Thursday, June 9, 2011

Barbara Ware and the Divided City Council

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2011 at 11:19 AM

Barbara Swearengen Ware
  • Barbara Swearengen Ware
There's an elephant in the living room, or make that the City Council chambers, that few people are talking about, at least publicly. Actually, there are three of them.

They are, in no special order: missing 13th councilman Barbara Swearengen Ware; the tendency of the other 12 members to split 6-6 along racial lines, contrary to the "One Memphis" era of good feeling over the Grizzlies and Obama's visit to BTW's graduation; and the likelihood that a property tax increase proposal will come up again in two weeks, possibly with some surprises.

Ware was kicked off the council because of accusations, still unproven, that she took bribes connected to car inspections. Ware is tough, informed, and fiercely loyal to her overwhelmingly black constituency. Her absence means the council has 12 active members. And that means the possibility of 6-6 votes that would possibly be 7-6 votes with a full house. And sometimes, as they did this week in budget meetings, those votes divide evenly along racial lines.

Three times Tuesday night, the council voted 6-6 on funding various perks for members such as travel, catered food, and photographs. Six white members voted to cut funding, six black members voted not to cut funding (which had previously been cut to a lesser extent, it should be noted). Trivial, or a coincidence, you say? Sorry, not if you have observed city politics closely for any length of time.

A 6-6 vote means the motions failed.

The most important vote of the night was on a proposed 18-cent increase in the city property tax rate. It failed by an 8-4 vote, with black council members Wanda Halbert and Edmund Ford Jr. voting with white members Jim Strickland, Shea Flinn, Reid Hedgepeth, Bill Morrison, Kemp Conrad, and Bill Boyd.

In some quarters — Conrad in a televised interview and The Commercial Appeal's editorial on Thursday — this was taken as the proposed tax increase being "soundly defeated" or some such words. Not so, as both Conrad and the CA scribes well know. In the council and other legislative bodies, it ain't over until it's over.

And it ain't over. Council rules allow anyone on the prevailing side to bring the matter up for reconsideration, and it is not at all unusual for members to jump sides to extend the game. The council will meet again on June 21st and possibly again on June 23rd to vote on the budget. A tweaked tax increase can and probably will come back again.

"Something has to come back," says Lowery, the council chairman.

Halbert says she could "possibly" vote for a tax increase but has to see what else is on the table first. "I voted against it until I get a better understanding of how we can find a lot of money for certain projects but not others."

Ford was out of town Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

The council's attorney, Allan Wade, says "until we get to the final decision, all of this is parliamentary motions." He noted that Mayor A C Wharton will make another package proposal, as will some council members. He suggested that members were trying to sense the lay of the land at Tuesday's seven-hour meeting in anticipation of another meeting or two.

I asked Wade what happens if there is a 6-6 vote on the "final" budget proposal. Which is the prevailing side? He said it would be the "nays". Then there would be another "final" vote (and another and another if needed) until a budget gets at least seven votes. The new math of a 12-member council, coupled to the old Memphis bugaboo of racial solidarity, makes that about as hard as beating the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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