The newly constituted Memphis City Council, sworn in on January 1st, has barely begun to operate, but already there's a major difference of opinion between several new members and Chairman Scott McCormick, on one side, and holdover members Joe Brown and Barbara Swearengen Ware, on the other.
The dispute, spelled out in correspondence between McCormick and Brown, involves the chairman's ruling that only members of the several council committees will be allowed to participate actively and vote during meetings of the committees. This is a change from longstanding council custom, and Councilman Brown has put his displeasure into writing.
In the most recent of two letters to McCormick, delivered on Monday, Brown insists, "Our rules do not give the chairman the right to deprive any member of this body the opportunity to discuss an item before any of the standing committees." Brown notes that the Shelby County Commission allows all members of the commission to attend any committee meeting and participate and vote, whether they belong to the committee in question or not.
Brown also contends that limiting participation to committee members violates the spirit of the state Sunshine Law.
Exercising the traditional power of new chairmen to establish protocols for conducting business, McCormick imposed the closed-committee rule in order to streamline meetings and, in a previous response to Brown, had cited similar rules in effect for committee meetings in the Tennessee General Assembly and in both chambers of the United States Congress.
Among those supporting McCormick's ruling and his reasoning, including a reluctance to make all committees de facto committees of the whole, are new members Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland. "It's a question of time management," said Flinn, who made a point of excluding several members, including Brown, from active participation in last week's meeting of the council's Personnel Committee, which Flinn heads.
"There was some awkwardness," Flinn acknowledged. One moment came when Mayor Willie Herenton, in addressing the committee, made a direct reference to new councilman Bill Boyd, who was not a member of the Personnel Committee but was attending its meeting. Another came from Brown's insistence that he be included in a post-lunch roll call of the committee, but a point of order from member Wanda Halbert, deferring any action on the matter, was approved.
"I support Scott's ruling," said Strickland, who announced his own intention to observe it in meetings of the council's Parks Committee, which he heads. Strickland noted that Brown and other members would have the opportunity in public meetings of the full council to discuss any matter which came before any of the council committees.
"It's not as if the committees can bottle up issues, as committees in the legislature and in Congress can," Strickland said. "We don't have any screening procedures like that. Everything we talk about will show up before the full council."
Brown has indicated he will ask council attorney Allan Wade to look into the matter when the council reconvenes next Tuesday.
• Looking ahead to what promises to be a stoutly contested race for his reelection against a repeater opponent from 2006, corporate attorney Nikki Tinker, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen could take satisfaction from two recent circumstances — a large (and racially diverse) crowd at an open house held by Cohen in his office in the Federal Building last Friday and what amounted to an endorsement from a key figure in another well-attended event.
The "endorsement" was a seminar on "Race Relations in Memphis Politics" co-sponsored by the New Path organization and the Urban League at the National Civil Rights Museum on January 12th. Among the featured panelists was Dr. Randolph Meade Walker, a historian and writer who made a point of announcing that Cohen, who was in attendance, had "done a good job" and therefore deserved and would get support from African Americans in this year's congressional race.
Another panelist, Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, like Walker an African American, did similar duty by newly elected councilman Strickland, a white attorney. Making the point that political choices should not be based strictly on race, Chism said, "Now Jim Strickland — I'd vote for him for anything!"
Ironically, considering the venue, Chism had taken the lead recently in preventing commission endorsement of a planned Chamber of Commerce outlay to New Path, which in the past has endorsed candidates not to Chism's liking.