Tuesday, August 28, 2001

THE PLAY'S THE THING

...and the audience got in the act at Monday's commission meeting.

Posted By on Tue, Aug 28, 2001 at 4:00 AM

There is a characteristic moment in any Shelby County Commission debate of consequence when Julian Bolton, who once taught dramatics at college, seems to get a whiff of which way the wind is blowing through the audience out there in the auditorium. He begins to lean in the direction of the onlookers, swiveling his head due left so as to be looking right into their faces, and when he talks, he appears to be addressing the folks out there, not his commission colleagues. The predominant school of thought among principals at Monday’s commission meeting seemed to be that the 75 or so people who showed up early to raise hell against a tax increase for the county schools were the fruits, as Shelby County school board member Ron Lawler put it, “of ten days straight of Mike Fleming trying to turn a crowd out.” Indeed, there had been a dedicated attempt at conscription on the part of the popular WREC-AM 60 radio talk show host -- who generally is a gentle rain and sweet reason itself compared to his tempestuous counterparts in Nashville, Steve Gill and Phil Valentine. In the manner, however, of Gill and Valentine, who on each occasion this year that the state legislature came close to giving serious attention to a state income tax did their shows and broadcast their exhortations from the pavement of Legislative Plaza, Fleming set up his broadcast booth Monday afternoon on the concrete patio outside the county office building where the commission was meeting. Many of the folks inside the often rowdy commission auditorium (some of whom proclaimed themselves to be members of the “Turnip Liberation Army,” as in “Turnip Your Nose at a Tax Increase,” as one sign had it) had answered Fleming’s call, and, though this group included many of those who had protested both the NBA Grizzlies’ cause and previous potential tax increases, there were some newcomers as well -- noticeably less interested in the niceties of public discourse than earlier protesters had been. Bolton, however, acted as though he were in the presence of Vox Populi. And the commission’s newest member, Bridget Chisholm, who -- perhaps not coincidentally -- sits to Bolton’s left on the auditorium stage and frequently consults with her neighbor, also seemed caught up in the often turbulent crowd reaction as the commission met Monday to complete action on the current fiscal year’s budget so as to fund the Shelby County schools. For reasons best known to themselves (although some clue was surely afforded by their frequent sidewise glances toward the audience, as well as to the omnipresent TV cameras from all four local news channels), both Bolton and Chisholm began professing a belief that the taxing arrangement which everyone save Bolton had signed on to at the commission’s previous meeting was something other than what it was. As had been extensively reported in both the electronic and print media, a bargain had been struck two weeks ago between key members of both the commission’s white Republican and black Democratic factions whereby a majority of Republicans would accept a property tax increase in the range of 43 cents in return for a Democratic majority’s approval for a doubling of the regressive wheel tax. As outlined by GOP Commissioner Buck Wellford, who with partymate Tommy Hart had crafted the plan, there was a third component as well -- a sense-of-the-commission resolution that the county’s municipal governments would be asked to forgo their share of a potential local-option sales-tax increase in the interests of the county schools. As part of the deal, county school superintendent Jim Mitchell and school board president David Pickler agreed to urge the municipal governments to accept such an arrangement. On Monday, both Bolton and Chisholm professed for some while to believe that only a 33-percent property-tax increase had been agreed upon. Ultimately, budget chairman Cleo Kirk, in a whispered conversation, convinced Chisholm otherwise, and she reversed an earlier vote against the 43-cent figure so as to finally pass and activate the combination tax package. Wellford -- who, with Hart, Kirk, and Commissioner Walter Bailey, was cited for positive leadership by Pickler -- said later he found it a strange reversal that two Democratic commissioners had tried to take a stand in favor of holding down the property tax. “Usually that’s a Republican cause,” Wellford said. In subsequently making his case against the 43-cent increase, Bolton -- who was hooted by the audience early in the meeting when he seemed to say he would support a property-tax increase at that level -- told the crowd, “Some of them [commissioners] have not heard you. I have.” Wellford made it clear he did not regard the crowd, which frequently unloosed catcalls and interrupted commissioners’ remarks, in the same positive light. “It was obvious some of them came just to put on a show and were there to humiliate the commission,” he said. It was Wellford,in fact, who -- after referring to the crowd disturbances in Nashville which frustrated an effort on behalf of a state income tax at the end of the legislative session last month -- called for a five-minute recess and asked chairman James Ford to summon a complement of county police and sheriff’s deputies to maintain order.

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