recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays neatly sliced through a Gordian knot regarding the Unified School Board’s future composition. Now another ruling, this one by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong, has snarled the issue again.
In the first instance, Mays postponed by a year the planned expansion of the Unified Board from 7 to 13 members, thus extricating the County Commission from the puzzle of how — and when — to reconfigure the District 6 seat vacated by Reginald Porter, who resigned it to become the school system’s new chief of staff.
In the latest case, however, Armstrong ruled that a new election had to be held for the District 4 seat occupied by Kevin Woods since the August 2012 elections for the 7-member board. Woods was the apparent winner — by a 106-vote margin that was later adjudged to be 290 votes — over Kenneth Whalum Jr., but Whalum had sued, contending that wrong ballots issued by the Election Commission had skewed the results, and Armstrong agreed.
In his opinion, issued Monday, Armstrong declared:
“…. The Election Commission here made no concerted effort to avoid the problems that occurred in this election for school board positions….
“These mistakes in assigning so many voters to incorrect school board districts cannot be simply ignored in an effort by the Court to not take then step of declaring an election invalid. Without a new election conducted properly, there will always be legitimate questions about the actual winner in the District 4 county school board race….
“The District 4 race is under the facts here incurably uncertain when all voters are considered and leaves the Court no alternative except to order a new election in this race.”
Hence, it is up to the Election Commission — with a new black eye, or with its former black eye newly exposed — to schedule a new election for District 6. Both Woods and Whalum have indicated they would vie again in such an election.
But that new election could be delayed indefinitely by an appeal from Woods.
Meanwhile, the County Commission has set a date of August 23 for applicants to seek the vacated District 6 seat, will interview those applicants on August 29, and make an appointment on September 9.
That part seems simple enough.
Moderator for the event will be Judge Joe Brown, the former Criminal Court Judge and TV celebrity judge. Inasmuch as Herenton is trying to re-establish himself in the local firmament with a network of charter schools, and Brown recently floated a trial balloon about running for the Senate, the roast event could serve both purposes.
Among the roasters will be Mayor A C Wharton and what party chair Bryan Carson and vice chair Dave Cambron promise will be a whole host of other local political celebrities.
Hmmm. Maybe mark this as the preliminary bout of the 2014 political season.
In a writ of election issued on Tuesday Governor Haslam set October 8 as the date for party-primary elections to fill the vacancy in state House District 91 created by the death last month of longtime incumbent Lois DeBerry, who served the area for 40 years.
The writ further established Thursday, November 21 as the date of a general election for that office.
Filing deadline for the office will be August 29, and the winner of the general election will serve until the regular election cycle for the seat in November 2014.
A large field of candidates is to be expected, at least for the Democratic primary in an inner-city district that normally goes heavily Democratic.
According to the Tennessean of Nashville, Sara Kyle, “who resigned from the Tennessee Regulatory Authority in March after a 19-year stint as a director, confirmed Tuesday she’s weighing a run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014.”
If Kyle makes the race, she has to hope that she has better luck than her husband, state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle, who tested the gubernatorial weather in 2009 before deciding, early in 2010 that the time wasn’t right for a Democratic candidacy. “More yellow dog Republicans out there now than yellow dog Democrats,” he observed before joining such other Democratic worthies as Roy Herron and Kim McMillan on the way out.
Mike McWherter of Dresden, son of legendary former Democratic governor, was the eventual party nominee, and he finished a distant second to Haslam — sign enough that Jim Kyle’s vision was 20-20 that year.
Now there’s a different vision on the part oif his wife, who was a Memphis city judge before being named to the state’s old Public Service Commission, an elective bodfy which was discontinued by the legislature at the urging of former Governor Don Sundquist and converted to the non-elective T.R.A.
“I want what’s best for that party,” the Tennessean quoted Sara Kyle as saying. “I’m listening, sitting down with different groups and hearing what folks have to say.”
Tennessee Democrats briefly had their hopes up that state House minority leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley might be their candidate, but Fitzhugh took himself out of the running a week ago.
It was a typical memorial service, in a way. A preacher, the Rev. Keith Norman of the host church, First Baptist Church on Broad, officiated. Interspersed with the testimonials to the deceased, Lois DeBerry, were hymns sung — actually, belted — by such artists as Deborah Manning Thomas.
And the testimonials themselves came from the people who had known DeBerry, mainly from her four decades of prominence as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
This was a lengthy and — as befitted the stature of the longtime House Speaker Pro Tem — influential list, beginning with a former vice president of the United States, Al Gore, and continuing through other such personages, including a current governor, Bill Haslam, and a past one, Phil Bredesen, and concluding with DeBerry’s surviving husband, Charles Traughber, who, until his retirement late last month, had been chairman of the state Pardon and Parole Board.
Gore, for whom DeBerry had made a nominating speech for president during the 2000 Democratic National Convention, returned the favor in good style, establishing that DeBerry was a role model par excellence, one without a “mean bone in her body.:”
Other speakers would expand on that image and, on occasion, put it in bas relief, making sure it was realized that Lois DeBerry, who pulled her legislative oar non-stop during her four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, was a fully round character.
There was former House colleague Roscoe Dixon, for example, looking white-haired and distinguished, seemingly recovered from the career derailment of his involvement in the Tennessee Waltz sting and the years of incarceration which followed. As others, notably the two governors, had done, he testified to DeBerry’s sense of authority, which co-existed with the charm of the late legislative eminence, who genuflected to nobody.
If you crossed her, “she could put you on ice,” noted Dixon, and the appreciative murmurs that rose from several parts of the ad hoc congregation indicated that many others knew this well, not excluding the longtime boss of the House, Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, who in his turn spoke of having to endure a month of not being spoken to by DeBerry as a result of some dereliction on his part.
That was one of the things that made this memorial service atypical — the obvious resolve of the speakers to illuminate as many corners of DeBerry’s personality as possible, as if by doing so she could be revivified.
It is usual to say, when someone passes from the consequences of cancer, that they have lost a battle with that disease. Perhaps that is true of Lois DeBerry as well, but the fact is, she had already won several rounds in her battle, returning to the lesser combats of the legislature after each one and handling challenges there with the mixture of grace, charm, and toughness that always characterized her tenure.
Rep. DeBerry grew up in Memphis, geraduating from Hamilton High School and LeMoyne - Owen College. In l972, she became the first African-American woman elected to the legislature from Memphis, and, at the time of her death, she was the longest serving member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Relatively early on, she was appointed to the powerful House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.z
She served 11 terms (22 years) as Speaker Pro Tem of the House, from the 95th through the 106th General Assemblies, and relinquished that office only when the chamber passed from Democratic to Republican control in 2009. She was the first female Speaker Pro Tem and, so far, the only African American to serve in what is one of the most powerful positions in state government.
In 2011, the legislature passed Joint Resolution 516, sponsored by Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, which honored Rep. DeBerry with the title of "Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus.”
As a member of the minority party in her last several years, she continued to exert enormous influence on events, using both her command of parliamentary procedure and her personal rapport with members of both parties to gain the best outcomes possible for causes she championed. During the 107th and 108th General Assemblies, though dealing with her illness, she was a stout defender of Democratic issues and, as a member of the Education Committee, of school-related positions she regarded as crucial to the residents of her district and of the whole county as well.
She leaves her husband, Charles Traughber, who recently retired as chairman of the state Pardon and Parole Board, and her son, Michael Boyer. As of yet, no information about funeral arrangements has been released. Meanwhile, donations in her honor may be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at www.pancan.org.
In 2012, three years after her initial diagnosis, DeBerry joined with Governor Haslam in proclaiming November to be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month to heighten efforts to find more effective treatments for the disease.
The first of what will be many testimoniuals have begun to pour in:
Said House Democratic Caucus chair Mike Turner of Nashville:
“Tennessee owes Lois DeBerry a debt of gratitude for her immeasurable contributions to improving the health, welfare, and well-being of the people of our state. Lois was an irreplaceable member of our caucus and she will always have a place in our hearts and memories.”
Said Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis):
"I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work with Rep. DeBerry. When I first got elected she took me under her wing and helped teach me how to best represent the needs of my constituents. I know there were many other legislators like me over the years, both Democrat and Republican, who benefited from her wisdom and generosity. I am truly blessed to have known and worked with Rep. Lois DeBerry.”
Said 9th District congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis):
“Tennessee has lost a legend today. Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry was an historic African American legislator and a go to person on everything from civil rights to children's and women's issues. She led a life of firsts, becoming the first African American female to be elected to the General Assembly from Shelby County and the first female as well as the only African American to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore of the House.<./p>
"As the longest serving member of the House, her fame was greatest in her hometown but the respect she earned extended nationally among members of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and the Deltas. Since being elected in 1972, she always served her community in a special manner and gave so much back. She will be sorely missed by all of those she helped. It was an honor to serve with Lois and see the difference she made each and every day. Hers was truly a life well lived.”
Said Governor Bill Haslam:
""Coming in as a new governor, Lois quickly became one of my favorite people on Capitol Hill because of her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents. Lois was a history maker, a wonderful woman, a great legislator and a true friend. I will miss her."
Said House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville):
“Lois DeBerry dedicated her life to service. From the Civil Rights Movement, to becoming the first female African-American Speaker Pro Tempore, Lois always made public service a priority. The impact she has had on this great state, the lives of countless Tennesseans, and people all across the country is astounding. She certainly made her mark on history, and it was an honor to know her and serve alongside her in Tennessee General Assembly. I valued our friendship, and will deeply miss her sage advice, and her remarkable sprit and smile. Her dedication to children’s issues, women’s issues, and criminal justice reform have resulted in a better Tennessee. My thoughts and prayers are with her family.”
Said /House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley:
"Lois DeBerry was my friend and my mentor. From my first day on the hill in 1994, she was someone I could turn to in every situation. She taught me the importance of working across party lines to get things done for the state, but also to never be afraid to stand up for a cause--even if sometimes you stand alone. Lois was a fighter. She always fought and fought hardest for children.
"She fought for those on the margins of society and for the city of Memphis which she loved so dearly. Most recently she waged a courageous battle against cancer, inspiring everyone with her upbeat attitude and her determination to survive. I loved Lois DeBerry. Her absence will leave a hole in the House that no one can fill; we are a better state for the service she provided. God rest her soul and be with her family during this difficult time."
Said Senate Demociratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis:
“Lois DeBerry was a peerless leader for her community, her city and for all women, It’s a uniquely American story – a woman who became frustrated with the conditions in her community and dedicated her life to making it better, rising to heights that no African American woman had seen before in Tennessee. We are deeply saddened by her passing.”
Said Sen..Lowe Finney (/D-Jackson):
“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry. She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her, and by her words could inspire people to take action and get involved. Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”
There was this lengthy statement from Mayor A C Wharton:
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry.
"For those in political circles, she was Speaker DeBerry, a trusted partner and consummate advocate for the people of Memphis and our state. Many of her friends and people across the community, however, also knew her as Lady D - an intelligent, cosmopolitan, personality whose passion for the people she served knew no bounds.
"Lois earned the title of trailblazer as the first African-American woman from the City of Memphis to be elected to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives. This title applied to her also being elected as the first African-American woman to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore for the State House. Despite the accolades she continually received throughout her career, Lois remained equally at home among the well-to-do and political powerful as well as the residents in the neighborhoods of her district. She was unquestionably a woman of the people who never lost the common touch.
"And of all of the attributes that defined her, Lois’ faith and signature outspokenness earned her the respect of her colleagues and the adoration of the community she called home. In fact, her willingness to speak up and speak out for the voiceless was in her view a consequence of her discipleship and the Christian admonition to minister to “the least of” our brothers and sisters."
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell had this to say:
“This was a loss. I knew Lois quite well. She was integrally involved with corrections issues all the time that I was, and it’s a tribute to her and her efforts that there’s a corrections center in Nashville named after her. Her husband, Charlie Traughber, was an appointee to the Parole Board in 1972 by my father, who was then state Commissioner of Corrections. She was quite committed and extraordinarily effective in her quiet way of getting things done. "Representative DeBerry served Tennessee's General Assembly with honor and distinction. She was a true champion of civil rights and fought to ensure the needs of all citizens were represented during her decades of service in Nashville.
"Representative DeBerry had a determined spirit that not only led to a more effective state government but inspired those of us at the local level as well.
"All of us at Shelby County Government share in the sorrow of her passing."
Said U.S. Senator Bob Corker:
“Lois DeBerry will be remembered as a tireless advocate for her community, and as one of the longest-serving women lawmakers in the nation and the first African-American female speaker pro tempore in the House, Lois’ legacy will be remembered in Memphis and across our state for generations to come. I appreciate her many years of public service and her friendship and kindness. My heart goes out to her family during this difficult time.”
From former state Senator Roy Herron, now chairman of the state Democratic Party:
"Speaker Lois DeBerry was one of America's Heroes and one of God's Saints. So many of us owe her so much. Speaker DeBerry led, she inspired, she witnessed with a spirit filled with The Spirit. Much will be said in the days ahead. Not enough can be said. We mourn her passing and celebrate her life."
From House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh:
“I have known Lois DeBerry since 1974 when I was first elected to the House of Representatives. She had been elected just two years earlier and we were best friends from the very beginning.
"Lois is a true Tennessee stateswoman. In the Legislature she led the way on a number of issues important to all Tennesseans including healthcare, education, corrections oversight, and economic development. The Lois DeBerry Center in Nashville, named after her, revolutionized the way we dealt with our incarcerated population and she deserves much of the credit for bringing our prison system out from under federal oversight and into the 21st century.
"She served with, worked with and provided advice not only to legislators but also to seven Tennessee Governors including Governors Haslam, Bredesen, Sundquist, McWherter, Alexander, Blanton and Dunn. They all respected her opinion and listened closely to her advice.
"During my 18 years as Speaker of the House, Lois served as Speaker Pro Tempore--the first African American woman to fill this role. She was my constant helpmate and someone I could count on during those difficult days in the legislature. In 2000, the National Conference of State Legislators recognized Lois with the William Bulger Award for Legislative Leadership. This prestigious prize is given to one legislator each year who promotes the good of legislative institutions by displaying real leadership qualities, including honesty, integrity and hard work. That was the Lois we all knew.
"Lois loved this state. She loved the people of this state. She was the voice for people all across this state, who could not speak out for themselves in our governmental process; the poor, the oppressed, the proverbial people standing in the shadows of life. She rebuffed repeated calls to run for higher office. In 1994 she even turned down a prestigious federal appointment from President Clinton, telling him that her work in Tennessee was simply not finished.
"I will miss Lois DeBerry. I will miss sitting with her on the floor of the House Chamber. I will miss her laughter and her great sense of humor that I saw so often in our daily discussions. I will miss her example and her leadership for our state. But most of all, I will miss my best friend.”
It needs to be noted that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen has every right to change the subject and is trying to, by peppering his email list, as always, with news of federal grants to his district, stands he's taking on topical issues, and pending congressional business bearing directly on his constituents.
The latest press release he's sent out notes that next Monday will be the “the 5th anniversary of the passage in this House of the first and only apology for slavery and Jim Crow laws in this nation’s history” — a reminder of what indeed is one of the signal achievements of the four-term Memphis Democrat, that measure's proud sponsor. (Has it really been five years??!) Here's a link to Cohen's statement about the anniversary:.
Cohen has much to boast of, and, like the rest of us, a few things in his memory book he'd just as soon got forgotten. One thing he surely wishes he could get out of the way is something for which, not only is he not the perp (in a case where there may not be one), he is clearly the victim. Here was my response in this week's "Politics" column in the Flyer print issue:
It is to be hoped that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen enjoyed the weather in Washington last week. There was not much else for him to take comfort from.
First, for those few who might have missed what became a national story and viral on a large scale, CNN announced the results of a DNA test it had administered to Cohen, Victoria Brink, the Houston model whom he introduced to the world back in February as his daughter, and John Brink, the Houston oil man who had raised her as his own daughter.
The results were as astonishing as the Memphis Democrat's original announcement of proud paternity — but, for obvious reasons, devastating.
The tests showed that Brink was the actual father and not Cohen, who had been involved with Victoria Brink's mother at a time consistent with his possible fatherhood and had apparently been informed, almost four years ago, that he was indeed the father.
A "stunned and dismayed" Cohen said, "I still love Victoria, hold dear the time I have shared with her, and hope to continue to be a part of her life."
But that was not the end. In what he probably saw as no more than a gallant evasion, Cohen told a reporter seeking further reaction that, while she was "very attractive," he had resolved to say no more about the issue. That got him some more hits from media types, who must have scented blood, and he got even more after a tweet in which he quoted an African-American tow-truck driver (yes, Cohen's vintage Cadillac chose this week to quit on him) as saying, sympathetically, in a clearly ich-bin-ein-Berliner way, "You're black!"
The piling on was especially curious in that, with an Obama news conference, major bills, and foreign discords to deal with, it wasn't a slow news week in D.C.
Here is a link to a Daily Beast article on the same subject.
And here, is a Facebook newsfeed from Rep. Cohen touting the same piece with a surprise aside:
Shouldn'a done it, that's for sure. It was invasion of privacy, any way you cut it. He apparently posted a few family pictures and email messages that were innocuous (and apolitical). Bad enough. Worse was his disclosure of Palin's password. Actually, his own password. No professional hacker he, all he had done was guess at the code word Palin used to protect her account, employed the email provider's standard software to change the password, and got in there on his own. Whoopee!
In the process, he left enough tracks that anybody from a Tenderfoot Boy Scout to the FBI could have discovered his identity. The FBI did, he stood trial in Knoxville, fairly sensationally, and was found guilty of a felony. Presiding federal judge Thomas Phillips (a Republican appointee, by the way) ordered him to a halfway house — a fairly lenient reprimand — but the U.S. Bureau of Prisons,which in the federal system, has ultimate authority over internment ((Hmmm. What do you liberty-loving Tea Parties think about that?), overruled Phillips and sent young Kernell to prison for a year.
Kernell has long since done his time and went on to complete his degree at UT, but he remained under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office. This week, at the request of Kernell's attorney, Phillips had the prerogative to remove that provision, and as the Knoxville News Sentinel's Jamie Satterfield (who very skillfully reported on these matters of record) said, David Kernell was finally free.
Kernell is the son of longtime state representative Mike Kernell, a Memphis Democrat who served from his late boyhood (oh, 20-something) until he was forced, via Republican-controlled redistricting, to run against fellow Democrat G.A. Hardaway in 2012 and was defeated.
Something of a Teddy Bear, the well-liked and conscientious Kernell was a loyal Democrat but enough of a free-thinker that he had numerous friends across the aisle. One of them, Republican state representative Jim Coley, was prominent at a testimonial affair arranged in Kernell's honor last winter.
Rep. Kernell conducted himself with admirable aplomb and grace throughout the ordeal of his son, but he did not escape — be it a curse or a blessing — the limelight. There was the following, for example, from lalate.com:
Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, who has been abstaining on all prior votes on the 2013-14 tax rate out of consideration for a possible conflict-of-interest situation, made the dramatic announcement at the beginning of Monday's meeting that he would be voting, and explained why.
Previously, said Chism, he had been legally advised that, as proprietor of a South Memphis day care center which received some of its funding from Shelby County government, it might be a conflict of interest for him to vote on a budget that authorized such funding. The center, which the commissioner said was under the control of members, not himself, was in any case no longer receiving such funding, and Chismj continued,, “I’’ve been advised that with full disclosure I will be able to vote.”
On another contentious issue, Chism acknowledged that he would be a board member of a charter school whicdh his granddaughter has applied to operate but that such a circumstance would not arise until he had left the Commission, even if her application got approval. So he regarded himself as unhampered on that count as well.
The bottom line was that Chism would be recorded in favor, and that, along with another major conversion, that of Commissioner Justin Ford, would make the the final tally 7-5-1 in favor of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s $4.38 tax rate, with the lone absentee being Commissioner Heidi Shafer, a tax-rate opponent.
Ford’s conversion was actually a return to form. The commissioner had voted aye on the first two readings of the Luttrell tax rate, but he switched to no, along with new chairman-elect James Harvey two weeks ago. On onday Ford said he had spoken with members of the administration about their considering the idea of money for summer jobs programs and was satisfied that they were open to discussion.
The absence of Shafer from Monday's meeting, along with the (relatively) perfunctory resistance put up by tax-rate opponents, was an indication that Commissioners of all persuasions saw the handwriting on the wall and that there would be no more stalemates on the tax-rate question like those which have stalled implementation of the budget in recent weeks.
Various grants and new hires that were put on deep freeze until a tax rate could be approved are now free to be implemented. That includes programs for the homeless that had received vocal support from audience menmbers at the last several meetings.
So forgone was the conclusion as the relatively brief meeting got underway that the only tension was an angry exchange between Commissioner Terry Roland and chairman Mike Ritz over a verbal attack by Roland on Commissioner Walter Bailey, a tax-rate supporter.
Ritz gaveled Roland down as "out of order" for making "personal" remarks, and Roland responded "You're out of order!" Reminded by Ritz that he had the duty to maintain order as chairman, Roland retorted, "Well, you won't be much longer."
At the Commission's last meeting, Commissioner James Harvey became chairman-elect, helped along by votes from tax-rate opponents.
(See this week's print edition of the Flyer for more information on the tax-rate issue.)
Consider this a second take on the essay I wrote this week entitled “Two Trials,” which compared and contrasted the O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman murder trials and conveyed my view that both cases were skewed by an overdose of racial perspectives.
I appreciate all the comments appended to that piece and all the points of view I hear expressed on all the TV forums, some of them well-intentioned, some of them not. What mainly concerns me is the extreme prevalence of red herrings in so many of the ongoing discussions about the Zimmerman case.
Red herrings:: I’ve already indicated I thought race was one. I’ll do some add-ons. Upon further reflection, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which I expressed implicit criticism of in the original essay, is another. And genderism: I have since heard someone contend quite seriously on CNN that a jury of “six white women” (actually five “whites” and one Hispanic) could never have grasped the state of mind when Trayvon Martin, young, male, and African-American, turned on someone he regarded as his pursuer..
Not that there isn’t some sense to all of these memes, but that’s what they all are: just memes, self-contained little tautologies, and none of them touch the heart of the case. The one word which comes closest to getting at the fundamental problem that ended with the death of Trayvon Martin is “vigilantism,” and, to extend that concept more fully, vigilantism coupled with an absurd amount of gun permissiveness. Another word that comes close?: “macho,” which, writ large, is a sense that “I, not the law, am the law.”
POINT ONE: Lookit, no private citizen, no one who isn’t a law enforcement officer, has any business stalking someone else on a dark street with a gun. Just think about it. George Zimmerman was advised to cease and desist when he phoned in his suspicions about Trayvon Martin to a dispatcher, and he ignored that perfectly good advice.
Under the circumstances — under any circumstances — to do what Zimmerman did would be over-the-top provocative and asking for big trouble.
POINT TWO: To do what Trayvon Martin did, whether scared, angry, or just fed up with being stereotyped — i.e., to physically attack someone else holding a gun — is insanely reckless. (This is true whether he knew Zimmerman was armed or not; given the degree of 2nd Amendment fetishism these days, it may be impossible to judge that for certain about another individual who isn’t stark naked.)
You hear about people committing “suicide by cop?” Well, this, arguably, was a case of suicide by stalker.
The evidence in the case — however unpalatable to the legions of special-interest pleaders now exploiting the outcome for this or that pre-existing thematic purpose — is that Martin was the aggressor, the initiator of an altercation, the one on top meting out serious physical punishment, and doing all this to a man with a gun.
Was that brave, crazy, rash, or, again, suicidal? And Zimmerman: If he was indeed in the physical danger he says he felt himself to be in, he has no one to blame but himself for being in that kind of mortal peril. He, too: Had be died — from a blow to the head, say — could have been considered the victim of a kind of suicide.
It hardly matters who was black, who was white, or what it is that “Stand Your Ground” laws permit. There was enough logic to a self-defense argument to influence the jurors’ verdict, but even it is a stretch. Zimmerman wasn’t being followed, he was following someone else — and with a gun. And Trayvon Martin wasn’t some innocent, pure-hearted teenage Gandhi. He yielded to a dangerous macho impulse.
Nothing in the dialogue which allegedly began the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin — “Why are you following me?” followed by “What are you doing here?” —- should have led to fatal consequences. Nothing in the racial makeup or perspective of either man should have, and nothing in the line item of “Stand Your Ground.”
That it did can ultimately be credited to the presence of a private individual’s gun and a feeling, significantly on George Zimmerman’s part but also on that of Trayvon Martin, that “I, not the law, will handle this,” the “this” being based, in both instances, on a stupid misapprehension.
In yet another of a series of stormy, divided sessions on Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission, with 12 of its 13 members meeting in budget and finance committee, failed once again to agree on a tax rate for fiscal 2013-14.
As a consequence, the $1.2 billion budget agreed to on June 3 remains in limbo, with funds frozen for a variety of programs and with the new Shelby County Unified School System — formally, as of July 1, a complete entity — remaining unfunded, its future more uncertain than ever.
For at least the coming school year, the system will contain all the public schools of Shelby County, city and suburban alike. But the county’s six suburban municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington — voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to establish independent municipal school systems.
It was essentially a rerun of 2012, when the six suburbs voted for their own school systems, but the legislation enabling that vote had restricted the lifting of a ban on new special school districts to Shelby County, and U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays found the resulting law unconstitutional. A new measure in 2013 lifted the ban statewide and seems to have passed judicial muster.
Along with that first abortive vote in 2012 the six suburbs had also voted to assess themselves a half-cent sales tax to pay for the new schools, which they now hope to open in August 2014.
The revenues from those taxes remain in escrow for the time being, and Henri Brooks, an outspoken commission Democrat and veteran of the Tennessee House, insisted again on Wednesday, as she has before, that the suburbs should free up some of that money to help defray the costs of the unified district for at least the next year, since their students will be served by it. “Get some skin in the game,” she said, sardonically echoing a phrase used earlier by Republican commissioner Terry Roland of Millington.
The equally outspoken Roland retorted that the suburbs might consider the point if the commission should drop its continuing lawsuit against the municipalities’ effort to establish independent school districts. The major remaining issue is whether the new systems would foster re-segregation, as argued in the still ongoing legal action supported by the commission’s 7 Democrats and Republican chairman Mike Ritz.
(Other outstanding issues are: the conditions under which the suburban school districts might acquire title to existing school buildings, as well as which district or districts get to serve students in outlying unincorporated areas.)
Both Brooks and Roland may have a point — a fact that doesn’t, however, mean that agreement on the point is remotely near.
SHELBY COUNTY MAYOR MARK LUTTRELL, a Republican, has proposed a $4.38 tax rate, and that amount was approved on first reading, along with the budget, on June 3. Since then, however, there have been defections among commission Democrats, and, when the tax rate proposal came up for its third and final reading last week, it failed by two votes — those of previously supportive Democrats Justin Ford and James Harvey, the latter of whom ended up as chairman-elect, with votes from Republican tax-rate opponents enhancing what had been his dark-horse prospects.
Luttrell’s budget proposal began with a 30-cent increase from the current $4.02 tax rate merely to get to the level of the new certified tax rate of $4.32, based on drastically lowered overall property-value assessments in the most recent appraisal.
For non-initiates, the state-established certified tax rate is that which guarantees annual revenues equivalent to those raised under the prior rate. The hugeness of that 30-cent factor not only made good rhetorical fodder for tax-rate opponents, it demonstrated how precipitately local property values had dropped.
Beyond the certified-rate level, the mayor added another 6 cents to account for what all (or virtually all) parties seem to agree is a bare-bones budget for the hard-pressed new school district. Estimates of the additional revenue raised by those 6 cents go as high as $20 million, though some opinions posit a lower figure.
After the failure last week to approve the $4.38 rate, there was optimism and some advance indication that Wednesday’s meeting would see a coalescing around the certified rate figure of $4.32. Indeed, preliminary head counts pointed in that direction.
The $4.32 figure, said Luttrell and his aides, would necessitate a loss of $9.6 million in potential revenue from his requested $4.38 figure and would mean cutting jobs and programs. But it looked like a potential compromise figure.
When Wednesday came, it was Roland, previously a diehard opponent of any tax increase, who surprisingly made a proposal for the $4.32 rate (that being the circumstance for his everybody-put-skin-in-the game plea), and, either because the brash Millingtonian was too controversial a sponsor or because various commissioners had second thoughts, that proposal garnered only two votes.
Roland, a prototypical come-on-hard type, has gone out of his way to antagonize several of his colleagues, and it may have cost him on Wednesday. Though introductory remarks Monday by chairman Mike Ritz seemingly had cleared the way for a $4.32 outcome, Roland may have been the wrong messenger. In any case, he would soon be buffaloed by adverse reaction to his proposal from Democrats Melvin Burgess and Walter Bailey.
Budget chairman Burgess is one of two colleagues (the other is Sidney Chism) whose potential enthusiasm for a tax increase Roland had attempted to check in advance by raising conflict-of-interest questions about their benefiting, directly or indirectly, from county funds.
Chism, owner of a day-care center that receives some wrap-around funds, has been abstaining throughout the tax-rate debate. But Burgess, a school system employee, has been defiant about what he called “bullying” (though it may have restrained him, as chairman pro tem, from seeking the chairmanship), and he vehemently took issue with Roland.
“We don’t have a plan,” he said, by way of characterizing Roland’s proposal. He further referred to it as a case of “wake up in the morning, come up with some numbers, and ask the administration to go and cut.” He concluded, “I’m not supporting this today.”
Bailey was even more blunt, though he seemed to be addressing the commission’s other conservatives more than Roland when he slung together a philippic containing terms like “whimsicalness... capriciousness... bordering on irresponsibility... armchair pundits... pander... utter nonsense... disservice.”
Bailey said no to $4.32 as well, even though an aggrieved Roland made a point of offering concessions. He agreed with Burgess and his fellow conservative Heidi Shafer that the schools should probably not be penalized.
Thus, while the first version of his plan had evenly distributed the nut-cutting between the schools and the county’s general fund, Roland amended his proposal, which envisioned taking $5 million in one-time-only money from the county’s $20 million reserve fund to start with, and suggested the whole of the remaining $4.6 million in reductions could come from the general fund.
“I’m trying to extend the olive branch,” said Roland. “At the end of the day I love each and every one of y’all to death. Like my grandma would say, ‘I love you but sometimes I don’t like you.’” Criticism of his plan, which “hurts my feelings,” amounted to so much “Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said “We’ve got to come together to find common ground.”
He defended his basic plan against Burgess’ charge that it was a hastily improvised wake-up-in-the-morning affair, insisting that he and Shafer had spent several of the preceding days in the commission and mayoral offices toiling over options ("me, too," Harvey would later note), but, in the end, both of the two variants Roland offered came to naught.
“Forgive me for trying to compromise,” Roland said bitterly. “It didn’t work. It’s either all or none.” And he would later return to making common cause with the GOP hard-core on the commission.
AGREEMENT ON A COUNTY TAX RATE is complicated by the fact that a minority of GOP conservatives on the commission — Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, Shafer, and, until Wednesday, Roland — have been reluctant to extend the existing $4.02 tax rate at all, contending that the budget is being balanced on the taxpayers’ backs, as always before, and that maybe the time has finally come for serious downsizing of county government.
Bunker was vehement to the point of intractability. “This is not a time to compromise, it’s a time to stand strong,” he said, maintaining it was “not my job” to puzzle out specific cuts. That was up to the administration. “My job is to tell you what people can and can’t afford.” What he demanded was “a balanced budget with cuts that are appropriate to this county.”
A piece of financial accounting accepted by everyone is that, at the certified tax rate of $4.32 (which, even after the battering it took on Wednesday, remains a possible compromise figure), 73 percent of the county‘s taxpaying population would see lower taxes, while taxes for the remainder would either remain level or increase. Businesses, especially, would see dramatic increases, say the dissenters.
Looking ahead to the next public commission meeting on Monday, word is beginning to circulate again that Luttrell may have been persuasive enough in his insistence on his original $4.38 rate as a rock-bottom necessity that the two fall-away Democrats might return to the fold and approve that original figure.
Or not. And, if not, the commission has to face up to the fact that the fiscal year is already underway and that funds are already being spent on the basis of the pre-approved budget. Meanwhile, as the waiting game continues, various programs and grants are in a state of freeze, and the schools, priming to open within the month, worry about where their operating money is going to come from.