Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Longest Day: Stalemate and Shape-Shifting on the Shelby County Commission

Posted By on Thu, May 28, 2009 at 6:10 PM

77c5/1243552178-mulroybunker2.jpgThe sexiest matter on Wednesday’s Shelby County Commission committee-day agenda was, in more ways than one, the proposal by Commissioner Steve Mulroy for an anti-discrimination resolution regarding gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and trans-gendered people.

That was the issue that generated the most heat (if not necessarily the same degree of light), that attracted the largest number of interested spectators to the fourth-floor hearing room in the county building, and drew the most media coverage.

But it wasn’t the only bone of contention on Wednesday’s agenda, discussion of which began early in the morning and ended late in the day. There was much more in the bone box, and how the attendant commissioners chose to deal with it all — or not to -- said much about the body’s internal strains and divsions, as well as some of its emerging coalitions.

As originally framed, Democrat Mulroy’s resolution would prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation against Shelby County employees, similar discrimination by companies contracting with the county, and, “subject to the limitations in state law and the Shelby County Charter," discrimination by private companies in Shelby County at large.

The last of these provisions was amended out, with Mulroy’s consent, in the course of a discussion on the proposal that was lively — and then some.

The most outspoken opponent of the resolution was Republican commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who on the day before had organized a press conference featuring several critics of the measure, both black and white, who were members of the local clergy.


Bunker: “There’s nothing wrong with discrimination”


On Wednesday, Bunker assured himself of some lasting notoriety with the line, “There’s nothing wrong with discrimination.” As he went on to elucidate on that, he engaged in a bit of verbal hair-splitting based on more innocent instances of the word “discrimination,” used in the sense of making legitimate distinctions. Bunker’s effort — depending on the observer, it was brave and, er, discriminating or foolhardy and bigoted — resembled a similar piece of rhetoric by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.

In his acceptance address at the GOP convention, Goldwater had said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater never recovered, and Bunker, too, may find that he has made himself immortal — indeed, notorious — in just the wrong way.

Bunker compounded things by likening homosexuals to liars and alcoholics, among an assortment of other undesirables whom he deemed subject to an employer’s legitimate discretion. And in what surely was a misguided attempt at humor, he added “Democrats” to the list before taking it back.

In defending his proposal, Democrat Mulroy deal with actual and potential objections to it as a needed equal-protection measure. “There is no coverage for sexual orientation at the federal or state level.” Therefore, an employer could. say, “You’re a great employee. You’ve been Employee of the Year. But you’re gay, and you’re fired.”

Much of the debate concerned not only the relevancy of an employee’s homosexuality but whether it was a matter of choice or nature. The newest commission member, Democrat Matt Kuhn, who distinguished himself on the day by trying to provide reasonable alternatives to either/or discussion, made an effort to recast the issue in a question to one of the several audience members who addressed the commission either in support of the resolution or opposed to it:

Said Kuhn: “Do you believe that a straight person can be fired because of sexual orientation?”

Memory fails us as to how Kuhn’s question got answered, but the line of thought it denoted was shortly superceded again by more familiar polar attitudes.

Several of the black commissioners felt compelled to separate the issue of the resolution from the issues inherent in the struggle for African Americans’ rights in the civil rights era. In the end, the blacks on the commission underwent a crucial split. Henri Brooks, J.W. Gibson, and commission chair Deidre Malone, all Democrats, voted aye. Though they, too, had been generally assumed to favor the measure, two other black Democrats, Sidney Chism and James Harvey, would abstain. Joe Ford, another Democrat, voted no.

“A victory for Wyatt Bunker,” Mulroy conceded after the 5-5 vote. Those voting aye were himself, Kuhn, Brooks, Gibson, and Malone. Those voting no were Ford, Joyce Avery, Mike Carpenter, George Flinn, and Mike Ritz.

Bunker had left before the vote, explaining that his wife was having a baby. His announcement generated a surprising burst of applause and congratulations and one of the few moments of solidarity all day."


Back and forth on the budget


Shortly thereafter, following a lunch break, came another testy and protracted discussion, this one on the county budget, which, as it stands, is an austerity affair calling for truncated programs and mass layoffs. So wearing were the wrangles on it that by mid-afternoon, various commissioners’ syntax began to give way.

“We don’t want to see our future moved way down the road,” said Brooks. Granted, the qualifying word “way” gave her intended meaning some wiggle room. The fact remained that “down the road” is where the future is, was, and ever will be.

Chism would shortly top her with some creative linguistics of his own, concluding one of his patented defenses of city priorities versus those of the outer county with the exclamation “And Shelby County is in Memphis!” In the stress of the moment, the commissioner had either inadvertently reversed his terms or imagined an ontological tight squeeze that was stunningly original.

All too familiar, of course, was the budgetary squeeze being felt by agencies of local government, many of whose representatives were on hand to lobby, protest, plead, or merely testify by their presence against the pending threat of severe personnel reductions.

The budget presented by county mayor A C Wharton, assuming no additional revenues, calls for 100 employees to be lopped off the county payroll, and a full 32 of those are to come from the ranks of the Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who attended Wednesday’s meeting with several of his key aides, has several times characterized the prospect as a ruinous one, both to the department’s routine activities and to the ongoing Operation Safe Community being pursued in tandem with other local law-enforcement agencies.

On Wednesday, Luttrell insisted, as he has in the past, that personnel decisions must be based on demonstrated reality and need rather than on what he called “a mathematical formula.”

The mathematics of the commission’s intense, if rambling, discussion came down to two overlapping issues: (1) Could the commission risk taxpayer ire by proposing a tax increase? And (2) Would leaving the county’s annual property tax rate where it is right now — $4.04 per $100 of assessed value — actually constitute a tax increase?

Commissioner Mulroy argued eloquently that it wasn’t, that leaving the tax rate where it was could not be considered a “tax increase,” though, in light of the 2008 county-wide reappraisal carried out by the Assessor’s office (itself slated to lose employees), the $4.04 would result in most taxpayers owing more taxes.

That’s in light of the surprisingly higher values assigned to homesteads in the aggregate by that newest reappraisal, and, as opponents of maintaining the current rate pointed out, state law explicitly prohibits such a “windfall” increase in revenues.

So, technically, Mulroy would have to be accounted wrong. If the commission chose to go henceforth with the $4.04 rate, rather than with a proposed $4.00 rate that would keep revenues at their current level, it would presumably have to undergo a two-step process — first dropping the rate back to a $4.00 rate, then restoring it to $4.04 in a separate and subsequent resolution.

Mayor Wharton has indicated such a solution, if authorized by the commission, would be amenable to him.

It’s fairly complicated stuff, but the commissioners, like elected officials of any kind, know what the lay mind these days thinks of a tax increase, and majority sentiment on Wednesday was clearly for avoiding anything that looked like raising taxes.


Mulroy: “It’s not over with”


In a valiant last effort, Kuhn proposed to have it both ways with a $4.03 rate that would formally lower the rate while still advancing enough new revenue to reduce the number of personnel cuts. The commissioners present opted to go with $4.00, however, and that’s the rate that will show up on the agenda for Monday’s public meeting of the full commission, when the battle will be rejoined. The same 100 jobs that were at stake to begin with are still in jeopardy.

Though he was on the losing side of both of the day’s two major confrontations, Mulroy said, “It’s not over with,” and vowed to fight on.

Perhaps because emotions and energy were both spent, perhaps because the day was growing late, another potentially explosive issue, a proposal that the county take over the operation of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, generated little fuss and bother and received what amounted to a pro forma endorsement — pending whatever future agreement between city and county governments might be worked out enabling such a transfer.

Chism, a longtime confidante of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who has undergone extensive criticism of late because of well-publicized shortcomings in the city’s recent operation of the center, demurred at his colleagues’ willingness to approve the change in operation and abstained.

That was the day that was, and what it revealed, among other things, was the degree to which coalitions on the commission derive from issues other than party affiliation.

Despite Bunker’s poorly aimed partisan thrust, the fact was that neither the commission’s Democrats nor its Republicans can present a united front on issues that weigh larger to them than mere party. As mentioned above, black Democrats in particular proved sensitive to two issues regarding the non-discrimination vote — efforts by proponents to tie it to the black civil rights struggle and an undeniable aversion to homosexuality on the part of religious African-Americans.

And both Ford and Gibson are prone to voting conservative on matters relating to fiscal issues or to established protocol. Nor are the Republican members as given to marching “lockstep” as Chism’s frequently uttered j’accuse would have it. Joyce Avery tends to go her own way on public health issues, often voting with the Democrats, Mike Carpenter has famously made himself persona non grata with many GOP rank-and-filers for multiple crossover votes. And for better and for worse, Mike Ritz rides hobby horses whose very existence nobody else seems to be even aware of.

Ultimately, positions are taken on this commission and sides are chosen in complex ways well beyond the simplistic attitudes of partisan ditto-heads, be they Republican or Democratic.

And Mulroy is right about one thing: There was an air of irresolution to much of what happened on Wednesday. We’ll see what happens on Monday, when the full commission meets again in regular session.
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