Wednesday, October 9, 2002

POLITICS: Crossing the Lines

As old political divisions loosen up, new coalitions form, but will they hold?

Posted By on Wed, Oct 9, 2002 at 4:00 AM

CROSSING THE LINES Q: What do loose morals, the Black Panthers, and the Third Reich have in common? A: They were all evoked in an unforeseen controversy which erupted in Monday’s biweekly meeting of the Shelby County Commission. The argument, over county funding of a contraceptive program, was one of two issues -- the other concerned a zoning matter -- that underscored the tendency of the current body, elected in August, to cross partisan and racial lines more freely than previous commissions had. Said Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham: “Are we not encouraging loosening up …promoting promiscuous sex, ..legalizing morality -- or the lack of it?...[It] does give the girl and her partner free rein, doesn’t it?...If guys know they can play without paying the price, they’re going to.” Said Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel: “To me, it’s a moral issue. It’s a matter of core belief, not a debate over financial responsibility…It’s not our place to promote birth control...They can’t remember to do homework, to make their beds, to catch the bus on time.” These sentiments had to do with a resolution initially considered so innocuous that it was placed on the commission’s “consent agenda,” which normally lists a plethora of routine matters that are voted out of the way early in a meeting so that the real controversies, if such there be, can come later and get all the time and attention they deserve. It read this way: “Resolution approving expenditure of funds in the amount of $66,000.00 for the purchases of Depo Provera Prefilled Syringes from Pharmacia Corporation for the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department’s Family Planning Program.” In effect, the syringes in question provide temporary inoculation of women of child-bearing age against pregnancy, and that fact made the resolution an anathema to Loeffel, a longtime activist on social-conservative issues -- especially since the category of potential subjects necessarily includes females who are formally classified as minors and who are students in the county’s junior high schools and high schools. In asking that the resolution be taken off the consent agenda and placed on the commission’s regular agenda, Loeffel intended only to be given the opportunity to vote against the measure, she said, adding, “I had no intention of provoking a debate.” The debate ensued, however, sometimes heated, sometimes bizarre, and, as indicated, irrespective of the usual partisan lines. One strong opponent of Loeffel’s view, for example, was newly elected commissioner Joyce Avery, who turned out longtime commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf this year largely on the strength of her advocacy of tighter fiscal restraints for county government. Indeed, Avery, the sponsor of the disputed resolution, defended it as a classic instance of financial responsibility. “These are people who are already sexually active, are they not?” she asked Yvonne Madlock, county Health Department director, who concurred and added that, in her view, it was “the right of every individual to make rational decisions about reproductive life.” Avery attempted to mollify Loeffel by saying that, “as a Christian,” she sympathized with the Cordova commissioner’s views but added, “I agree to disagree.” She said she felt that society was being unfairly burdened by “childen having children,” and that “a sense of fiscal responsibility” required making the contraceptive syringes available. In any case, said Avery firmly, she was determined to see the matter come to a vote without being deferred. In the end, the commission would approve the expenditures by an 8 to 4 vote. Voting for it were Republicans Avery, Linda Rendtorff, Tom Moss, and David Lillard, and Democrats Deidre Malone, Michael Hooks, Cleo Kirk, and Joe Ford. Voting with Loeffel and Willingham were newcomer Bruce Thompson, a Republican, and vintage Democrat Walter Bailey, who currently serves as chairman and who asked Loeffel to take over the chair briefly while he articulated his position -- along unanticipated lines, it’s fair to say. Some decades back when he was a member of the board of an American Civil Liberties Union chapter, Bailey recalled, he had supported positions taken by the Black Panthers, a radical group prominent in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, opposing state-supported birth-control programs on the grounds that as a means of “population control” they were aimed at blacks. Asked after the meeting if he regarded that as a live possibility in today’s circumstances, Bailey said he did, throwing in what was arguably a non sequitur: “Who could have foreseen what Hitler would do?” The other matter Monday that operated independently of party structure was precipitated by Commissioner Hooks’ request to reconsider a zoning proposal that was defeated two weeks earlier when it could not get a majority vote. This, a project by developer Kevin Hyneman to build 50 new homes in the Cordova area, received a six-six vote on September 23, when a coalition of Republicans and Democrats resisted two new subdivision proposals aimed at families with children. One of those was that of Hyneman, who, along with brother and fellow developer Rusty Hyneman, has abundant political contacts. One of those on a number of former occasions was Hooks, who, to many of his colleagues’ surprise, took the lead at the previous meeting in holding the line against the proposed new developments on the ground that, until reliable means of financing future school construction could be assured, it was folly to approve new family-oriented subdivisions. Buttressing the argument, which is a staple of what is coming to be known as the “Smart Growth” concept, was the presence at that meeting of Maura Black, director of planning for Shelby County schools. Black was present at Monday’s meeting but did not play as conspicuous a role as at the earlier meeting, nor, crucially, did the united “Smart Growth” front of Hooks, Democratic newcomer Malone, and GOP add-ons Avery and Thompson, who, with members picked up from the other commissioners on the key proposals, were able to hold the line last time. At the start of Monday’s session Democrat Julian Bolton, an absentee on September 23, asked Hooks if he, as a member of the prevailing side in the Hyneman vote, would mind moving to reconsider the proposal. To the discomfiture -- and raised eyebrows -- of some of his new allies (a couple of whom had skeptically predicted such a move two weeks ago), Hooks agreed, and the motion to reconsider, coupled with another that deferred renewed voting on the measure until the commission’s next meeting, duly passed. “He was very kind to me during my recovery, and he would have done the same thing for me,” Hooks, who made a dramatic return to action after a widely publicized bout with cocaine addiction, would say later, justifying his decision to honor Bolton’s request. “I am not so unmindful as not to know how Julian will end up voting,” said Hooks, who, like everyone else, saw the former 6-6 deadlock on Hyneman’s subdivision turning into a 7-6 vote of passage next time out. Though no one professed any doubt about Hooks’ motives for the record, two of his colleagues, Commissioners Thompson and Lillard, the latter of whom had voted Hyneman’s way in September, expressed displeasure at the result and suggested that a better option for Bolton, who had an opportunity to see the September 26 agenda in advance, would have been to seek deferral of the measure before in its initial vote, not to have it resurrected it for a second try later on. Malone, however, saw no reason for distress. The “Smart Growth” faction, so far equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, would hold together as a unit in the future, she predicted.

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