And, just like most civic clubs do it, the chairman-to-be for the year to come serves as vice chair the year before. Year by year, it’s a cut-and-dried process.
Not this year.
It’s already a complex situation, with the current chair, Democrat Sidney Chism, angling for a second consecutive term, instead of yielding to protocol and allowing vice chair Mike Carpenter, a Republican, to take the chairmanship for 2011-12.
And, as they say, the plot thickens. Two commissioners, Democrat Henri Brooks and Republican Chris Thomas, have their hats in the ring for vice chair. Tradition would hold that Brooks, in a continuation of the party-alternation process, would be in line, but the Chism-Carpenter showdown already has skewed tradition; so this, too, will be a race.
And there’s a possibility that Brooks and Thomas will have a third contender to contend with for the vice chairmanship — Mike Carpenter.
Carpenter, who eschews the party line and blithely aligns himself with a Democratic majority or a Republican one, depending entirely on how he sees a given issue, may have counted the votes and come to realize that he’s in the same pickle with his fellow Republicans that he was a year ago, when he was elected vice chair on the strength of his own vote and those of the commission’s six Democrats.
For obvious reasons, Carpenter has already lost Chism from his coalition of last year, and there may well to be further slippage among Democrats. Among Democrats, only Steve Mulroy has publicly committed to Carpenter, and various Republicans — notably Terry Roland of Millington — have promised Chism their vote.
So Carpenter, who may give up trying to figure out how to get there (to the chairmanship) from here (a situation in which he already seems to be outvoted) and is rumored to be thinking of conceding the race to Chism, who might not otherwise have enough votes in hand — on the understanding that Carpenter would once again serve as vice chair, with the assumption that he might put his own coalition together (Chism included) to win the chairmanship next year.
On the other hand, next year could see another Machiavellian morass like the current one. In any case, right now it’s Chism vs. Carpenter for commission chairman, and Thomas vs. Brooks for vice chair.
All of that is subject to change.
In a memo to the Flyer, Cashiola explained it this way: Earlier this year, Mayor A C Wharton convened “a committee of the various agencies responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the Main Street Mall.” These included city government itself, the Center City Commission, MLGW, and the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
“One problem they noticed was cracked pavers, mostly due to vehicular traffic. This is not a new problem,” Cashiola said, forwarding copies of a 1993 memo from then General Services director Lewis Fort and a 2005 memo from City Hall building manager Melvin Jamerson. Both documents warned that vehicular traffic could accelerate deterioration of the Mall paving surface.
“Last week, the police department told officers they would no longer be allowed to drive on the mall to conduct personal business. Responding to service calls and emergencies, as well as routine patrols on the Mall, are acceptable. Officers were also told to begin citing unauthorized civilian vehicles on the Mall,” Cashiola said.
She continued: “We know, however, that the people most often parked on the mall (other than for governmental uses) are the broadcast media. In an effort to preserve the mall, we’ve asked them to not to park on it and, for now, referred them to media parking on Front near Poplar. Police are patrolling that space more aggressively to keep non-media vehicles from parking in it, and we’re looking at some other alternatives moving forward.”
In a follow-up memo, Cashiola pointed out that the decision to implement the new parking policy now did not originate with the police but was at the behest of the inter-agency mall-maintenance committee, which met on June 8 and decided to start enforcing a ban on vehicular traffic.
Cashiola said the police started writing tickets on Monday, the day before the Council meeting. Upon learning that, she said, her office began trying to notify media outlets that the ban on vehicular traffic was being enforced. She reached as many as she could on Tuesday, but clearly not everybody got the message.
The answer is simple: Even trade.
Earlier in the evening, the Council could have fairly easily passed a balanced budget containing neither of the hot-button provisos. Mayor A C Wharton, biting several bullets, had proposed a balanced budget loaded up with various cuts and modest revenue enhancements.
It all came unglued — but just barely — when the Council rejected a component authored by Councilman Ed Ford Jr. assessing a series of fees (e.g., $7 for passenger vehicles ) for automobile registration. That would have netted some $2.5 million, the approximate amount the mayor’s budget package was now short by.
So why couldn’t the 12 Council members (13-minus-one , the indicted, since retired Barbara Swearengen Ware) agree on some modest tweaking — maybe just a modest hit on the city’s reserve fund?
Because key members were holding out for the sanitation workers’ buyout, on the one hand, and the 18-cent tax restoration, on the other. And nobody was giving.
The bottom line is that some accommodation was reached during the two interminable “breaks” that were declared during the course of the meeting. These were actually occasions for members to conduct direct negotiations — each according to their own fashion.
Most members are at least modestly surreptitious in these bargaining sessions. Others are not. Shea Flinn, who is camera-fodder and knows it, and who, as budget chairman, wields more than his share of power, prefers to work right out in the open, letting himself be seen in casual-looking but intense huddles with Wharton and other Council members.
Sunshine Law, Shmunshine Law: A deal had to be made.
The buyout concept had been safely extracted from a volatile package proposed a couple of weeks back by Councilmen Kemp Conrad and Reid Hedgepeth. What had made that package combustible and prompted a mass turnout by city union workers and supporters, both two weeks earlier and at Tuesday night’s Council meeting, was Conrad’s core proposal for a privatization of sanitation services.
Once Fullilove moved for the buyout, there was none of the shock among her colleagues that might have accompanied a surprise proposal. This one clearly had been group-vetted and had the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It provoked only modest discussion, and, on cue, Mayor Wharton materialized in the well to assure everyone that, by Golly, he could work with this idea and dot the i’s and cross the t’s of it.
Of course, he could, since, in general terms, he had already signed off on it.
But that was just Part One of the deal. Part Two came next, with a proposal from Flinn that rescued a previously discarded proposal by Harold Collins to restore the 18 cents that had been cut from the tax rate back in 2008. That was when the Council gambled it could renege on its annual payment to Memphis City Schools in the amount of $57 million.
The idea back then had been that state law requires school support only from county government. And surely the courts would see things the Council’s way, wouldn’t they? The courts didn’t, ruling that maintenance-of-effort provisions required the continuation of the city payments, and the Council, having blown most of its savings that year in an abundance of ways, some reckless, has been faced ever since with the wrenching problem of paying off MCS for the shortfall.
After members had had a chance, during the second of the two prolonged breaks, to vet the numbers on the 18-cent proposal, they came back in session and in short order approved this Part Two of the deal, contingent on the buyout as the buyout had been contingent on the tax proposal.
The only debate concerned whether Flinn’s original formulation, assessing the tax for the duration of “Memphis City Schools as an entity,” would pass muster, or whether another variation, to make the 18-cent assessment a one-year only tax, was preferable.
The difference was crucial and break-time discussions had hinged, among other things, on a sense that MCS superintendent Kriner Cash might be more inclined to agree on a settlement figure with the City if the tax weren’t so open-ended. That sealed the deal for the one-year-only version (renewable, of course, a year from now).
It was not without reason that, in the day or two following the budget deal, Councilman Conrad went on something of a media tour, claiming victory for his series of downsizing and privatizing proposals. These were also itemized in an impressively expansive list circulated in an all-points email by self-appointed budget-and-pension watchdog Joe Saino.
Given the fact that there was only one dissenter to the 18-cent component of the budget deal (Jim Strickland, who regarded it as a tax increase, pure and simple), one has to wonder what it is that members like, say, Joe Brown, who had campaigned to the end for workers’ rights, thought they had got from the deal.
And why did AFSCME members, who had been so agitated earlier about the specter of immediate privatization, appear to seem relieved.? The buyout portion of the budget deal amounts to forced attrition of their union — a clear step in the direction of ultimate privatization —and they failed to get any binding future-tense promises from the Council or from Wharton (who said he had “no plans” to privatize, employing the most famous of all political circumlocutions).
The labor-management aspects of the budget dilemma have not gone away or been resolved. They will return to haunt the Council again next year, at which time AFSCME will find it has a significantly weaker hand to play.
And so, too, will the tax issue come back to plague the Council. Almost certainly, MCS will still exist in some form or another a year from now, and almost certainly, too, major money will still be owed a still adamant MCS by the City. The Council will be debating the 18-cent add-on, or some version thereof, in June of 2012.
What it comes down to is that, for the time being, in an election year for city government, an unstable city budget, still eminently rupture-ready, has had, by general agreement of mayor and Council members, not one but two symmetrically arranged bandaids pasted on.
The package may hold for the time being. The problem is that the two bandaids themselves may prove to be corrosive.
Adopting the locution employed by former Mayor Willie Herenton when he left office in July 2009, Ware characterized her departure as a retirement.
Ina letter to city Human Resources director Quintin Robinson and Council chairman Myron Lowery, Ware said, “The decision to retire and leave my constituents, colleagues, and the other hard working and dedicated city employees is heart wrenching, but I sincerely believe it is the right thing to do.”
Ware, who represented District 7 in North Memphis, was considered a lynchpin of the Council’s African American members and a major agent of consensus on the Council. But her service was halted after she was charged in October of using her influence to secure automobile registrations, over a period of years, without going through the required inspection process.
Various members of the Shelby County Clerk’s office were also indicted and charged with bribery for receiving modest gratuities — usually in the amount of $5 — for assisting Ware in skirting the registration process.
Ware’s withdrawal from the city election process makes a free-for-all race in District 7 inevitable. Filing deadline is July 21. Meanwhile, Council chairman Myron Lowery said that the Council would name an interim replacement during the next 30 days.
“Ain’t No Sunshine…”: At a City Council meeting, as at County Commission meetings, or at equally crucial meeting of any other public body, the spirit and letter of the state Sunshine law, which in theory prohibits private meetings on matters being deliberated, is scarcely even winked at. Private conclaves occur with regularity, some in plain view, others not — especially during formal breaks in proceedings, when members can absent themselves in the break room.
Speaking of which, recent discussions about eliminating such modest council perks as drinks and snacks were reflected in the fact that only water bottles seemed to be in abundance Tuesday night as the Council, just under the gun of a pending deadline, convened to try to agree on a budget. There came a moment when lawyer Jim Strickland, one of those council members who have made a point of being willing to eliminate perks, went in search of a refreshment.
With dollar bills conspicuously gripped in his hand, long side up, Strickland headed out of the council chamber down the side aisle. He would emerge minutes later, striding up the center aisle, holding a bottle of Diet Sprite from the vending machine in the lobby. That’s called Making a Statement! (Pizza would turn up later for Council members, but it was reportedly paid for by Lowery out of pocket.)
Breaks: Aside from relieving the monotony of things at any given moment, or allowing for bathroom visitations and suchlike, the Council’s declared breaks often have, as indicated above, a strategic function. This is very likely why there is a complete lack of literalism in the allotted times specified by chairman Myron Lowery. As a rule of thumb, one might apply a factor of 3X. I.e., a “ten-minute” break on Tuesday night lasted perhaps 30 minutes, while a “15-minute” break lasted correspondingly longer.
The case can be made that, instead of rotating the chairmanship among members, Lowery should be made permanent chairman. Brusque as he is in cutting to the chase and moving members along, Lowery plays no favorites. He isn’t lacking in finesse, but his is ground to a fine edge, and his sense of proper order is both more flexible and more precise than Roberts’ Rules.
Given a situation like that of Tuesday night, when the full auditorium, as my colleague John Branston has noted, “belonged to AFSCME,” Lowery is vigilant in keeping down crowd shouts and ex tempore outbursts. But he knows when to give in, as when, at the tag end of public discussion, one audience member showed up in the well of the auditorium without having filled out a card requesting permission to speak. When the man, who was not unruly, made a show of stubbornness, and a murmur of support began in the crowd, Lowery relented. “Speak, brother,” he said. (Or words to that effect.)
There was a disproportion between the organized show of force in condemnation of privatizing the city’s sanitation work and the likelihood that a privatization proposal, like the one previously pushed by Councilman Kemp Conrad, would materialize in the budget. (Conrad himself kept a discreet low profile Tuesday night, and it was a telling fact that headlines around the nation on an AP story about Tuesday night's deliberations were variations on "Memphis Saves Jobs of Union Championed by King." )
But the lengthy series of speeches by union members and supporters — ranging from the first-person testimonies of workers to the cadenced slogans of activists to dry abstractions and number-crunching by men in rumpled suits — were perhaps a necessary background to the compromise eventually sounded by Council member Janis Fullilove.
The exact origin of Fullilove’s proposal — essentially to allow for workers to put in for voluntary buyouts, apparently independent of any fixed retirement age but according to a sliding scale relative to time on the job — is shrouded in mystery. But it resonated with her colleagues — and with Mayor A C Wharton, a constant side-aisle presence, along with his CAO, George Little. Wharton came to the well to offer his support and a pledge to fill in the blanks of such an arrangement.
The speaker mentioned above who was allowed to proceed without a card had attempted to get a commitment from Chairman Lowery that privatization of the sanitation workforce would be off the table in perpetuity. Lowery had answered that he could not commit future councils but that privatization wouldn’t be happening this time around.
For his part, Wharton resorted to the tried-and-true politician’s formula that he had “no plans, no intentions” to seek privatization and promised that any future such proposal would be subject to full public discussion.
Just as Fullilove’s buyout proposal had, in a sense, come out of nowhere, so in a way did budget chairman Shea Flinn’s proposal to add back the 18 cents that was dropped from the city’s property tax rate in 2008 when the Council made the ill-fated decision to withdraw. That was on the gamble that the entire burden would shift by state law to county government, thereby cutting $57 million off city's scheduled annual allotment to Memphis City Schools.
As is surely well known, the courts have since ruled otherwise, although, as Flinn acknowledged Tuesday night in tying his proposal to the longevity of “Memphis City Schools as an entity,” the ongoing process of merging MCS with Shelby County Schools, another matter undergoing judicial scrutiny, could resolve city government’s dilemma in reasonably short order.
Flinn’s formula was probably the right way to arrange it, but he was ultimately brought to accept as a friendly amendment the idea of a one-year 18-cent increase — one that, of course, could be renewed a year from now. Like the buyout, the tax proposal met with virtually no opposition. The only Council members not voting Aye were Ed Ford, who recused himself as a city school teacher, and Strickland, who chose to see the 18 cents not as a restoration but as a tax increase.
In the end, after weeks of discussion and disagreement, the budget seemed to have resolved itself more or less along lines — involving a judicious balance of cuts and additional revenue — suggested some time back by Wharton.
There was astonishingly little bloviating or showboating Tuesday night, a fact summed up, perhaps, by the fact that Joe Brown (an unusually accommodating presence himself) appeared to have used the expression “in so many words or less” only once — a record. Another inveterate dissenter, Wanda Halbert, contributed to the consensus as well, although a caveat of hers on the buyout, a to-whom-it-may-concern reminder that a $50,000 lump sum can be gone in no time, was well put.
Halbert, incidentally, proved to be the beneficiary of an ambiguous statement by Lowery, who habitually reminds members conducting private conversations that their mikes are “hot,” meaning still transmitting sound. At one point, he shorthanded the prompting, telling Halbert, “You’re hot.”
As a beaming Halbert herself would proclaim from the stage, that one became the subject of multiple tweets.A hat-tip to the tweeters, btw, a legion of whom, both in the auditorium and following proceedings online from elsewhere, kept up a steady stream of advisories, in so many words (no more than 140 characters at a time) or less.
One way or another, their basic message was: Let the Sushine In.
Weirich, though, seems to be settling into her job, and she's picking up the rate of her public exposure, making a number of speeches and other public appearances. One of her main emphases is on the need for cooperation between the interlocking units of local law enforcement.
Time was when the big midsummer gathering of politicians and political junkies was on July 4th at St. Peter’s Villa and Rehabilitation Center at Poplar and McLean. When that complex expanded over much of its foregrounds some years ago, the tradition was interrupted.
What has somewhat filled the breach is the annual Sidney Chism political picnic, held for the last several years on park grounds on Horn Lake Road. Saturday’s was the latest installment, and, though the recent string of near-100-degree days seemed to have abated somewhat on the shady grounds, at least sporadically, attendance seemed a bit down from previous years.
Public officials and wannabe officials were in evidence, though. More than usually, however, they seemed to be there in shifts rather than all at once. The 3 p.m. hour featured Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart, who was taking care to see and be seen, though she declined to discuss until “the time is right” what she has indicated will be a 2012 Democratic primary challenge to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.
Chism himself was something of a cynosure, in his role as chairman of the Shelby County Commission, which will resume attempts to reach agreement on a budget this week. Another question to be resolved at Monday’s regular commission meeting is whether a previous vote of the commission to defund the Office of Early Childhood and Youth will hold up.
One of the arguments on behalf of continuing the Office has been that it serves as a channel for as much as $6 million in additional state and federal funds.
When the commission’s budget committee revisited the matter last Wednesday, it deadlocked 4-4, with 3 abstentions. The three not voting were Democrat Henri Brooks, known to be cool toward Director of Community Services Dottie Jones, under whose umbrella OECY operates,; Justin Ford, the first-term Democrat whose inscrutability on hot-button issues is fast becoming proverbial; and Chism, whose critics suggest that his attitude is influenced by the fact that his rival for next year’s commission chairmanship, Mike Carpenter, is leading the charge for OECY.
The current lineup of forces is such that retention of funding for OECY will require at least two of those three abstentions on Wednesday to become Yes votes on Monday.
Asked about the matter at his picnic, Chism said it was likely he would end up voting to fund OECY, but only if the current proposal is “tweaked” to accommodate a number of factors, including Brooks’ desire and his own for more direct African-American leadership in the Office. He also suggested that some reform ideas proposed by Republican commissioner Heidi Shafer should be considered.
At Wednesday’s budget committee meeting, Chism had expressed ire about being targeted by “a P.R. campaign” on behalf of OECY. Part of that came from OECY administrator Julie Coffey, who had urged backers of the Office to lobby commissioners on its behalf and, Chism said, had done so on the OECY website. Chism said Saturday he had heard that Coffey would be leaving her post in August, creating the opportunity to hire or promote an African American into her position.
That outcome, he suggested, might kill two birds.
Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland, a Millington Republican and a bona fide right-wing populist, uttered words Saturday that one of his Democratic commission colleagues would have been delighted to hear.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Roland said to the attendees at a monthly meeting of the arch-conservative Dutch Treat Luncheon at Jason’s Delicatessen on Poplar. “I am going to vote for Sidney Chism for chairman. He’s willing to listen to us.”
Roland thereby made public what most observers of the commission already knew or suspected — that in the forthcoming commission reorganization slated for August he will eschew voting for fellow Republican Mike Carpenter, who as vice chair of the commission, would ordinarily be entitled to ascend to the chairmanship by established protocol.
But it is no secret that the independent-minded Carpenter has little or no support from his GOP colleagues in his forthcoming contest with current chairman Chism, who intends to break with precedent— seeking a second consecutive term and thereby altering the formula whereby the commission chairmanship has rotated annually between a Democrat and a Republican.
Roland’s evaluation of Carpenter’s party credentials was colorfully put: “If he’s a Republican, I’m a Russian tank driver!”
His characterizations of various other political figures were equally outspoken. Veteran Democratic commissioner Walter Bailey? “A lunatic.”
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, another fellow Republican? “He doesn’t take a stand. He’s a decent man, a smart man, but I think somebody’s guiding him.”
Former county mayor and current Memphis mayor A C Wharton? “I’ll tell you this. I wouldn’t vote for him for anything!”
On “moderates” in general: “They don’t know who they are.”
Roland had no especially trenchant phrase to describe Democratic commissioner Steve Mulroy, but his criticisms of Mulroy were so frequent that one or two of his hearers wondered out loud if the District 5 Democrat was the secret force controlling everything they disliked about the drift — “communistic,” as one attendee put it — of city and county government.
“Naw, he’s just a commissioner like me,” Roland said, in one of his few deviations from hyperbole.
Roland’s vision of city/county relations is unflattering to Memphis, which he sees as determined to freeload on the residents of the suburbs and outer county, who account for 54 percent of county property tax revenues while city residents require most of the social services such money pays for.
“That’s what this consolidation is all about,” said Roland. “And what they couldn’t win at the ballot box, they’re trying to get through the back door with this school merger.”
The Millington commissioner noted that two recent industrial recruitments — of Mitsubishi and Electrolux plants-to-be — were to be located within the Memphis city limits, giving the city yet another potential edge. He seemed taken aback by the $97 million the state has offered Electrolux to relocate here from Quebec. (City and county governments have pledged another $20 million each.)
“There’s no guarantee that they’ll stay,” Roland said about Electolux. He talked about going to Nashville during the 2011 legislative session and sounding out legislators about a plan for the state to withhold its contribution until city supporters of school merger dropped the idea. “The very next day,” he said, Lt. Governor/Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey raised questions about expending the $97 million.
Roland offered some ideas for resolving national and international issues as well.
His recommendation for dealing with American businesses that have relocated abroad: Tell them that if they don’t bring the jobs back, “we’re gonna put a tariff on you!”
His proposal for dealing with Pakistan for having harbored the late Osama bin Laden: “We ought to give ‘em a bomb, and if they act up, tell ‘em they’ll get another!”
Coming back to Shelby County earth, Roland reiterated his opposition to the refunding of the county’s Office of Early Childhood and Youth, a $417,000 commitment which proponents say would allow the office to leverage as much as $6 million in state and federal grants for the county.
“That’s taxpayer money, too!” Roland said. “We’ve got to stop this somewhere.”
The commissioner had one warning for his adversaries in this or any other showdown: "This old dog bites back!"
Susan Cooper, the state Health Commissioner, had insisted in a letter to Madlock the previous week that the Shelby County Health Department agree to accept the full $1,345,000 in Title X federal funding which the legislature had appropriated to Shelby County for family planning services in the coming fiscal year.
Faced with a deadline for deciding by Friday, June 10, Madlock asked for and got an additional week to respond. In a letter to Cooper sent on Wednesday, June 15, the Shelby County Health Department head agreed to accept the full funding due Shelby County but made her acceptance contingent on two conditions.
Madlock spelled out her conditions: “First, acceptance of the increased funding level is not directly associated with a specific case-load…Secondly, in the event that Shelby County is unable to support the level of expansion necessary to fully earn all of the additional available funds, the County will seek to subcontract with qualified health care provider(s) to provide Title X services.” Her acceptance of the full funding was “contingent upon the State granting Shelby County the authority to enter into such sub-contracts following purchasing policies and procedures of Shelby County Government.”
In other words, Madlock was saying that she would not commit the county Health Department to handle every available case. She has consistently insisted that her department lacks the physical resources to do so, even with the full funding. And, she said in effect, unless her department had the authority to sub-contract with back-up agencies of its own choice, there was no deal.
The backstory of all this lies in efforts this year by a Republican-dominated state government to disengage family planning services from any involvement with Planned Parenthood, the massive non-profit chain which is the largest national provider of gynecological services, including abortion, and which has historically shared Title X contracts with county health departments in Tennessee, notably in Davidson County (Nashville) and Shelby County.
A bill sponsored by state Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) and passed by both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly had explicitly eliminated Planned Parenthood from any share in the funding or administration of Title X family planning services. Though Planned Parenthood boasts a full array of family-related services it is a major provider of abortions, especially for low-income women, and social conservatives begrudge it for that reason.
Subsequent to the Campfield bill’s passage, an add-on clause of still unexplained origin was discovered in the bill that, in effect, invalidated that portion of the measure.
Undeterred, Lt. Governor/Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and other GOP opponents of Planned Parenthood, supported by Governor Bill Haslam, pressed for administrative elimination of Planned Parenthood from Title X programs. Hence Cooper’s de facto ultimatum of last week to both Madlock and her counterparts at the Davidson County (Nashville) Health Department that they accept full funding and full responsibility for Title X activity.
The Davidson County department signaled to Cooper its unconditional acceptance and simultaneously indicated this would mean a drop in the number of cases that could be handled. Madlock refrained from such an unconditional acceptance last week, and this week’s formal response to Cooper left her position unchanged. Though both she and Planned Parenthood’s Shelby County director, Barry Chase, said on Friday there had been no direct communications between them for several weeks, the bottom line seemed to be that, as Madlock said last week, Planned Parenthood continued to be on her list of hypothetical family service partners.
In Shelby County as in the nation at large, Planned Parenthood has served as a funded agent for family planning services since 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, which created the Title X program.
Bill Haslam’s visit to Memphis on Wednesday, during which he addressed a conclave of area teachers and signed a landmark bill at a newly opened charter school in south Memphis, gave Tennessee’s first-year Republican governor the opportunity to tout his education agenda.
And tout it he did, first to an auditorium-full of attendees at the annual summer conference of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence at Presbyterian Day School. The Institute, which was founded by philanthropist Brad Martin, a retired department store executive and former state representative who was on stage with Haslam, provides professional enhancement opportunities for public and private school teachers, and both kinds gave Haslam animated attention.
The governor reviewed some statistics he wanted to change in the state — notably a declining rate of students seeking college degrees and Tennessee’s decline into the 40s in the ranking of states with regard to their educational achievement.
Haslam singled out as victories for his agenda two bills passed in the 2011 legislative session — a measure raising the bar for public school teachers to achieve tenure, and another bill raising the cap on the number and kind of charter schools permitted in the state. Conspicuously, the governor did not mention another widely noticed legislative marker — a bill, spearheaded by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, the state Senate Speaker, which abolished collective bargaining privileges for public school teachers in Tennessee.
The governor was asked about that omission at his second stop, Freedom Preparatory Academy, housed the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church building on Fields Road in south Memphis. “It actually was not part of our agenda,” Haslam acknowledged. “In the end, I think where it came out was something we obviously did sign on to, and I signed the bill. But that wasn’t originally a part of our agenda. ..Do I think it will serve the state? Yes, I do.”
Haslam used the occasion of his visit at Freedom Preparatory Academy to sign the bill which raised the cap on charter schools in Tennessee. He was accompanied at the bill signing by a contingent of bill sponsors and supporters, both Democrats and Republicans.
Charter schools were not a magic solution to Tennessee’s educational needs, Haslam stressed, merely “another thing that will help our educational system get better. “ He pointed out that charter schools are liable to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools in Tennessee and can only be authorized by an established school district, or by the new Achievement School District (ASD) created last year as part of the state’s successful application for Race to the Top federal funding.
With the governor at the bill-signing ceremony was Chris Barbic, who on August 1 will become the new director of the ASD and introduced himself to news media representatives.
Coincidentally, on Thursday, the day after the visit to Memphis by Haslam and Barbic, the state Education Department announced that the ASD would “co-manage” four “failing” schools in Shelby County — Frayser High School, Hamilton High School, Northside High School, and Raleigh-Egypt Middle School.
Essentially co-management means that Memphis City Schools will still be responsible for teachers, principals, and other personnel, while the state manages academic matters at the school.
Today’s email tray brings news from “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality” that former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., now working on Wall Street and a resident of New York, has done a full 180-degree turn on the opposition to same-sex marriage which he expressed as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee in 2006.
Ford, whose trial run for a 2008 Senate campaign in New York was aborted, partly because of organized opposition by the state’s gay community to his candidacy, has now made a video for “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality,” in which he says the following:
“I’m former congressman Harold Ford, and I’m a New Yorker for marriage equality. I’m proud to say that my views on this issue of marriage equality have changed. I’ve listened, and I’ve learned. I believe committed gay and lesbian couples in New York should be able to marry. So join me and a super-majority of New Yorkers who view this issue as a matter of basic fairness. It’s time to get this done.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that a bill to legalize same-sex marriage is gathering steam in the New York state Senate and that the video featuring Ford's change of mind is being employed as part of proponents' campaign to pass the bill.
Says the Times article:
"Mr Ford, a Democrat who is now a New Yorker, long opposed such unions, even backing a constitutional amendment to ban them as a member of the House.
"The ad’s message, said Brian Ellner of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group that made the video, is that lawmakers should not hesitate to change their mind on an issue of civil rights."
Here is the Ford video:
"As you continue to consider the FY2012 Shelby County budget in your role as a member of the County Commission, I hope that you will take the time to re-visit the vote you cast this Monday to de-fund the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OECY).
"As a former County Commissioner, I understand that oftentimes the proposals laid before you for consideration may not include details about the possible ramifications that could result upon their implementation. Normally, I do not get involved in County Commission business, but the vote that was cast on Monday to de-fund the OECY is one that, should it be implemented, would result in our county losing out on access to millions of federal dollars. By stripping the $450,000 in funding for the OECY, the county will lose approximately $6 million in federal funds for programs that help the neediest among our constituents.
"The OECY's focus on our community's children is one that is unparalleled. Its child impact study program is the first—and only—one of its kind in the nation. The OECY's encouragement of community partnerships is a factor that helps private and non-profit organizations across the county apply for grants from the state and federal governments.
"To de-fund an initiative that has made such great strides in the few years it has existed would be a grave mistake for the Commission. By not allowing the OECY to achieve its full potential and continue to operate, we will not only lose out on the millions of federal dollars that the county is currently slated to receive, but we will never be able to realize the impact that such an initiative would have on our community's children and families years from now.
"It is my understanding that you will have the opportunity to consider this measure again on June 20th. If you have any questions about the information contained above or the federal funds that the OECY is scheduled to receive should it remain operational, I hope that you will feel free to contact me. I am hopeful that you will sincerely consider the information that I have shared with you about the importance of the Office of Early Childhood and Youth and vote to maintain funding for it when you are again given the opportunity."
Among others, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has also strongly urged the commission to reconsider.
When several thousand teachers from all across Tennessee gathered in Nashville in March to protest forthcoming legislation they regarded as punitive and repressive, they staged a rally in the middle of a downpour. When several hundred activists representing “a coalition of minorities” from all over Memphis gathered on Sunday at First Congregational Church in Memphis to protest the effect of this year’s legislative actions, they did so outdoors in 100 degree weather.
The protests in March at War Memorial Plaza were energetic and, in places, inspired. The same holds for the call-and-response between speakers and attendees at the "Justice for All" rally at First Congo.
But that specter did not deter the determination of the "Justice for All" ralliers. As Michelle Bliss of the Tennessee Equality Project, moderator for the event, proclaimed, “We’re here, we’re together, and we will not be quiet!”
As the speakers at the rally, each a representative of a different challenged group, pointed out, there were formidable obstacles to confront at every level of government. Jacob Flowers of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center described the current political environment as ”a deficiency of love…from City Hall to Nashville to Washington.”
For Katy Smith of Planned Parenthood, the issue was state government’s current push to exclude her organization from involvement with federally funded family planning services. For Marion Bacon, a disabled person, the adversary was the newly enacted HB600, a bill prohibiting local non-discrimination ordinances, or as protesters call it, the “SAD Act” (for “Special Access to Discriminate.”).
Gaby Benitez of the Tennesse Immigration rights Refugee Coalition, noted various legislative efforts aimed at immigrants and broke into tears as she expressed a fear that her father would be deported before he could see her graduate from the University of Memphis.
Shelley Seeberg of AFSCME lamented efforts on the City Council to out-source sanitation work and the County Commission vote to reduce pension levels for public employees.
Bliss had begun the event by saying, “”When justice is denied to any one of us, we are all less free,” and calling upon those in attendance to join a “coalition of minorities.” In concluding Will Batts, executive director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, struck a similar note.
“Our opponents want us insular with tunnel vision,” Batts said. “We will be stronger, more effective if we work together….We will speak together, we will shout together, and we will win that way.”
Among the public officials on hand were 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, state Senate Beverly Marrero, state Representative Antonio Parkinson, and Memphis City Schools board member Jeff Warren.
Conceived originally as a means of protesting specific legislative acts in the 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly, the rally has picked up steam from ongoing developments affecting two social programs — family planning services, the hot-button aspect of which is a concerted effort by a Republican-dominated state government to abolish the participation of Planned Parenthood; and the local Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OCEY), threatened with imminent defunding by the Shelby County Commission.
OCEY: A rosier prognosis attaches to the latter issue. Even before a fresh salvo of support for OCEY from sources like The Commercial Appeal editorial page, influential blogger Tom Jones, and, most importantly, county mayor Mark Luttrell, the commission’s 8-3 to divest the Office of $450,000 last Monday was due for formal reconsideration and likely overhaul.
First of all, commission chairman Sidney Chism’s vote against funding was widely regarded as a “prevailing-side” vote, meaning that, sizing up the likely result of Monday, he voted the way he did so that, as a member of the prevailing side, he could call for a re-vote on Monday, June 20, when the commission meets again.
Switch Chism over, and the margin becomes 7-4. Add votes on OCEY’s behalf from two Democrats, Steve Mulroy, who was vacationing last Monday, and James Harvey, who was in attendance but had left before the vote on OCEY, probably in response to the unexpected appearance in the county building of a woman with a private grievance screeching threats and insults at him. The margin now becomes 7-6.
All that would be needed to reverse last Monday’s judgment would be a crossover of one vote — probably from a Democrat, probably from Justin Ford. Most likely not from Henri Brooks, whose vote against OCEY was interpreted by several colleagues as a continuation of her feud with Division of Community Services director Dottie Jones.
Jones has argued, as did Commissioner Mike Carpenter last Monday, that defunding OCEY would simultaeously leave the county short of some $6 million in state and federal funding routed to OCEY in its role as clearing house for a variety of child-related programs.
Family Services and Planned Parenthood: As the Flyer first reported on Friday, Shelby County Health Department director Yvonne Madlock is resolved to involve “partners” in dealing with family planning services channeled by the state from Title X federal funds, would not exclude Planned Parenthood as a potential partner, and has petitioned the state Health Department for additional time to arrange something.
The state Health Department had set Friday as a deadline for previously uncommitted county health departments — read those of Davidson and Shelby counties — to respond to the state’s imperative that local county departments function as the sole recipient of funding and dispenser of family planning services. Davidson gave in; as of the weekend at least, Madlock, on behalf of Shelby, had not, and state Health Commissioner Susan Cooper granted her an additional week to decide.
The backstory of all this is Republican conservatives’ efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which had previously dispensed family planning services in both Davidson and Shelby counties. A bill, sponsored by state Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), was passed to the end of detaching the non-profit organization from such services by mandating that funding and administration of them be the sole responsibility of county health departments. Though it boasts a full array of services related to family health issues, Planned Parenthood is considered by social conservatives to be a front for abortion.
But the discovery of a mystery clause in the bill seemed to restore the status quo, under which Planned Parenthood could be a player.
That led to a full-court press from Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and other leading Republican officials — including, at least nominally, Governor Bill Haslam and state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville — to achieve the purpose of excluding Planned Parenthood from family planning by executive means. Hence the arm-twisting from Commissioner Cooper, who dispatched a letter last week urging Madlock and her Davidson County counterpart to accept full responsibility for family planning services.
Madlock’s essential reason for demurring is that the Shelby County Health Department, especially at a time of budget retrenchment, is not able to provide comprehensive family planning services all by itself. She is holding out for a partnership arrangement and hopes to use the extra week’s grace period to accomplish one. As for Planned Parenthood, her tentative pronouncement is that she is predisposed to “neither include nor exclude” the organization.
Planned Parenthood’s many local supporters will doubtless be out in force at the Justice for All Rally.
Another act of state government sure to be protested at the rally is arguably, like the family services matter, a case of overriding the options of local government. This was HB600, a bill prohibiting local jurisdictions from enacting their own workplace discrimination ordinances. Passed by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by Governor Haslam, the bill overturned a freshly passed ordinance by the Nashville Metro Council and pre-empted potential ones by the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission.
And Madlock makes it clear that her department is still hoping to avail itself of local family planning partners so as to “make sure that those resources that have been dedicated to Shelby County come to Shelby County.” As she has before, Madlock maintains that the county Health Department, by itself, “does not have the current capacity” to serve the sizable target population of lower-income women and families in need of family planning services.
“We are going to avail ourselves of being 'creative' partners in making sure these resources are available,” Madlock said, citing what appears to have been a suggested option in the original letter from state Health Commissioner Susan Cooper which sought to commit the local Health Department to assume the full family planning burden of Shelby County.
Madlock said that her Department in its search for such partners “would not include or exclude” Planned Parenthood, the non-profit organization which has traditionally participated with the local Health Department in providing Title X family planning services.
Planned Parenthood was explicitly targeted for exclusion from the Title X program in legislation passed on May 21, the last day of the 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly.
A technical sentence in the bill was later adjudged, however, to have nullified the intent of the bill's sponsor, state Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), and other ultra-conservative foes of Planned Parenthood who sought to defund the organization.
Hence an intense campaign by opponents of abortion over the last two weeks to achieve the exclusion of Planned Parenthood by executive means.
In that original letter from Commissioner Cooper to Madlock, dated March 24, at a time when Campfield's legislation was first being considered, a key paragraph read as follows: “If the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department is hesitant to accept the full funding because it does not have the capacity to serve this number of unduplicated patients, I would encourage you to think creatively and consider working with community partners who could assist the health department in providing family planning services to the residents of your county.”
However, a second, firmer letter was sent by Cooper this past week with at least the acquiescence of Governor Bill Haslam and under strong urging from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the state Senate Speaker and a leading foe of Planned Parenthood. Ramsey, like other adversaries of the organization, considers it a prime enabler of legal abortion, though Planned Parenthood officials contend that it offers a full array of consultative services relating to family health matters.
Cooper's new letter dropped the reference to “unduplicated patients,” substituting the word “citizens”. The letter further asked Madlock that her department take “every step possible” to assume the entire Title X burden.
While Madlock was still considering a preliminary response, the Health Department of Nashville and Davidson County, which had received a version of the same letter, gave what appeared to be an affirmative response to Cooper, simultaneously indicating that compliance would mean a reduction in the number of women served.
The Davidson County action prompted a news release from Ramsey on Friday that included the following statement:
“We are at long last moving towards the final stages of the Planned Parenthood shell game....It has always been the ambition of Republicans in the legislature to defund this organization. I was proud to lead the charge to turn over family planning services to the county health departments effectively defunding the organization in 93 out of 95 counties. I’d like to praise the Governor for working to completely turn off the spigot of taxpayer funds to Planned Parenthood."
The Lieutenant Governor seemed clearly to be celebrating the end of a contest — one more case, like his successful insistence on legislation prohibiting collective bargaining by public school teachers, in which he succeeded in achieving a stronger outcome than one advanced by Haslam. Though both the governor and Ramsey deny it, more than a few observers see the two ranking Republican office-holders to be in an undeclared rivalry for influence.
But Madlock is so far sticking to her insistence that family planning services cannot be adequately provided in Shelby County without partners who can assist in administering the Title X program with demonstrated expertise and with an independent ability to raise supplementary funds.
And, while she would not limit a definition of such potential partners to Planned Parenthood, Madlock definitely acknowledged that the organization answered the criteria. She said her effort at formulating a “creative” idea for partnership would be communicated to Cooper by the middle of next week.