reference to Basar’s wife’s role as representative of Pinch property owner Buddy Barnett. Barnett’s bid to build a hotel on his property across Front Street from the Pyramid was rejected by the city council last year.

Basar said he disclosed his wife’s involvement in the project then and said neither he nor she are profiting in any way from the project at the present time.

“I’m very frustrated by the city,” he said.

The resolution is not binding on the city. But Basar said he could move to hold up commission approval of an expanded tax increment financing district the city plans to seek to finance the redevelopment of the area.

The commission also approved Monday five of seven contracts for design and engineering work on three resiliency and flood control projects funded with a $60 million federal grant. Two other contracts go back to committee next week for questions from commissioners about minority business participation.

In other action, the commission approved county budget director Wanda Richards as the new director of the county’s division of Finance and Administration. Richard replaces the retiring Mike Swift as head of the division.

And the commission approved a new county cemetery on the northeast corner of Raleigh-Millington and Duncan Roads that had been blocked for years after the Memphis City Council voted it down. The cemetery site is within five miles of the Memphis city limits, which gave the council a say in the matter. That requirement has since been changed.

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