Penny Wise 

Penny Wise

We have noticed an unfortunate tendency in news coverage these days that we can call the Stossel Effect -- after John Stossel, the ABC talking head who did as much as anyone to make government-bashing as fashionable as it currently is. The trick is to maximize the peccadilloes of public officials while making minimal efforts to examine the much more flagrant depredations that go on all the time -- at far greater expense to the public -- in the private sector.

It's easy to find examples of petty and not-so-petty self-aggrandizers on the public payroll. (State senator John Ford is a veritable three-ring circus all by himself.) It's harder to discover and expose scandals such as Enron and WorldCom while they're happening. The difference is that between nickels and dimes and billions of dollars. But for some reason the small change is easier to see -- or, at least, easier to make a fuss about.

We had an object lesson in this kind of tunnel vision this week at the public meeting of the Shelby County Commission. All the buzz was about the refusal of two commissioners to accept new vinyl chairs that had been purchased to replace the shabby old cloth ones they'd been using.

The two dissenters -- Republican Bruce Thompson and Democrat Deidre Malone -- justified their actions on the basis of public frugality. As Thompson, who voted against earlier expenditures on computers and office renovations, said: "I have taken a consistent line against spending taxpayer money on ourselves." Malone -- who, like Thompson, reclaimed her old cloth chair from a county warehouse -- concurred.

Each of them, however, was asked subsequently to deal with actions of theirs that were arguably contradictory. Malone voted with six other commissioners Monday to enable a homebuilding project from developer Rusty Hyneman that would violate the density limitations of the 1999 agreement that provided sewer connections to the Gray's Creek area. Commissioner Linda Rendtorff, one of those opposing the project, noted that its estimated immediate financial impact would be a negative one of $150,000. "And that's conservative," acknowledged Thompson.

For his part, Thompson was challenged by Chairman Marilyn Loeffel for his prior sponsorship (along with Malone) of a $3 million county grant to the Memphis BioTech Foundation. "His wife works there," the chairman noted.

We have no reason to doubt the good faith or conscientiousness of either Thomp-son or Malone. Malone argues that long-term economic benefits to the county of Hyneman's new development will outweigh short-term costs. And Thompson, citing a finding from county attorney Brian Kuhn that no conflict of interest exists on account of his wife's employment with Memphis BioTech, points out that other backers of significant public money for the foundation include Governor Phil Bredesen, U.S. senator Bill Frist, and the Memphis City Council as a body. Thompson, too, argues that the long-term benefits of a short-term investment will be considerable.

We would suggest, however, that the compelling arguments of Commissioners Thompson and Malone may have been overshadowed -- and, to some extent, undercut -- by the furor attending the fact of whether they would or would not deign to sit in chairs that cost the taxpayers less than $200 each. In defending the relatively modest expenditures, Commissioner Rendtorff noted that her old chair had broken under her two or three years back, requiring a visit to the hospital.

Hopefully, nothing similar will befall Commissioners Thompson and Malone. Their occasional overreactions notwithstanding, we do admire the fact that they won't sit still for overspending.

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