Friday, December 31, 2010

Tempers Flare as County Commission Overrides Luttrell Veto

An angry Carpenter describes arguments for opt-out provision on IT unity as "hogwash."

Posted By on Fri, Dec 31, 2010 at 4:48 PM

It took a while, but, nearly a month after Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell vetoed a county commission resolution that would have made county officeholders’ participation in a unified IT format optional rather than mandatory, the county commission finally voted Friday on an override of that veto, approving the override by a vote of 8-3.

The special meeting, which also saw the commission authorize the position of Central Information Officer, lasted less than an hour but had fireworks equivalent to some of those which will greet the New Year tonight.

Voting to override the resolution, which had been sponsored by Commissioner Heidi Shafer, were commission chairman Sidney Chism and commissioners Shafer, Wyatt Bunker, Melvin Burgess, Justin Ford, James Harvey, Terry Roland, and Chris Thomas. Voting to sustain the veto were commissioners Walter Bailey, Mike Ritz, and Mike Carpenter. Absent were commissioners Henri Brooks and Steve Mulroy.

The original premise of Friday’s meeting had been to act in regard to whatever advice state Attorney General Cooper might offer as to the likelihood of lawsuits from county office-holders if the veto were upheld. As it happens, Cooper never responded, but, after a flurry of emails back and forth between commission members and county attorney Kelly Rayne, the meeting went ahead as scheduled, given the approaching New Year, and, with it, the end of a 30-day period after which Luttrell’s veto would be final.

Carpenter insisted that the commission’s vote on December 20 to hold such a meeting before the end of the year was approved only on condition of a response from the Attorney General and that going ahead with the meeting and the override vote was improper. In an impassioned 10-minute speech, he rejected as “hogwash” claims by override supporters that the opt-in provision would enable almost as much in the way of taxpayer savings as would the mandatory single IT unit for county government.

Carpenter estimated that the difference could be as much as $4 million for the county’s taxpayers, and he got Harvey Kennedy, Luttrell’s CAO, to confirm that the county faced a looming deficit of $20 to $25 million.

“They can hold us hostage at budget time,” Carpenter said of elected county department heads, several of whom were in the commission auditorium for the vote. He maintained that only two units of county government, Juvenile Court and the Sheriff’s Office, had given an unqualified promise of involvement in the unitary county plan.

Carpenter said the commission, in voting to override, would be ignoring its own expert consultants, who had described the fragmented system of separate IT programs as unnecessary and costly. He asked for a show of hands on several points. “Who’s going to support laying off 300 to 350 people?…Who’s going to cut that employee pay raise?...Who’s going to vote for a property tax increase to balance the budget?” None of his colleagues raised hands. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I thought,” Carpenter concluded.

In a response, override supporter Wyatt Bunker commented on what he described as an “emotional investment” on Carpenter’s part and said Shafer’s resolution had been about accountability “and nothing else.”

After the override motion was approved, the CIO measure was passed as a companion measure, with Carpenter alone voting no. Who would even take such a job without knowing what he was dealing with? Carpenter asked rhetorically.

“How are we going to find a qualified CIO?...Why would you want to take this position, not even knowing what it’s going to look like?” With department heads able to opt in or opt out at will, “It could change day to day, week to week, month to month,” Carpenter said later on in remarks to reporters. He blamed the override on pressure from office-holders more concerned about their power bases than the common good.

And he prophesied difficult times ahead for a commission less willing to set aside partisan or personal considerations than the previous one, elected four years earlier. “The tone was set in September,” he said. “It’s not going to get any better. It’s going to be extremely tough to do anything on behalf of the taxpayers. ..This is going to be a miserable three years.”

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