Turning the Screw 

The county commission evolves into a stricter watchdog over Juvenile Court.

Ostensibly, the agenda for this week's public meeting of the Shelby County Commission lacked the sturm and drang that both members and the public at large have come to expect of this contentious body. But the heat was still on, though perhaps at a low simmer, and it manifested itself in ways that betokened an interesting trend.

Namely, the commission's former partisan lines are dissolving, yielding to other kinds of configurations — some of them, reflecting the continuing differences of opinion over the issue of municipal schools, conforming to a basic urban vs. suburban division, while others are more ad hoc in their nature.

One of the latter has to do with shifting attitudes on the commission toward the matter of Juvenile Court. When a newly revamped commission took office after the election of 2006, its Democrats and Republicans divided fairly neatly on the matter of revising the structure of the court. The ailing longtime judge of Juvenile Court, Kenneth Turner, had retired and had been succeeded by his deputy, Curtis Person, who was concluding a lengthy service as a member of the state Senate.

The new judge, though a Republican, was bipartisan enough to have enjoyed the support of the Senate's nominally Democratic speaker, John Wilder of Somerville, who appointed Person to chair the Senate's judiciary committee long before the GOP was able to command a majority in that body. But he was still a Republican, and that fact colored much subsequent history.

Like other judicial positions, the office of Juvenile Court judge is elected on a nonpartisan basis, without party primaries, though it had come to be regarded as quasi-political, a circumstance owing much to the fact that Turner, who lacked a law degree, functioned as an administrator, assigning the actual courtroom work to adjunct lawyers who served formally as "referees."

As a white Republican, Person had a de facto partisan base in the election of 2006, in which he was opposed by three name black opponents, all female and all presumed to be Democrats. In the absence of a primary, which would have designated one of them to oppose Person, they split the opposition vote, with former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman finishing second to Person.

In a nutshell, Person was faced with a rebellion on the commission, which, with the election of Democrat Steve Mulroy to succeed departed Republican Bruce Thompson in the body's 5th District seat, now had a Democratic majority of one. Joined by newly elected Republican Mike Carpenter (who thereby incurred the wrath of his GOP colleagues), that Democratic majority voted to avail itself of a state law that seemed to allow for the appointment by the commission of a second judge in Juvenile Court.

The arguments for such a change went beyond partisanship and reflected the desire of several members to reform the court's existing administrator/referee lineup, but partisan issues remained and informed much of the ensuing controversy. The bottom line was that the commission majority won in Chancery Court, while Person won in Appellate Court, which ruled that the statute empowered only the legislature itself, not the commission, to create a second judgeship. Given that the legislature was strongly trending Republican and Person's Juvenile Court position was regarded by GOP partisans as a bastion in Shelby County, the matter died there.

Fade, however, to fall 2012, and, as the vernacular would have it, there's been some changes made.

For one thing, the party lines on the commission, which has had vacancies to fill as well as experiencing an intervening election in 2010, are no longer so hard and fast. The aforesaid school issue has generated a new working lineup, in which party-line positions are secondary to other factors. And the Department of Justice earlier this year released a scathing report, based on a multi-year study, on what the DOJ saw as an implicit racial bias and numerous inefficiencies on the court's part.

That report, incidentally, had come at the request of Democrat Henri Brooks, an outspoken member who has often postulated herself as a spokesperson for Shelby County's African-American population but has more often been regarded by other members — black and white, Democrat and Republican alike — as something of an outlier, though one whose passion has commanded respect.

Though she sought and was denied the chairmanship in the commission's annual reorganization recently, Brooks' influence is on the ascendancy. And, while she can still be a minority of one on isolated issues — as in the case of the commission's 12-1 approval Monday for a new Honda dealership in Collierville — she has gained obvious credibility on the court matter.

So it was that, when Brooks moved to hold in escrow — pending the court's satisfactory compliance with the DOJ report — a component of $72,743 destined for Juvenile Court from a federal grant of $867,848, she had allies. Voting with her were fellow Democrats Mulroy, Melvin Burgess, James Harvey, and Justin Ford. And the fact that her motion failed on a 5-5 vote may have been due primarily to county CAO Harvey Kennedy's assurance that the Juvenile Court funds were not due to be dispersed for another year, anyhow.

The fact is that a bipartisan majority on the commission — including two key Republicans, Chairman Mike Ritz and newly named member Steve Basar — have shown themselves to be as critical toward the court and as insistent on reform as Brooks, Mulroy, and other Democrats. The two GOP members subjected the court's CAO, Larry Scroggs, to blistering questioning when he and other court officials appeared before an ad hoc meeting of the commission recently.

The commission, as a body, had made it clear that it intends to be an informed party and to exercise oversight of the court's strategies for complying with the DOJ.   • New member Basar seems to have found his niche on the commission and is pulling his weight.

The East Memphis businessman was elected on August 2nd to fill a commission vacancy left by Brent Taylor, who had himself been an appointed replacement for Mike Carpenter, who left the commission last year for a lobbying job with Students First in Nashville. (Carpenter has since returned to Memphis as an aide to Memphis mayor A C Wharton.)

Basar has so far stood with four other Republicans — Terry Roland, Chris Thomas, Wyatt Bunker, and Heidi Shafer — in support for municipal schools and has threaded a way somewhere between conservative and moderate on issues at large. He received his colleagues' plaudits Monday for brokering a reduction of roughly $1 million — from $15 million to $13,909,000 in the amount sought by the Unified School District for computer-system upgrades.

The commission's 12-1 approval transcended the usual 8-5 lines on school votes.

• With time running out before the November 6th general election, George Flinn, the Republican nominee for Congress in the 9th Congressional District, continues to insist on a formal public debate with incumbent Democratic congressman Steve Cohen.

Flinn held a press conference on Tuesday at his East Memphis headquarters to press his demands, accusing Cohen of ignoring calls for a debate from numerous civic organizations within the district.

It may be that a forum last week attended by both Cohen and Flinn, along with other candidates and officials, at Kirby Pines Retirement Home will be the closest thing to such an encounter between the two in this campaign year. At the forum, Cohen indicated he will continue to refuse so long as Flinn declines to release his tax returns (because "we've got to know what millionaires pay on their returns").

For his part, Cohen chided Flinn for not having agreed to debate Charlotte Bergman, his erstwhile GOP primary opponent. The congressman escalated into a generalized comparison of his own "open" situation to what he described as a more guarded attitude on Flinn's part.

Mentioning the fact of his address on Kenilworth Street adjoining Overton Park, Cohen conjured up a contrast with Flinn's residence near Memphis Country Club, "with a car in front of his house protecting it." He said, "You need to be open. I'm out there, and you know it."

Flinn responded tongue-in-cheek by saying rather that he lived "on the edge of Orange Mound," a remark that drew general laughter. The neighborhood, he said, was "a good one," and "I see a lot of interesting people come around."

The wealthy radiologist/radio magnate went on to note, "I'm not the only millionaire onstage," and offered mock congratulations to Cohen for his own membership in "the millionaire's club."

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