Walter Bailey and Marilyn Loeffel sit side-by-side on the Shelby County Commission, seemingly as different as could be Bailey, the black lawyer and representative of an urban constituency; Loeffel, the suburban housewife and representative of a conservative constituency.
? ? But whether or not you agree with their politics, Bailey and Loeffel share some traits essential to good public servants. Just as they did during the arena debate, they are asking hard questions about the issue of converting Shelby Farms into something called Shelby Park, a recently hatched proposal which is shaping up as the next big long-running local story.
? ? Bailey zeroed in on the question of whether affluence equals influence in matters of public trust. Should a $20 million contribution to Shelby Farms bring with it the right to name the members of the board? Could a board constituted in that manner be representative of the diversity of Memphis? That s a proposition worthy of debate, and Bailey framed it effectively. He listens, he thinks before he speaks, he doesn t waste words, and he doesn t soften his questions with needless pandering and flattery. The man gets to the point.
? ? So does Loeffel. She raised the equally important question of What s left? when elected public officials yield more and more of their responsibility to authorities to build sports facilities, develop the riverfront, and take care of Shelby Farms?
? ? The odd couple lost the key vote on Shelby Farms, 9-2, just as they were on the short end on the various arena tallies. But they honored themselves and the political process by doing their jobs well.
So, for that matter, did the people in the audience who took the trouble to come downtown, wait their turn to speak, then forcefully make their points. Among those points, incidentally, were that the Shelby Park proposal had received minimal public vetting before it was presented to the commission Monday on a virtual must-act-now basis and that disproportionate speaking time was available to proponents of the Shelby Park idea specifically, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and Ron Terry, the chief spokesperson for the investors group who would form a nonprofit corporation to administer the area.
Although commission chairman Morris Fair was flexible in extending the two-minute periods available to audience members who wanted to speak, there was no real opportunity for examining the Shelby Park concept in depth, nor for the public give-and-take that must take place in some venue before the Shelby Park ordinance has its scheduled vote on June 17th. As several speakers noted Monday, there is a democracy issue involved here.
The Shelby Farms debate may get messy and heated at times, but even in the worst-case scenario, the Shelby Park proposal offers the prospect for some overdue focus on the Shelby Farms issue. And the best-case scenario is that the plan, however amended, provides lasting benefits for Memphis and Shelby County.
? ? As we have noted before, the Shelby County Commission s ability to resolve thorny issues through constructive debate and compromise compares favorably to the inability to do so of other bodies namely the state legislature, which is scheduled to be the site this week of what has become the annual Income Tax War.
People who rant on talk radio, storm the state legislature, and think politicians are no damn good could learn a little about the mechanics of a going democracy from the commissioners and other participants at Monday s four-hour county commission meeting.?