VOL. 133 | NO. 2 | Tuesday, January 2, 2018
City, County Governments on Different Paths
By Bill Dries
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and the city council members are half way through their four-year terms of office with the new year.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and the county commission have a decidedly adversarial relationship, but the city mayor and council are working together. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and county commissioners are less than a year away from the end of theirs.
By the end of 2018, a new county mayor and a commission with at least six new members will be getting acquainted and will have the rocky relationship between Luttrell and the current commission to learn from.
For much of his second term, Luttrell has been saying his differences with the commission aren’t personal, but are a function of the different roles each plays as outlined in the county charter.
He has described it as an “adversarial” relationship in which proposals by each side are tested, reviewed and vetted by the other.
Shelby County government’s response to the opioid crisis has epitomized this adversarial relationship.
The commission decided to hire a law firm and have its attorney file a civil lawsuit in Circuit Court against two dozen opioid manufacturers and distributors on behalf of county government. Luttrell sued in a Chancery Court lawsuit that the commission had overstepped its bounds, that such an action was a function of the county mayor, according to the county charter.
Chancellor Jim Kyle ruled in Luttrell’s favor. But instead of voiding the lawsuit the commission had filed against opioid distributors, he gave Luttrell the option to intervene in that lawsuit, thus essentially taking over control of how the lawsuit would proceed.
Luttrell did intervene, and so quickly that Kyle then dismissed the Chancery Court part of the mayor-commission skirmish and his role in the matter well before the end of the year.
Commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer then said Luttrell’s entry into the opioid lawsuit will have to be negotiated with terms the commission consents to.
Luttrell has seen his administration’s role as taking over the lawsuit including possibly hiring another law firm to move ahead with the litigation. His administration’s motion to intervene was also a motion to stay the proceedings as well. The commission is opposing it in court.
Since Kyle’s departure, Luttrell has vetoed a couple more commission resolutions on the opioid litigation, so the county dispute remains active.
At City Hall, by contrast, the relationship between the council and Strickland couldn’t be better. That has been evident in how the city has handled the issue of removing Confederate monuments from city parks.
Strickland, using the city council’s attorney, Allan Wade, as part of the administration’s legal team, sought a path to taking down the city’s two most notable Confederate monuments through the Tennessee Historical Commission and an administrative law judge.
The council set out a list of alternatives to that route should the state not act. The options included closing Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park – the two containing the monuments. Strickland expressed some reservations about that, but didn’t rule it out as one of several options.
The state didn’t act, so the council did on Dec. 20. The administration’s plan for immediately removing the two monuments was synchronized to begin as soon as the council approved the sale of the two parks to a nonprofit.
And when the council waded into the controversy over a Saturday night spring and summer cover charge in the Beale Street Entertainment District, it was under the city charter provision that gives the council control over the use of city streets.
The city council’s first confrontation of the new year will come with Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.
At its last meeting of 2017, the council voted down a 1 percent water rate hike and delayed action on more substantial gas and electric rate hikes proposed by the city-owned utility. All are to take effect with the new year.
The proposed gas rate hike is 9 percent over two years and the electric rate hike 6.9 percent over three years.
The water rate hike would have gone toward research to more accurately map holes and lenses in the clay layer that protects the city’s water source in the Memphis Sands. The gas and electric rate hikes are so each of those divisions has 90 days of cash on hand.
“I ask that we do not focus on taking sides because we are all on this ship together,” said council member Patrice Robinson, a retired MLGW employee, at the outset of the full council debate on Dec. 19.
Robinson has argued that the long-term stability of the utility has to be considered along with the impact of the rate hikes on customers, who may have to choose between paying that bill and paying for prescriptions or other necessities.
“Right now, I just don’t think it’s the time to support any rate increase,” council member Edmund Ford Jr. said.
The council takes up the rate-hike proposals Jan. 5 at its first council meeting of the year.