Metro Tango 

Complications develop in the Charter Commission's search for consensus.

click to enlarge Metro Commission chair Julie Ellis - JB
  • JB
  • Metro Commission chair Julie Ellis

Between Thursday, April 29th, when a somewhat quarrelsome meeting of the Metro Charter Commission occurred, and Saturday, May 1st, when county employees Matt Kuhn and Heidi Verbeek exchanged vows before a Who's Who assembly at Minglewood Hall, the prospects for a successful charter referendum this fall took a nosedive.

Much of the talk at Minglewood concerned the fallout from the previous day's disagreement over the Charter Commission's vote to jettison traditional Civil Service provisions for employees in the proposed new governmental system. The commission voted instead for a somewhat amorphous "human resource management" system recommended by a commission task force.

The details of that system have yet to be worked out, and the working-out may turn out to be painful. The bottom line is that representatives of public employees' unions are opposed to the change, as well as to another still pending proposal for a transition of the present city and county pension systems into a 401(k) "defined benefit" plan.

The difference between the two benefit plans is essentially that between an entitlement based on tenure of employment and a de facto savings plan based heavily on voluntary employee contributions.

A vocal critic of the proposed changes is city councilman Jim Strickland, a Charter Commission member who has earned a reputation over the last year or two as an exponent of being frugal with the public purse but who thinks the commission and its chair, Julie Ellis, are moving too far in the direction of abstract sentiment and away from political realities.

"The charter was already in trouble in the county," Strickland said, "and now it'll have serious issues in the city as well."

After the Charter Commission concludes its labors in August, its proposals will be subject to separate city and county votes in November, and both votes must be in favor for the charter to be approved. A sampling of sentiment elsewhere in the crowd at Minglewood found significant agreement with Strickland's concerns.

And there was yet another obstacle coming as the Charter Commission got ready to tackle the matter of how a Metro legislative body should be apportioned.

The commission already has voted in favor of nonpartisan elections, but several of the Kuhn-Verbeek wedding guests — among them Shelby County commissioners Steve Mulroy and attorney David Cocke, both Democrats, and Shelby County commissioner Mike Ritz, a Republican — foresaw efforts by the two major political parties to reclaim a prominent role in the new government.

Even if that effort doesn't materialize, the problem of allocating seats equitably over the diverse checkerboard that is Shelby County is bound to be problematic.

And yet another snag in the commission's deliberations may develop over the general drift in the body's recommendations toward flexibility in hiring requirements. Strickland last week argued in favor of firmer, rather than looser, criteria for executive-level appointments, as had member Richard Smith at the commission's previous meeting, week before last.

• Largely unnoticed in the run-up to this week's county primaries was another political event of more than usual significance — namely, the annual Kennedy Dinner of the Shelby County Democratic Party.

The keynote speaker for the event, held Friday night at Clark Tower, was New York congressman Edolphus "Ed" Towns, whose evocation of traditional party positions and item-by-item exploration of the landmark 2010 health-care bill were less meaningful perhaps than a single, locally directed statement.

After assuming the dais and priming the pump with a series of well-received jokes to the assembled Shelby County Democrats, Towns turned serious: "I want to thank you for sending Steve Cohen to the United States Congress," he said. "He's somebody I enjoy working with. He's very committed and dedicated, and what we need today more than ever is committed and dedicated elected officials."

Towns made more elaborate statements about his support for Cohen in the course of an interview prior to his speech.

Asked if he had taken part in the 9th District congressman's reelection effort two years ago, Towns said, "I didn't take a position two years ago on it. But I've had the opportunity to work with him. I've seen his voting record on many issues. I've seen his commitment and his work for his constituents, and I would be delighted to come in and assist him in any way I could."

Towns said he had not coordinated his statements with Cohen and had not yet been involved in any concrete conversations about helping the reelection efforts of the Memphis congressman, who is opposed in the August Democratic primary by former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.

Cohen was not present at the dinner, which was attended by numerous elected officials and candidates in the 2010 election cycle and had a decent turnout from the rank and file as well.

Among other speakers were local party chairman Van Turner, current Memphis mayor A C Wharton, state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester of Nashville, 7th District congressional candidate Greg Rabidoux of Clarksville, and Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, who, as the last remaining Democratic candidate still running for governor, is, as he noted, the party's de facto nominee.

McWherter promised that his father, former Governor Ned McWherter, planned to take an active role in campaigning and that Shelby Countians would get used to seeing much of both of them. "I'm going to be a bad penny down here," he jested. As usual, candidate McWherter stressed jobs and education as his two chief concerns.

Before the dinner, McWherter discussed his election prospects in an interview, pointing out that he had at least one clear advantage over the three Republicans — Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Knoxville — now vying for the GOP nomination.

"I can go ahead and talk about my platform and my plans to create jobs for Tennesseans," McWherter said. Meanwhile, the three Republican candidates were hampered by the intensity of their mutual rivalry.

He was asked about news reports of a gubernatorial forum held the night before in Murfreesboro, one in which Wamp, asked about ways of curtailing DUI violations, was quoted as saying that people like "my friend Mike, who sells beer" could help.

McWherter, who owns a beer distributorship, said he declined to take offense. "I'm enjoying the discourse with all of the candidates, and I don't think there were any low blows last night." He said he had developed "a pretty thick skin" from association and vicarious identification with his father during the elder McWherter's election campaigns: "I don't view disagreement as being insulting. I view it as being the discourse that helps make our government work."

McWherter said he intended to "lean on" the guidance of Governor Phil Bredesen on matters like how to make the new health-care bill, which carries with it a mandate for more health spending by the states, work in Tennessee.

In his speech to the banquet, McWherter introduced Rabidoux as having to run against "the meanest woman in Congress," 7th District incumbent Marsha Blackburn.

The Democratic hopeful, a professor of political science at Austin Peay University, responded, "If Marsha Blackburn were just mean alone, that would be something, but she's mean and uninformed and, as far as I can see, extremely dangerous and divisive and polarizing."

We'll see how long this lasts: Longtime antagonists Del Gill, the new secretary of the Shelby County Democratic Party, and Desi Franklin, the party's reelected vice chair, posed in a show of togetherness Friday night at the local party's annual Kennedy Dinner at Clark Tower. Franklin also was named last week by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton to be the new director of the city's Workforce Investment Network. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • We'll see how long this lasts: Longtime antagonists Del Gill, the new secretary of the Shelby County Democratic Party, and Desi Franklin, the party's reelected vice chair, posed in a show of togetherness Friday night at the local party's annual Kennedy Dinner at Clark Tower. Franklin also was named last week by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton to be the new director of the city's Workforce Investment Network.

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