Saturday, June 12, 2004

Learning Curve

County Commission chairman Loeffel attempts to move from conflict to harmony.

Posted By on Sat, Jun 12, 2004 at 4:00 AM

County Commission chairman Loeffel attempts to move from conflict to harmony.

Marilyn Loeffel, the Cordova homemaker who was first elected to the Shelby County Commission in 1998 after making her name as an activist for causes and propositions dear to social and religious conservatives, has progressed by degrees into the maelstrom of politics as usual, though not without a few bumps along the way.

For someone whose initial concerns, ranging from charter schools to abortion, were largely focused on social and moral issues (see "Right With God," page 16), Loeffel has moved into increasingly secular areas.

At this week's regular meeting of the commission, she held back somewhat on one subject of controversy -- the issue of whether to sell Oakville Health Care Center to a private entity -- allowing vice chairman Michael Hooks, who had started presiding when she left temporarily, to continue once she returned to the floor.

But she took the reins for the next -- and equally heated -- discussion, in which Sheriff Mark Luttrell's proposals for a technologically streamlined jail met with vehement opposition from a multitude of deputy jailers, who made it clear they feared being shortchanged during the transition.

But she finally hit her stride during a prolonged debate about whether to approve funds for a variety of county demolition projects, asking what seemed to be informed questions about the financial and technical aspects of the issue. Of course, that might have been her way of spiting colleague Bruce Thompson, with whom she has had an on-again/off-again feud -- conducted mostly in private but sometimes publicly -- as when she recently informed Thompson he wouldn't be reappointed to the PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) Evaluation Committee of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board.

"Hell hasn't frozen over," she announced when Thompson inquired about her decision.

During the lengthy demolition discussion Monday, Thompson had absented himself from the chamber, as Loeffel was not reticent about pointing out -- wondering out loud later on if he shouldn't have recused himself outright. (Thompson's wife Jeni works for a biotech enterprise which would expand into one of the physical locales vacated by demolition.) For his part, Thompson had earlier used his cell phone to text-message an onlooker, noting Loeffel's absence from the chairman's seat during the Oakville discussion.

Part of the tension between the two undoubtedly derives from the fact that both sought the commission chairmanship last year. But much of it stems from genuinely different perceptions about the commission and the proper role of commissioners. In general, Loeffel adheres to the rule of protocol (arguing that, for example, she was in line for the chairmanship by prior arrangement), while Thompson, along with colleague David Lillard, another first-termer, wishes to think things through anew.

"I was elected a commissioner to represent my district, not an apprentice to wait around on protocol," Thompson says. The two also differ on a number of specific matters, most of them having to do with the issue of restructuring -- the fiscal, organizational, and policy aspects of it.

Loeffel's emergence as an advocate of commission tradition is a bit of a switch. She almost came a cropper last year when she invoked the concept of Christian charity as a reason for retaining the services of Calvin Williams, the commission's then administrative director -- later fired and indicted for complicity in covering up a fellow employee's alleged sexual misdeeds. She briefly faced an ouster suit from an irate constituent (whom she suspected of desiring her seat), and, even though the suit was dismissed, Loeffel has been more careful since about acting in concert with her colleagues on such sensitive issues.

No more claims, either, of "divine inspiration," as on one matter before the commission last year. Increasingly, she emphasizes more secular aspects of her concerns -- her unsuccessful effort to avert the tearing down of a fire-damaged Shelby County Building; her sponsorship of a Missing Children's Project, in tandem with various law enforcement and community agencies; her resistance to cutting funds for the Victims' Assistance Center and the district attorney general's domestic violence budget.

Though she acknowledges that she has occasionally rubbed other colleagues besides Thompson wrong, Loeffel professes a sincere interest in harmony on the commission and believes she is on the way to achieving it, at least where she is concerned.

"When they found out I wasn't going to be a holy terror," she says, conscious of the pun, "things began to relax."

But just try telling that to Bruce Thompson.

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