Sunday, March 31, 2013

What's Ron Ramsey Got in Store for You? Let the Man Who Steers Tennessee's Legislature Tell You Himself...

Really, you should take the time here to find out. Medicaid? Background checks on guns? School vouchers? Whether you should keep the right to nominate your U.S. Senator? It's all here.

Posted By on Sun, Mar 31, 2013 at 7:51 AM

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey
  • JB
  • Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey

The video of this candid exchange between Capitol Hill reporters and the man who is arguably calling most of the shots in Tennessee state government begins as Ramsey is explaining why he seems to be rushing to get through the current session — something that isolated (and intrepid) members of his own Republican Party have dared to complain about.

The video ends as Ramsey is explaining why it really isn't necessary for Tennessee voters to vote on nominating candidates for the U.S. Senate — an idea which may shortly find itself on the way to being state law.

In between, Ramsey....Well, see and hear for yourself. This installment is no longer than a TV sitcom, and, unlike, say, The Big Bang Theory, this one features you as the main character. You really need to know what he's got planned for you. Get your popcorn, kiddies....

This Is Your State Government: Ron Ramsey Speaks His Mind to Reporters from Jackson Baker on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Haslam Says No to Medicaid Expansion, Announces Stopgap Called "Tennessee Plan"

Governor's substitute would seek to 'leverage" existing federal dollars to purchase private insurance for uninsured; VIDEO: “Watchdog” Kelsey adds double whammy, pushing bill to prohibit Medicaid expansion forevermore.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 12:16 PM

Haslam facing the press after announcing decision
  • JB
  • Haslam facing the press after announcing decision

NASHVILLE — After months of delaying his answer on whether to accept an expansion of TennCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, with funds provided by the Affordable Care Act, Governor Bill Haslam finally had something to say on the issue Wednesday, and it was a very hedged No.

Haslam first spoke at length to a joint morning session of the General Assembly, unveiling what he called “the ‘Tennessee Plan’ for Health Care Reform. He then retired to the conference room of his Capitol office, where he faced questions from reporters in shifts — dealing with print reporters first, then members of the broadcast media.

The “Tennessee Plan,” as outlined by Haslam in his remarks to the General Assembly and in an accompanying press release would “leverage the available federal dollars to purchase private health insurance for Tennesseans who would not otherwise have access to coverage.”

The problem, Democratic legislators responded, is that there will be no new "available federal dollars" to "leverage," short of accepting expansion under the terms of the Act. "What the governor would like to do, to appease his base, is have access to the Obamacare dollars without subscribing to the Obamacare plan. I don't see how he can do that," said state Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis). "He seems to be asking for a waiver, but he has nothing resembling a business plan, and, without that, he won't get it."

"I think the result will be disastrous," said state Rep. Mike Turner (D-Nashville), the Democratic caucus leader in the House." I think with workers' comp [legislation] and this, we're setting up to become the sickest,unhealthiest state in the nation."

As might be expected, Republicans were more sanguine about te consequences of the governor's decision. State Rep. Jim Coley (R-Bartlett) called Haslam's action "prudent," though he said he also thought the governor should not be hindered in pursuing further negotiations with the Obama administration.

As with any complex governmental schema, the devil is in the details as to how results equivalent or nearly so to what was offered the state by Obamacare can be achieved by Haslam’s ad hoc solution. In the case of the “Tennessee Plan,” those details are devilishly vague.

As summarized in information sheets distributed along with the Governor’s remarks, the plan would:

— Leverage available federal dollars to purchase private health insurance for Tennesseans up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level who don't have access to health insurance, which would translate to 175,000 more insured Tennesseans;

— Allow co-pays for those who can afford to pay something;

— Include a definitive circuit-breaker or sunset of the plan that could only be renewed with the General Assembly's approval;

— And reform the payment structure for providers so they are compensated for health outcomes, not just based on services performed.

— And reform the payment structure for providers so they are compensated for health outcomes, not just based on services performed.

Haslam faced sharp questioning from reporters in his Conference Room session. Asked if he wasn’t just “kicking the can down the road” and forsaking an immediate $1 billion in federal funding, the governor said, “We’re not giving up on our version of what we’re asking for.”

He said that, “Two days ago we were almost there,” but, after a Monday evening conversation with federal Health and Human Service officials, “we did not get our questions answered.”

Asked if he hadn’t merely found an expedient way to dodge potential criticism from Republican legislators who would have vehemently opposed acceptance of Medicaid expansion under the federal Act, Haslam acknowledged that acceptance would have meant “a very uphill climb.”

With expansion of the Medicaid rolls under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would have paid 100 percent of the expenses of expansion for the first three years and no less than 90 percent thereafter. Even governors as conservative as Rick Scott of Florida had accepted the formula under the implied option of bailing out of the program when the three years were up.

Haslam said he did not regard such a temporizing as useful.

On the day of the governor’s announcement, the lobby of Legislative Plaza was filled with signs and exhibits from various groups taking a position on Medicaid expansion, most of them urging acceptance.

Meanwhile, state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) promised to continue being a "watchdog" to prevent any further prospect of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Though there had been conjecture that he would shelve a bill (SB 84)he has introduced to that end, he spoke for it in the Senate Commerce and Labor Comittee later Tuesday and asked for, and got a favorable 7-2 vote. The two no votes in committee were from Democrats Charlotte Burks of Montery and Reginald Tate of Memphis.

Senator Burks wondered out loud if the legislature had the authority to prevent action by the governor on TennCare, which has traditionally been the administration’s province. Kelsey answered that the General Assembly had surrendered control of too many governmental areas to the executive branch and that his bill was intended to reclaim this one administrative corner.

His bill had previously been amended by Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville) to acknowledge that the governor might continue negotiations with the Obama administration but stipulated that any agreement had to be approved by the General Assembly. Kelsey did not disapprove, and the bill was approved in that form and forwarded on to the Senate Finance Committee.

VIDEO of Sen. Kelsey vowing eternal vigilance against Medicaid expansion:

MTK

Monday, March 25, 2013

Looking at County Mayor Race, Ritz Unworried by Effort to Recall Him, Ban Him from GOP

County Commission chairman calls move "best thing possible" for his contemplated 2014 run as independent.

Posted By on Mon, Mar 25, 2013 at 11:08 AM

Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz
  • Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz
Though Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz, up to this point a Republican in good standing, says, “I certainly won’t volunteer to leave the party,” he professes not to be concerned about efforts by a group of discontented local Republicans to have him recalled as chairman and declared “persona non grata” by the state Republican executive committee.

And he thinks the whole development could be “quite frankly, helpful” to him in a plan he’s actively considering to run for County Mayor in 2014 as an independent.

About the recall effort, announced at Sunday’s county Republican convention by a group associated with the Tea Party movement, Ritz contended that most of his critics live outside the area he represents, District 1, which takes in much of the City of Memphis from midtown to its eastern periphery as well as scattered precincts in its adjoining suburbs.

Ritz says he doubts that 21,000 signatures could be found inside his district for a recall petition. That’s the number — 15 percent of the district’s registered voters — estimated as necessary according to state law by Mick Wright, a vice chair of the county GOP organization who is supporting the recall effort.

“Now, they might have an easy time of it out in the county,” Ritz said, meaning essentially District 4, which takes in unincorporated areas of Shelby County as well as six suburban municipalities which are seeking to form independent school districts and are resisting long-term involvement in the Unified city-county school district which Ritz supports. “The mayors out there might even circulate the petition themselves,” Ritz said, only half joking.

Rather famously, Republican Ritz and seven County Commission Democrats have formed a solid bloc of 8 in favor of completing the unification of city and county schools and litigating against efforts by the suburban municipalities to secede from the school consolidation forced by the December 2010 surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter. Vote after vote on the Commission has produced an 8-5 outcome, with five Republican members —three from District 4 and two from District 1 — voting against the majority.

Wright, who is involved both in the recall effort and a parallel one to have Ritz formally excommunicated from the Republican Party, engaged in a little guerilla theater in the course of a speech supporting his own reelection at Sunday’s GOP convention.

Wright at GOP convention with Ritz crackers
  • Wright at GOP convention with Ritz crackers
He told the audience, “I was at Kroger, needing to pick up a few things. I found the items on
my list and made it to the checkout. As the clerk was scanning the last item in my cart, I told her to stop — I didn't choose that.” He paused, then brandished a box of Ritz crackers.

“It was Ritz,” Wright said, continuing, “’I said, ‘I don't want that.’ She said, ‘Ritz is completely crackers.’
I said, ‘I know, I don't want Ritz.…’”

Wright continued his routine, using anecdotes that made the case against chairman Ritz for supporting increases in County sales and property taxes, pressing expensive litigation against the suburbs, and allegedly attempting to “pack” the Unified School Board with six new appointed members.

Other Republicans active in the anti-Ritz movement are Yvonne Burton, Brad Snyder, and Joe and John Fox, twin brothers who are also looking into legal ways of having the Cordova section of Memphis de-annexed.

In an interview with the Flyer, Wright drew a parallel between Ritz and state Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethtown, who incurred the wrath of state Republicans when Williams, a Republican himself, became Speaker of the House in 2009 with 49 Democratic votes to go with his own, thereby defeating the designated GOP candidate for Speaker.

Williams was declared persona non grata by the state Republican executive committee, an action which kept him from running for office thenceforth as a Republican. He is now listed as an Independent and won reelection twice under that mantle.

Ritz, too, term-limited and unable to run again for his Commission seat, foresees no negative consequences to his political future should he suffer a fate similar to Williams'. He doubts things will come to that, but, given his mayoral-race plans, “If they kick me out, it could be the best thing possible for my candidacy.”

Running as an independent candidate for Shelby County Mayor against Luttrell and any of several possible Democrats, he could at the very least be something of a “spoiler,” Ritz believes. And if Luttrell should accept an appointive office from Governor Bill Haslam — something Ritz thinks is possible — “my vote potential looks better and better.”

Whatever happens, Ritz says, he’s perfectly at ease with the political positions he’s taken, attributing them all to a sense of fiscal responsibility. “I think most people see that I’m a moderate, and that’s basically what I am.”

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Naming Committee Meets on Parks, Finds Agreement on Issues Difficult

Opinions differ on body's mission; Confederate history described as everything from treasonous to progressive.

Posted By on Sun, Mar 24, 2013 at 10:54 PM

The committee on renaming parks had its inaugural meeting Friday in the City Council conference room.
  • JB
  • The committee on renaming parks had its inaugural meeting Friday in the City Council conference room.

The City Council-appointed Committee on Renaming Parks held its inaugural meeting on Friday in City Hall and made plans for a second meeting on April 1st where the public can express its views in a town hall format.

If that meeting should feature as many disparate points of view as the one on Friday — and there is every reason to believe such will be the case — the public meeting could turn into a wild and woolly affair.

Such was not the case on Friday, inasmuch as the committee’s Council co-chairs, Bill Boyd and Harold Collins, did their best to insure that decorum prevailed and the committee members managed to disagree — and occasionally agree — in polite fashion.

But the variance in points of view was wide enough on what happened in the past — the Civil War portion of it, anyhow — that the chances of agreement on how to commemorate that past seemed remote. That was especially the case since Councilman Boyd, who did most of the moderating, expressed himself as being somewhat less than fully grateful for naming suggestions made earlier in the week by Mayor A C Wharton and Councilman Jim Strickland.

In a letter addressed to committee members, Wharton and Strickland proposed the name of “Civil War Park” for what had been “Forrest Park” and “Battle of Memphis Park” for what had been “Confederate Park” before the Council assigned placeholder names to the parks in response to pending legislation in Nashville that would have closed off their options.

Apparently miffed because the letter was made public before the committee had a chance to meet, Boyd expressed mild, possibly tongue-in-cheek displeasure at the start of Friday’s meeting about being “upstaged."

The Rev. Keith Norman, current president of the Memphis NAACP, made it clear early in the meeting that he regarded the idea of paying homage to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a “slave trader,” as unacceptable and that the Southern Confederacy, whose reason for being was to further slavery, was a case of treason against the United States and therefore deserving of no honor.

That was one flank of the debate. The other was provided fairly quickly by Becky Muska, a late appointment by Boyd, who as head of the Council’s regular parks committee had taken on the responsibility of selecting all the members of the naming committee, the formation of which had been formally proposed by Strickland.

Muska, said Boyd later, had been recommended to him and was chosen because her ancestors had settled in Memphis early in the river community’s history.

Her explanation for the Confederacy and the Civil War was as distant from that of Norman as could be imagined. The 13 Southern states that seceded had done so not because of slavery, she said, but in defense of “states’ rights,” and their grievance was against high tariffs on Southern agricultural exports imposed by Northern manufacturing interests.

As far as Forrest Park went, it was an outgrowth of Progressive Era politics and had the support of Robert Church, a Memphis African-American eminence, she said. For all the volatility generated by disputes over Forrest and the Confederacy and the meaning of that aspect of history, “I don’t feel ashamed, and I don’t feel embarrassed.”

Opinions of the other members present were at all points of the spectrum in between the poles provided by Norman and Muska.

The other members of the committee, also present and taking part, were: Jimmy Ogle, current president of the Shelby County Historical Commission; Larry Smith, deputy director of Parks & Neighborhoods for the City of Memphis; Michael Robinson, chairman of African & African American Studies at LeMoyne Owen College; Douglas Cupples, former adjunct instructor of history at the University of Memphis; and Beverly Bond, associate professor of history at the University of Memphis.

Bond was just as insistent as Norman was that notice be taken of the negative side of Forrest’s history — including his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan as its first Grand Wizard — and that, in a general revamping of parks, the history of African Americans and their contributions be given their overdue attention and that accurate accounts of the Civil War period be accounted for. She acknowledged that the statue of Forrest and the gravesites of the general and his wife at the base of it were “not going anywhere.”

That point of view was also expressed by Cupples, who had begun the day’s discussion by suggesting that the task of updating the artifacts and monuments of Memphis history involved “adding to, not taking away.’ Cupples also argued that it was not the business of the committee to come to a consensus about the Confederacy, “whether it was ‘treason’ or not.”

Both Ogle and Smith also attempted to route the discussion away from forming conclusions about history. Ogle noted that the saga of Memphis was abundant with examples of every kind of historical development, telling “the story of American better than any other city,” and that ample potential parkland existed to pay tribute to any and all points of view.

Smith took the point of view that the committee’s purpose was to formulate guidelines for future development of park properties. “I don’t think we’re here to name a park,” he said bluntly (and somewhat surprisingly, given the publicly stated purpose of the committee).

Councilman Collins got in the last words at Friday’s meeting, commenting that Memphis was, “believe it or not, the 18th largest city in the nation, a metropolis,” and that “we want to be one of the nation’s largest progressive cities.” Consequently, he said, “our mission is bigger than our own opinions.” The committee’s task was to do what “benefits the city.”

Whatever that is is yet to be decided, of course, and the naming committee’s role, as Strickland noted afterward, was an advisory one. The Council will make any final decisions.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Monger Replaced on Local Election-Oversight Body by Tate, but It Ain’t Over

Democrats involved in making changes in both the Shelby County and state Election Commissions.

Posted By on Sat, Mar 23, 2013 at 1:18 PM

George Monger
  • George Monger
The Tennessee Democratic Party, whose numbers have declined fairly precipitately in recent years, both at the ballot box and in elective positions, seems determined to carry out internal shake-ups at various organizational levels.

In recent months, the Party has had public differences of opinion in naming its governing hierarchy in the legislature, in deciding on a state chairperson, and even in considering a radically new method in comprising its state executive committee.

Much of this ferment has taken place at local levels, as well. Most recently, the Shelby County Democratic caucus in the General Assembly voted on who should hold the party’s two positions on the five-member Shelby County Election Commission and made what, to some county Democrats, was a surprising change.

Norma Lester, a retired nurse and longtime party activist, was returned to one of the two positions, but George Monger, a youthful IT expert and marketing entrepreneur, did not win reelection. His place will be taken by businessman/activist Anthony Tate, who finished with the highest number of votes, 6, when the caucus met in Nashville last week to elect SCEC representatives. Lester finished second in that voting with 5 votes.

No totals were known for the other names on a list of nominees that caucus members had to consider.
The loss of Monger, who had impressed many local activists as an assertive advocate for needed election reforms and as an expert in election-software issues, was lamented by several local bloggers and other activists with an active online presence.

From Steve Steffens on his LeftWingCracker blog:

“Are you serious? What the hell are our folks thinking? Unless George Monger asked NOT to be reappointed, I cannot imagine why he was not. He is very technologically savvy, and if he was a PITA to the GOP on the SCEC, so much the better, they have been nothing but incompetent boobs, and that's assuming POSITIVE intent!”

From Joe Weinberg, a local physician/activist who helped uncover and publicize several of the SCEC’s election glitches in 2012:

“…[Monger] has been an invaluable watchdog for Democratic Party interests — indeed for the interests of all voters. I don’t know his successor, but his learning curve will be great and occurring during the transfer going on right now of the information technology function from the SCEC to the County IT Department. So the timing for this change could not be worse”

From Jeanette Warren on her RobNet online newsletter:

“We have an election coming up in 2014 which will involve a very long ballot and we need the past experience that Mr. Monger has in dealing with the technical issues. George Monger and Norma Lester, as a team have worked together through some very controversial elections and I feel the team should not be broken apart at this critical juncture.”

Lester herself professed surprise at the breakup of what she regarded as an effective partnership on the Election Commission with Monger, whose technical knowledge, she said, had proved a boon not only to herself but to the three Republicans on the Commission.

“We really can’t dispense with his knowledge, his commitment and, his energy,” Lester said, adding that there was “a move afoot” to get Monger named.to a pending vacancy on the five-member state Election Commission, caused by the stepping down of long-serving Memphis Democrat Greg Duckett, a hospital executive. Duckett is reportedly in line to become vice chair of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

At least one member of the County legislative delegation, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, confirmed that there such an initiative under way on Monger’s behalf and said that he personally would do “everything in my power” to get Monger appointed.

Another interested party is outgoing Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner, a lawyer who had also expressed interest in serving on the state Election Commission and has been supported by Memphis state Representative Lois DeBerry, the longtime former House Speaker pro Tem, for the post.

According to a source familiar with the situation, some complicated three-way negotiating has been going on between Tate, Turner, and Monger over who should serve where. Tate reportedly would prefer to serve on the state Election Commission, while Monger has expressed a preference for remaining where he is. Turner reportedly has been asked to step aside and consider another elective post in the near future.

All Democrats in the General Assembly will have a vote on filling the Duckett vacancy, but those in the state’s Western Division will by tradition be given dibs on that seat. Currently the state Election Commission numbers four Republicans and three Democrats, which each of the Democrats representing a different one of the state’s three Grand Divisions.

Whatever the final lineup is, either locally or statewide, the state Election Commission has the duty of formally approving members of local Election Commissions, including the SCEC, while the membership of the state Commission itself will be voted on by the membership of the entire General Assembly, which generally okays whoever the party caucuses have agreed on. The Assembly’s vote will be taken in formal convention at some point before the legislature adjourns next month.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Not Waiting on Legislature, the County Commission Opts to Expand the Unified School Board

Resister Roland threatens to get allies in Nashville and "bomb your Hiroshima!"

Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 12:28 PM

Almost lost in the shuffle of other events, ranging from the John Aitken buyout to the advancement of municipal-schools legislation in Nashville, was the County Commission’s adoption Monday of a resolution to expand the forthcoming Unified School Board from 7 members to 13.

In a previous status conference, presiding federal Judge Hardy Mays had approved such a prospect in general, but he still must sign off on it formally, County Attorney Kelly Rayne informed commissioners during debate on the matter Monday.

Chairman Ritz urged passage.
  • Chairman Ritz urged passage.
"I don’t know why we’re in a big hurry on this,” said District 4 representative Chris Thomas early on, sounding a note that would be picked up by the rest of the suburban contingent, his — and their —point being that passage of municipal-schools legislation would create some obvious complications and long-term overlaps.

Specifically, Commissioner Heidi Shafer raised the prospect that money might eventually flow directly to the prospective suburban districts from the state, bypassing the County Commission as disburser and wondered, regarding these outer-county areas, “if we could unrepresent them later on …when it becomes apparent that they don’t need double representation.” Where the official county district was concerned, they would not, after all, have “skin in the game.”

Steve Basar raised a question about what “the optimum number” of a school board should be, Calling the current 23-member provisional School Board “dysfunctional,” Basar noted that soon enough 16 holdover members from the previous boards of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools would fall off, leaving 7 newly elected members for the Unified board, and said, those seven should “have a shot at it…before we go monkey with it.”

Regarding the issue of waiting on Nashville to act, a contrary point was raised by Commissioner Sidney Chism, who noted that Judge Mays, not the General Assembly, would be the ultimate arbiter, and insisted, “We don’t need to waste any time in trying to create a decent board that’s fairly representative of all the citizens in this city and this county.”

Roland in action
  • Roland in action
Various motions to defer a decision on the issue of expansion were proffered — for a month, two months, or until Rayne could furnish a new opinion on some of the future-tense issues. At least one of these motions was adopted, then promptly reconsidered. Also defeated were a motion from Justin Ford to reconstitute the board as a 9-member body and another by Thomas to form a committee charged with determining just what the appropriate size of the board should be.

In the end, urged on by Commission chairman Mike Ritz, the Commission approved the motion to expand to a 13-member Unified board by a vote of 8-4 with one abstention. The abstention was by Commissioner Terry Roland of Millington, who had denounced the whole idea as “idiotic” and proclaimed of the Commission majority, “The reason why there is a rush is, they ..know already who they want to put on this board.”

Roland concluded his commentary on the matter with one of the more memorable lines of the current Commission year: “Just like World War Two I’m going to Nashville to get my allies, and I’m coming back to bomb your Hiroshima!”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

John Aitken Gets His Buyout, Bids Emotional Farewell

Former SCS superintendent and acting head of Unified school system bows to the inevitable, leaves Hopson in charge.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 12:36 AM

For almost a week, ever since it was revealed that Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken wanted a buyout package from the highly fragmented 23-member board of the provisional Shelby County Unified School System, people of all sorts had been wondering if Aitken was serious about leaving or just trying to force the board’s hand about hiring him permanently.

That question seemed to be answered fairly conclusively Tuesday night as, midway through its several pre-ordained agendas, the board adjourned for an hour-long session, sans Aitken, and returned with the formal announcement of buyout terms for Aitken almost identical, financially and otherwise, to those accorded former Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash in January.

Cash also had received some tributes from Board members on his way out the door, but there was a qualitative distinction in the bouquets thrown Aitken’s way — almost, but not quite, exclusively from the outer Shelby County contingent of the mixed city-county board.

Emotion was passionate and unfeigned from most of those who spoke, some of whom shed real tears. Aitken would respond in kind with a moving farewell, which included a tribute to family members who stood in a doorway of the crowded Teaching and Learning Academy auditorium.

The general terms of the buyout — or, as she put it, the “meat and potatoes” of it — were presented by Valerie Speakman , the former SCS attorney who has shared lawyerly duties with Dorsey Hopson, her Memphis City Schools counterpart who now, post-Cash, is de facto superintendent of MCS and perhaps of the Unified System itself.

Like Cash, Aitken will get a” six-figure” payoff — presumably the same $150,000 figure given his MCS counterpart — and will be asked to continue in an “advisory” capacity, whatever that comes to mean in reality.

The fact is, the man who came close to getting an outright appointment as Unified superintendent last summer but was blocked by MCS board holdovers, who forced a prolonged search process, will be gone, as much so as Cash, who never had a chance of being hired.

The encomia came from Board members, more or less unforced. David Pickler, the longtime president of the old SCS board, called it “the saddest time” of his lengthy involvement with school matters and seemed to mean it. David Reaves, also of SCS, echoed that and said he hoped the outcome was “best for John.” (Aitken mimed a silent chuckle at that.)

Joe Clayton called Aitken “a great superintendent” and professed to be “broken-hearted.” Like former SCS colleague Snowden Carruthers later, he was literally sobbing. Ernest Chism weighed in. So did Kevin Woods, one of the seven add-on appointees of the Shelby County Commission who was later formally elected to what will be the Unified board’s permanent core of seven members.

From the old MCs board, there was Betty Mallott, who paid tribute to Aitken’s abilities and said he’d taken the merger process close to completion. Patrice Robinson would offer consoling thoughts about the pleasures of retirement.

But the most penetrating comment from someone city-side may have come from the former MCS iconoclast Kenneth Whalum Jr., who has continued his independent ways on the unified Board. Whalum said he had come Tuesday night intending to “advocate” for keeping Aitken on and found instead a fait accompli. Whalum said he had longed for an earlier appointment of a Special Master by presiding federal judge Hardy Mays (Mays’ eventual appointee, Rick Masson, was present as an observer for parts of Tuesday night’s meeting) and said such a circumstance might have prevented the loss of “two superintendents.”

Finally board chairman Billy Orgel spoke of the closeness he had developed with Aitken, one that amounted to obvious affection and respect.

It was no secret that the chairman was a strong advocate of Aitken’s credentials to be permanent superintendent. It was no secret, for that matter, that Judge Mays, at the time of appointing Special Master Masson, both expressed dissatisfaction with the Unified Board's dilatory attitude toward hiring a chairman and made a point of commending Aitken.

After Orgel came Aitken’s own moving and tearful farewell, part of which can be seen here:

More to Come

Monday, March 18, 2013

Scenes from the Weekend: Democrats Caucus, Minerva is Remembered, and a Walking Tour Stirs Political Memories.

Events of Saturday provided various kinds of counterpoint — and a reminder of the cycle of life. UPDATE: Bernard denies Spicer claim regarding his withdrawal from party chairmanship race and alleged endorsement of Spicer.

Posted By on Mon, Mar 18, 2013 at 12:45 AM

Democratic chairmanship candidate Terry Spicer and Gale Jones Carson, mother of his rival, Bryan Carson, hug on Saturday.
  • JB
  • Democratic chairmanship candidate Terry Spicer and Gale Jones Carson, mother of his rival, Bryan Carson, hug on Saturday.

People were moving about on Saturday, which proved to be a fair approximation of a warm spring day, and at the very least the weather foreshadowed the season of renewal to come. One day later, on Sunday, the dogwoods had begun to bloom.

Two events of Saturday provided a sort of counterpoint — and a reminder of the cycle of life. In the morning Shelby County’s Democrats caucused at Airways Middle School, with two young men — Bryan Carson and Terry Spicer, who are vying to become local party chairman — doing their best to get cadres loyal to themselves named as delegates to the forthcoming April 6th party convention.

A third candidate, Jennings Bernard, was less active. Indeed, by Sunday morning, Spicer would announce that Bernard had withdrawn in his favor. UPDATE: Spicer would indeed "announce" such a withdrawal/endorsement in a Sunday morning phone call in which he communicated the alleged "good news." Unfortunately, Bernard not only denies withdrawing in Spicer's favor, he insists he's in the race to stay and never had any conversation with Spicer about dropping out in his or anybody else's favor.

All things considered, Saturday’s Democratic conclave was less contentious than is often the case with such changing-of-the-guard events. Indeed, as the following video indicates, one of the contenders, Spicer, made a point of praising his adversary, Carson, to Carson’s mother, Gale Jones Carson, when he and the senior Carson, both working the floor, came upon each other Saturday.

(Cynics may be pardoned for lifting an eyebrow; not all of the testimony coming from the camps of the two contenders about their opponents was so companionable.)

Outgoing Democratic Party chairman Van Turner and party vice chair David Cambron made a point of cutting short the morning’s events. Normally a party caucus event includes speechmaking by various party luminaries and stretches into the afternoon. Party officers, though, were conscious of the fact that the funeral of a beloved local political figure, Minerva Johnican, would be occurring at noon, and that attendees of the caucuses would want to be present.

Johnican’s funeral, at Parkway Gardens Presbyterian Church on Shelby Drive, was indeed well attended, with a variety of officials, past and present, from various branches of government on hand, as well as civic personalities and friends of every sort.

Below are some of those who both attended and commented on the life and times of Johnican, who held various offices herself — county commissioner, city council member, and Criminal Court clerk, among them — and took part in campaigns for other offices, both as candidate and as helper.

Indeed, the church pastor, Brian Henderson would be moved to observe in his eulogy that if every person affected by Johnican’s example had attended the service, the church could not have held them.

Commenters at Johnican funeral included (l to r) Hazel Moore, the honorary mayor of Whitehaven, former state Senator Kathryn Bowers, Circuit Court Judge Karen Williams, and 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.
  • JB
  • Commenters at Johnican funeral included (l to r) Hazel Moore, the honorary "mayor of Whitehaven," former state Senator Kathryn Bowers, Circuit Court Judge Karen Williams, and 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.

Also on Saturday, Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, along with son Quinn and "little brother" Brandon Rodgers, took a walking tour of South Memphis, acquainting themselves with the warp and woof of local history by visiting such scenes as the legendary Four-Way Grill and the site of a Willie Mitchell recording studio.

Another site of both historical and political significance was visited — that of N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home. Aside from its cultural importance to the culture of South Memphis, N.J. Ford and Sons was also the incubator of one of the city's most enduring political dynasties.

The "Sons" in the name of the enterprise include numerous political office-holders of consequence — including a congressman, an interim county mayor, and members of the City Council and County Commission.

Is There a New Political Dynasty Here? County Commissioner Mulroy with kith and kin at site of some political significance.
  • Is There a New Political Dynasty Here? County Commissioner Mulroy with kith and kin at site of some political significance.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Kyle, Leader of State Senate Democrats, Files for Probate Vacancy

Will seek County Commission appointment to succeed retiring Judge Bob Benham

Posted By on Sat, Mar 16, 2013 at 1:11 AM

State Senator Jim Kyle
  • State Senator Jim Kyle
Jim Kyle, the veteran Democratic state Senator from Memphis who for years was a handful of votes away from being Speaker of the Senate and Lt. Governor of Tennessee, is making his second effort within the last two years to stake a claim to public service outside the legislature.

Kyle, who in 2011 narrowly lost a bid for a provisional post on the Shelby County Unified School Board when a Democratic member of the County Commission defected to vote for a Republican-backed candidate, has filed an application with the Commission for the Probate Court Judgeship which Judge Robert Benham is vacating.

The Commission will select next month from among a handful of applicants who filed for the position by the posted deadline of Friday.

The 62-year-old Kyle is a 30-year member of the legislature and was the Democrats’ majority leader in the Senate for the last several years of longtime Senate Speaker/Lt. Gov. John Wilder’s tenure.

Upon Wilder’s being supplanted by Republican Ron Ramsey in 2007, Kyle was the heir apparent to the Speakership should the Democrats have regained their numerical majority in the Senate. Instead, the Democrats continually lost representation in that body and today hold only 7 of the Senate’s 33 seats.

Kyle has contemplated other electoral venues on several occasions over the years. He has considered running for Shelby County Mayor several times and came very close to making a full-fledged run in 2002. He launched a gubernatorial campaign in 2009 but suspended it early in 2010 when he realized that a heavy voter tide was running for Republicans.

After a GOP-controlled reapportionment in 2012, Kyle found himself in the same Senate district with colleague Beverly Marrero and defeated her. He was narrowly reelected Democratic leader 4-3 by what amounted to a rump body of Senate Democrats.

Kyle has indicated he would leave the legislature if named to the Judgeship.

Other candidates had until midnight Friday to file an application online. An early deadline of 4:30 Friday had held for submissions at the County Commission office.

When a final list was prepared for the media by the Commission on Monday, these were the names on it:

Kathleen Gomes
David Dunlap
Danny Kail
Karen Tayler
Michael Richards
Jim Kyle
Julian Bolton

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New Audio-Book and E-Book of Suffragist History "The Perfect 36"

Editions readied for Women's History Month and 93rd anniversary of Tennessee's decisive passage of 19th Amendment

Posted By on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 11:09 PM

The_Perfect_36_2.jpg
March is Women’s History month, and, appropriately, a new audio recording of The Perfect 36, which chronicles Tennessee’s 1920 role as the decisive state in passing the 19th or Women’s Suffrage amendment has just been completed

The reader is Janann Sherman, retiring professor of history at the University of Memphis and a co-author, with the late Carol Yellin, of the original volume, which was published in 1998.

Sherman, who chaired the history department at the U of M before retiring, will be moving to Vinalhaven island off the coast of Maine. Holder of a doctorate from Rutgers, she came to the University in 1994, a pivotal year in its history, one in which it changed its name and to some degree its mission. Sherman liked to say that she was hired by Memphis State University and came to work at the University of Memphis.

The indefatigable Paula Casey, a major facilitator not only of The Perfect 36 but of numerous other efforts to commemorate the suffrage movement and of women’s rights issues in general, says that, besides the audio version of The Perfect 36, an eBook version will shortly be published and will be available on Kindle, Nook, and Apple devices.

Both the EBook and the aud8io book will be carried by major vendors, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, where copies of the original volume are still available.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Masson’s New Status Draws Lively Crowd to Caissa Event

Newly appointed school-merger Special Master is also an add-on at consulting firm.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 at 1:18 PM

Former City Councilman Jack Sammons, whos done his share of ad hoc public-policy consulting, compares notes with new school-merger Special Master and ex-city government colleague Rick Masson.
  • JB
  • Former City Councilman Jack Sammons, who's done his share of ad hoc public-policy consulting, compares notes with new school-merger Special Master and ex-city government colleague Rick Masson.

When you’re throwing a party for your new senior partner, it doesn’t hurt attendance when your new man becomes The Man of the Hour in the community at large.

That was the circumstance Thursday night for Caissa Public Strategy, a consulting, PR, and policy firm which began advertising a meet and greet for its newly named “senior director,” Rick Masson, some weeks ago.

By the time Caissa actually had its party going at its South Main penthouse address, Masson had acquired another new title, that of Special Master for the resolution of remaining issues in the merger of city and county schools. That was by order of U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays, who made the call in mid-week, and, while that certainly whetted public interest in Masson, it drastically curtailed what the well-known insider, a former CFO and CAO for the City of Memphis, could allow himself to say on one of the big issues of the day.

What, for example, did he think of County Commission chairman Mike Ritz’s op-ed in this week’s Flyer, the one that castigated an ad hoc working majority on the Unified School Board that Ritz saw as subverting the forthcoming city/county school merger. That would be the selfsame merger that Judge Mays had just tapped Masson to make happen.

“Oh, I read it, of course,” said Masson, “and last week I could have talked to you about it. But not now.”

Ritz was one of many guests on hand for the crowded affair, which took on the look of a Who’s Who of sorts, and what he’d had to say was the topic of many conversations, not all of them laudatory. Mike Palazzolo, for example, who serves as a Germantown alderman, found the Ritz Viewpoint several degrees south of “statesmanlike,” though he mellowed in his views somewhat when it was pointed out to him that Ritz had been just as critical of city representatives on the Unified Board as he had been of the suburbanites on it.

Palazzolo, a former Rhodes College football standout who at various points had been on the rosters of several NFL teams, spent a good deal of time reminiscing about the ups and downs of pro football with Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart, a former executive with various teams and leagues which had a presence in Memphis.

One of the many things a bystander could learn from that conversation was the generic term for the team employee whose job it was, in the NFL and other football leagues, to inform players of nitty-gritty facts like their being cut from the roster. “The Turk,” such an individual was called. Maybe, if Masson has to play rough, it’ll serve as a moniker for him as well.

A conversation with Paul Morris, head of the Downtown Memphis Commission, proved illuminating on two points — the future of downtown parks with connections to Civil War history and the question of whether four big fish-logo signs should adorn the sides of The Pyramid when Bass Pro Shop completes preparations for its tenancy of the city’s iconic riverfront building.

Regarding the first matter, Morris, a native-born Memphian, said that in thinking of the Civil War, he identified with the winning side, the Union, that “we” meant and should mean the American nation, and that such a concept should be foremost in the minds of Memphians at large.

On the second issue, Morris, who had just presided over a forum of sorts with representatives of Bass Pro, opined that both sides had talking points. He agreed that Memphis had, in effect, beseeched Bass Pro to come this way, a fact that argued for indulging the giant corporation’s wishes, but he also noted that the community, through its local legislative bodies, had ponied up substantial sums on Bass Pro’s behalf, and that made the case for laying down certain strictures regarding display matters.

The community’s future was, in one way or another, the dominant topic of most of the conservations that went on in Caissa’s spaces Thursday night.

At one point, the aforesaid Mike Ritz was talking with well-known Memphis zoning lawyer Ron Harkavy and Harkavy’s wife Iris when someone observed that it would be a sign of economic good health for the community if Harkavy, who used to be a fixture at County Commission meetings, toiling for this or that construction-minded client, should regain something of his former ubiquity in the Vasco Smith county building.

“You know,” Harkavy said pensively, pointing a thumb at Ritz, who is mid-way in his second four-year term on the Commission, “come to think of it, I haven‘t made a single appearance before this Commission.”

O tempora. O mores. So it’s been that long since the boom years, has it?

Even so, there was an undeniable sense of enterprise in that and the other rooms at Caissa’s place Thursday night. Caissa co-founders Brian Stephens and Paige Walkup, external affairs director Kristi Stanley, and the other Caissa employees went all out to make the evening a success, and it didn’t hurt matters that they, like Bass Pro, had a big fish to show for their efforts.

County Commission chairman Mike Ritz (center), here with Ron and Iris Harkavy, was something of a cynosure at Caissa gathering.
  • JB
  • County Commission chairman Mike Ritz (center), here with Ron and Iris Harkavy, was something of a cynosure at Caissa gathering.

Downtown Memphis Commission chair Paul Morris chatted with Caissa external-affairs director Kristi Stanley.
  • JB
  • Downtown Memphis Commission chair Paul Morris chatted with Caissa external-affairs director Kristi Stanley.

Rhodes College officials Bud Richey and Mike Palazzolo worked in a little shop talk at Caissa.
  • JB
  • Rhodes College officials Bud Richey and Mike Palazzolo worked in a little shop talk at Caissa.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Shelby Democrats Kick off Chairmanship Race With Straw Poll

Bryan Carson finishes ahead in informal tally at Overton Square fundraising event.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 10:51 PM

Democratic chairman candidates (l to r): Jennings Bernard, Bryan Carson, Terry  Spicer
  • JB
  • Democratic chairman candidates (l to r): Jennings Bernard, Bryan Carson, Terry Spicer

Cadres of the Shelby County Democratic Party conducted their first sampling of opinion Tuesday night regarding the person who will lead their local party for the next couple of years as chairman.

In a well-attended straw poll at the Red Bar on Florence at Overton Square, Bryan Carson, a unit supervisor at St. Jude Children’s Hospital, finished ahead of a three-man field that also included marketing specialist Terry Spicer and Jennings Bernard, a probation entrepreneur and sometime broadcaster.

No vote totals were released, but that was the order of finish when some 400-odd ballots were counted. At $10 a throw, that netted the Shelby County Democratic Party some $4,000 — “enough to pay for our convention,” jested Dave Cambron, one of the officiating party officials.

The evening did not go without an element of controversy. Two busloads of students from Whitehaven arrived at the venue with the intention of supporting Spicer’s candidacy, but most of them were under-age and were told by the bar’s management that they could not remain on the facilities for the event.

Word came later that the students were welcome to enter during a period of speechmaking by the three candidates, but by then the chaperone who had come with them had ordered the buses to return to Whitehaven.

Ballots for perhaps 25 of the 1090-or-so students had meanwhile been paid for by Spicer, who said afterward, “I probably would have won if they’d all been allowed to stay. Most of them wanted to stay and pay for their own ballots.”

The county’s Democrats will begin voting for real on March 16, when they caucus at Airways Middle School to select delegates. The party convention itself will be held at the same venue on April 6.

Election Administrator Holden Off the Hook, but Critics Remain Unsatisfied

Norma Lester, one of two skeptical Democratic Election Commissioners, calls probation process a “hoax.”

Posted By on Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 10:39 AM

SCEC Administrator Rich Holden
  • SCEC Administrator Rich Holden
Although Rich Holden, administrator of elections at the glitch-plagued Shelby County Election Commission, has completed a six-month probation period and received what amounts to a clean bill of health at a meeting two weeks ago, the two Democratic members of the 5-member Commission remain dissatisfied, and one of them, Norma Lester, calls the procedure a “hoax.”

At the February 20 meeting, Lester, along with Democratic colleague George Monger, unsuccessfully called again, as they had at a previous meeting, for a resolution asking Holden to resign. They were out-voted by chairman Robert Meyers and the two other Republican members of the Election Commission, Dee Nollner and Steve Stamson.

Lester contends that Holden was allowed to circumvent a three-day suspension without pay that was imposed on him along with the six-month probation period. She describes the combination of penalties, voted by the Commission last year in the wake of several election irregularities, as having been a “compromise” but one that was incompletely enforced.

Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers acknowledged that Holden had not had his pay docked but called that an “oversight” on his part. “There was something specific I had to do beyond our resolution that I didn’t realize at the time was necessary, but, when it was called to my attention, I took care of it.” Holden’s pay will be docked for three days, Meyers said, but, in answer to an additional assertion by Lester that the administrator had taken only two days off, not the three mandated, the chairman said, “We were in crisis mode at the time, and I called him [Holden] back to help out with it. I don’t think it’s necessary to ask him to take another day off, so long as we are docking his pay for three full days."

Holden’s penance was ordained by the full Commission in the wake of a series of election-rated glitches in 2012 that included the distribution of thousands of wrong ballots during the August 2 county general election — a problem generally attributed to an untimely application of reapportionment guidelines to precinct assignments.

As part of his probation, Holden was required to take both a Dale Carnegie course and one in management, to explain work assignments of his staff members in some detail and conduct regular meetings with them, and to complete the process of redistricting to the Commission’s satisfaction. Holden supplied the Commission with a lengthy, itemized statement as evidence of his compliance with all points.

Lester and Monger have made it clear they remain unsatisfied, with Lester declaring in a memo to her colleagues, “My distrust of the AOE [Holden] has been very open. It is disheartening to think trust of the Republican commissioners has been misplaced.”

Another unsatisfied person is Joe Weinberg, who, along with but independently of fellow election watchdog Steve Ross, exposed the wrong-ballot problem last year — one which was confirmed by the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.

Weinberg, who has compiled a lengthy list of what he sees as systemic problems in the workings of the administrator’s office, charges that most of them have not been dealt with — either by Meyers or the Election Commission as a whole or state Comptroller Justin Wilson, who conducted a review of Commission activities at the request of Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

Weinberg has publicized new research of his own, contending that at least 400 city voters and possibly many more whose precincts were “split” following reapportionment were deprived of the opportunity in November of voting on a city gas tax referendum.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Newly Introduced State Legislation Would Enable Student IDs for Voting, Ban Library Cards

Measure would "restore sense of original bill," says Republican author; Memphians react cautiously, await Supreme Court ruling on entire Photo ID law.

Posted By on Mon, Mar 4, 2013 at 3:25 PM

State Senator Ketron
  • State Senator Ketron
A General Assembly measure that proposes a trade-off of sorts on two types of IDs that were formerly banned for voting purposes has drawn a cautious reaction from opponents of the state’s Photo ID law.

State Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) will present a bill in the Senate State and Local Government committee Tuesday that would allow photo IDS issued by state colleges and universities to satisfy the controversial state law but would disallow photo IDs issued by public libraries.

In a press release from his office, Ketron said, “This legislation allows photo IDs issued by state community colleges and state universities as an acceptable form of identification. We allowed the use photo identification of faculty members of our state colleges and universities under the original Tennessee law which passed in 2011. We believe that this state issued ID has worked as a sufficient form of identification and that students should also be included.”

Ketron said one intent of his bill was to “clear…up confusion” about the use of library cards at polls. In a pre-election ruling last year on a suit brought by the City of Memphis the state Court of Appeals approved the rule of public library cards as consistent with the state law.

The state has appealed that ruling. “We considered locally issued cards when debating the original bill, but after reviewing the process, decided that the safeguards were not in place to ensure the integrity of the ballot like state and federally issued identification,” said Ketron. “We continue to believe that the safeguards are not in place to use these cards as acceptable identification for voting purposes.”

City Attorney Herman Morris, who vigorously argued for the validity of public library cards in last year’s legal action, seemed to regard the Ketron bill as potentially affording “some progress” in widening the compass of acceptable state IDs, but emphasized that the City regards the Photo ID law itself as unconstitutional and is awaiting a ruling on the measure as a whole from the state Supreme Court.

That opinion was echoed by Van Turner, a lawyer who serves as chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party. “Any advancement is a good thing,” Turner said of the bill’s intent to license student IDs, “but I’m disappointed that it would take library cards off the table.” That aspect of the bill would inconvenience “seniors and others who aren’t so mobile as students,” Turner said. “They’re picking and choosing.”

Like Morris, Turner said that the real issue was the fate of the Photo ID law itself.

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