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.”

Thursday, December 30, 2010

MAD AS HELL: Last Chance Before the Tea Party Starts for Real!

So let's make with the bubbly already; 2011's going to be just too weird.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 30, 2010 at 8:35 PM

Now that the agenda in Washington for the next two years will be driven by the far right wing of the Republican party, you might think economic issues have trumped cultural issues in the public mind. After all, this is the bunch who have taken over the House based on promises to slash the federal debt and shrink government.

Perhaps you have figured out by now that the Tea Party is a sham— a gigantic ball of self-serving, self-righteous faux outrage bounced back and forth by Republicans. After two years of marching and bellowing — of dressing up in stupid costumes with three-cornered hats and carrying misspelled signs—-of going apoplectic at town halls about the mountains of debt and deficit spending that are “destroying our children’s future,” the Tea Party finally had an opportunity to display their fury, wrath, and indignation. When Republicans fought for and voted almost unanimously to add $858 billion to the budget deficit by extending the Bush tax cuts, the Tea Party was quieter than little church mice. There wasn’t even a whimper of an outcry. Confirmed was what we already knew — they are hypocrites for hire.

This “movement” has never really had anything to do with making serious fiscal policy change — no, the Master Thespians of the right wing are simply tools who were bought and paid for by the billionaire Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks for the explicit purpose of Bringing the Crazy and distracting us yet again with—you guessed it—a culture war!

When Congress convenes in a few days, the John Boehner-led House Republican majority has laid out an agenda to do exactly what Republicans have always done(and will always do) — throw a good, old-fashioned culture war with aggressive, over-the-top rhetoric so people will be too distracted and divided to notice that the plan is the same one its always been — of cutting taxes for their donors, thus creating deficits that require spending cuts or bankruptcy.

In the last few days, House Republican leaders have actually unveiled major changes to House procedural rules that are clearly designed to pave the way for more deficit-increasing tax cuts in the next two years. That’s right! The Republicans are planning to put us further into debt so that the corporations and billionaires who bankroll their campaigns will get even bigger tax breaks!

The Tea-publican game plan will go like this: While John Boehner, Mitch McConnel, and other GOP professionals are making sweeping and symbolic but completely inconsequential points about fiscal responsibility, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul and the Tea Party will use proposals on moral and social issues to divide, distract, and divert by convincing some Americans that they are real Americans and that other Americans are their enemies.

There will be railing against environmental programs because these are supported by elitists who believe in “unproven” science like climate change and evolution. Proposals for defunding National Public Radio with its Prius-driving, latte-drinking liberal listeners will be made. National art endowments will need to be cut because of their offensive, blasphemous, anti-Christian exhibits. And of course what culture war would be complete without fighting about abortion? Prepare to see one bill after another come to the floor to revise the Obama healthcare plan so that it bans access to contraception, family planning, and reproductive rights to as many women as possible in the name of “defending life”.

Like a scene in Groundhog Day, the GOP will keep giving us their failed trickle-down economics while the birthers, death-panelists and the “Obama is a Muslim/Hitler/Socialist/Fill in the Blank”crowd have a field day calling for government shutdown based on sanctimony and vilification of their imagined enemies. They will finally have the chance to fight the war they have really wanted for two years — the one that will help them make good on their claim of taking the country back—- all the way back to the days of Herbert Hoover.

Happy Fresh Hell New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Election Commission Request for State Ruling on MCS Charter Vote Further Roils the Waters

Posted By on Wed, Dec 29, 2010 at 8:31 PM

The opponents of city/county school consolidation are nothing if not determined. In little more than a week since the Memphis School Board’s 5-4 vote in favor of a city referendum concerning the surrender of its charter, numerous strategies have been put in play in order to block or hinder that vote and its possible consequences.

The most obvious result, of course, would be the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County schools, by default.

The mayors and legislative agencies of several suburban municipalities are publicly weighing the option of operating and funding their own school systems in order to avoid what they see as a shotgun wedding with MCS.

Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini
  • JB
  • Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini
Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland, who has floated the idea of secession by parts of suburban Shelby County, is seeking an investigation of the MCS vote, publicly questioning whether MCS Board member Stephanie Gatewood, a candidate to fill a vacancy in the state House, might be compromised in her vote for charter surrender.

State Senator Brian Kelsey and several other suburban legislators are pursuing measures to put the city schools under state control (as “non-performing” institutions) if the proposed referendum should yield a Yes vote.

And now the Shelby County Election Commission is requesting a ruling from state Election Coordinator Mark Goins as to whether state law requires that suburban voters join in the referendum on the surrender of the MCS charter.

EC chairman Bill Giannini, who is seeking guidance on several other aspects of the proposed referendum, told WMC-TV, Action News 5, that the issue of a charter surrender might fall under the same rules as those which required both Memphis and outer-county voters to participate in the November 2 referendum on governmental consolidation of city and county.

"One of the questions out there about this one is the dual-majority vote," said Giannini. "There are arguments that state law provides for dual-majority vote in this case as well.”

Others aren’t buying the logic. Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who often uses Twitter to communicate his political responses, tweeted the situation this way: “Based on elec comm ‘logic’ I'm looking forward to seeing amicus in favor of our federal court challenge to dual voting req for consolidation.”

Carpenter’s reference was to a suit which he and other consolidation proponents filed in advance of the November 2 referendum, challenging requirements that two separate votes, by city and county, are needed to approve a consolidation referendum. A federal court has not yet ruled on the motion, which many thought had become moot after the overwhelming defeat of the consolidation referendum. (The term “amicus” is shorthand for “amicus curiae” — “friend of the court” — a means by which sympathizers to a lawsuit can record arguments in favor of it legally.)

Another frequent tweeter, Richard Thompson of the Mediaverse website, re-tweeted this observation from Wayne VanDeveer: “the vote is to dissolve charter, not to consolidate. Non-Memphians have no say in that.”

In any case, the Election Commission request could result in a delay of the proposed charter-surrender referendum while the legalities are being hashed out. And any such delay would give opponents of the school merger an opportunity to rush obstructionist legislation through the General Assembly, which convenes next month.

The MCS Board’s action in calling for the vote on a charter surrender was a response to a post-election statement from Shelby County School Board chairman David Pickler that he intended once again to seek special school district status for the county schools.

Efforts to do so have failed in the past, but election results substantially favoring Republicans, coupled with Pickler’s statement of intent, gave the county’s suburban legislators, all Republicans and most sympathetic to special-school-district status, reason to believe the move could succeed this time.

One issue in the increasingly complex confrontation is that of GOP unanimity. Coincidentally or not, Lakeland resident Giannini and an SCEC majority are Republicans, as are Shelby’s suburban legislators and Coordinator Goins, but other GOP figures — Carpenter and several other Memphis Republicans being cases in point — have different views concerning school and governmental consolidation.

"We are just trying to make sure that the election is called for correctly and will stand up in a court of law, which is probably where this thing will wind up. The only irreversible act in this equation is the Shelby County Election Commission setting an election date. Once that's done, only a court can stop it," Giannini told the Flyer.

Continuing, he said, "I will be stunned if there is not a court ruling or some other event that delays or stops the Election Commission from conducting this election. There are lots of conflicts in the law. Memphis City Schools was founded by a private act of the Tennessee legislature. State law contradicts the city charter in several places regarding MCS."

Giannini stressed his own neutrality on the issue, but said that, given the multiple complications that have arisen concerning the proposed referendum, he considered it possible that the MCS Board might even re-think its action and reverse its vote.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Just Hef and Me...and Crystal Makes Three!

Posted By on Mon, Dec 27, 2010 at 10:55 PM

Hef, Gadfly, and Crystal at a undisclosed location
  • Hef, Gadfly, and Crystal at a undisclosed location

Joining the pantheon of famous people doing infamous things because they can (e.g., Bill Clinton's explanation for the Lewinsky episode), we learned, over the Christmas holiday weekend, that Hugh Hefner had become engaged to his latest girlfriend , Crystal Harris (a/k/a Miss December 2009). Hef, the titular (sorry, I couldn't resist) head of the Playboy empire, and ever the roué (a word that was probably coined to describe him), thus continues his reputation for lechery, choosing a 24-year-old to be his latest wife (surprisingly, only his third), at the ripe old age of 84.

You have to wonder, though: what could the guy be thinking? I mean, is he not the classic case of someone who doesn't need to buy the cow when he gets the milk for free? This is a guy who, at various times, has had a whole dairy at his disposal. Why, in heaven's name would he need to get married? Please tell us it's not because he's planning to have another family, the first new addition to which he might, if he's lucky, survive long enough to see graduate from kindergarten. And, it's not like he's a great prospect either. On the faithfulness scale, he ranks somewhere between Wilt Chamberlain and Tiger Woods. Nor is it likely his bride-to-be has tapped the mother lode. I can only imagine how air tight their pre-nup is going to be.

So, does this announcement deserve an “attaboy” or an “ick?” Frankly, I'm torn between repulsion and jealousy. What can you say about a man marrying a woman who's 60 years his junior? It verges on something that ought to be illegal, don't you think, almost a form of pedophilia. Well, at least it's not as eww-inspiring as the 63 year difference between the 23-year-old Anna Nicole Smith (coincidentally, a Hef protégée) and her barely sentient 89-year-old oil tycoon husband, the aftermath of which is still wending its way through the judicial system.

But, of course, Hef must be judged by a different standard. Although in some ways he's a relic of a bygone era (some might even say an anachronism), his honored place in the history of our culture is assured, in part precisely because of his iconoclastic disdain for conventional mores. We owe much to him for his largely successful crusade against the prudishness that characterized the U.S. in the early part of the last century, and spawned the kind of suppression we saw right here in River City with the likes of Lloyd Binford and his Memphis Censor Board.

Hef is less well known for his equally praiseworthy role in resisting Jim Crow laws, opening his clubs to mixed racial patronage in places where that was explicitly forbidden, or giving black performers exposure on his pre-civil rights TV show, “Playboy After Dark”. In addition to resisting the sexual repression of the 50's and 60's, he did something else that will forever endear him to me: he featured my all-time favorite sex symbol (NSFW), Marilyn Monroe, in the first issue of his magazine. Were it not for that, we might never have gotten to see her in what has to be the most provocative costume ever worn in a film, the one she wore in the seduction scene on the yacht (with Tony Curtis) in “Some Like It Hot” (which apparently got the film banned in Kansas City).

It's cruelly ironic, but also a tribute to his foresight, that Hef's success at loosening the bonds of an overly restrictive attitude towards sexual material was itself largely responsible for presaging the decline of the magazine he founded, which may be why he oversaw Playboy's diversification into other ventures. Playboy magazine reached the height of its popularity in the 70's, and has declined, at least in circulation, ever since. Who needs Playboy for titillation (sorry), whose boldest venture into prurient exhibitionism was its revelation of a glimpse of pubic hair in 1968, when (I'm told) the internet now makes all manner of full-on pornography available, 24/7, at the touch of a mouse. No longer need men riffle furtively through “skin” magazines at the news stand, or have “girlie” mags delivered by mail in plain brown wrappers when every imaginable form of aberrant sexual behavior, and many unimaginable ones, are so readily available, essentially gratis.

And yet, in spite of constantly being on the verge of irrelevance, Hef has always managed to evade his own obsolescence by repeatedly reinventing himself. He remains the object of curiosity, as demonstrated by the international attention to this latest development in his personal life, but also enough so that he is a central character in a current TV “reality” show ostensibly devoted to the lives of his girlfriends, yet revolving substantially in his penumbra. And let's not forget that this is the guy who, way before things like “pajamas media,” invented the idea you could be a corporate magnate while clad in bed clothes.

I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Hef. He and I go way back, you see. His magazine (or at least one of the photos in it), which I obviously looked at primarily for the articles, facilitated my epiphany as a pubescent teen that the male organ served more than one function. Later in life, I had occasion to meet him in my official, governmental capacity. I remember being disappointed not only by his diminutive (5' 9") stature and the vulgar stretch limo in which he and his entourage pulled up to my building, but also by the floozie who accompanied him, not playmate material by a longshot. One thing I did not do, however, on that occasion was thank him for helping me to (ahem) come of age.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

That Didn't Take Long: Kelsey Leads Counter-Attack on MCS

Posted By on Tue, Dec 21, 2010 at 5:40 PM

State Senator Brian Kelsey
  • State Senator Brian Kelsey
One day after the Memphis City School Board voted 5-4 for a citywide referendum on surrendering the MCS charter, a suburban legislator has filed legislation that could place the city schools under state control.

State Senator Brian Kelsey(R-Germantown) filed a bill Tuesday in Nashville that would transfer to state authority the schools of any district with 15 percent of its schools on the state’s non-performing list if a majority of voters in that district opted to surrender the district’s charter.

The residents of Memphis will have the opportunity to do just that in the wake of Monday night’s vote by the MCS board to call a referendum of surrendering the district’s charter. The vote was taken as a way of countering prospective plans by the Shelby County School Board to seek special-school-district status for SCS schools.

What Board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart intended in sponsoring the charter-surrender resolution Monday night was to force city/county school consolidation as a check to any separatist move on the part of the county schools. Kelsey’s bill would force the city schools instead into the Achievement School District which was newly created as an aspect of last January’s enactment by the General Assembly of “First to the Top” legislation.

Under the act, schools qualify for the Achievement School District if they are in the fifth year of improvement status or meet the federal definition of persistently lowest achieving schools.

Kelsey’s bill, co-sponsored in the House by state Representative Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett), would include all schools in a district if a majority of the district’s voters favor relinquishing of its charter and if 15 percent or more of the schools in the district are listed by the Commissioner of Education as high priority schools.

“This bill focuses on what is best for the children: improving educational outcomes by providing the tools to succeed,” said Kelsey. If the residents of a qualifying district “vote to give up local control, then it's time to give control over to the very best educational experts Tennessee has to offer."

House members Jim Coley (R-Bartlett), Curry Todd (R-Collierville), Mark White (R-Memphis) have also indicated they intend to sign on to such legislation.

After Lengthy Meeting, MCS Board Takes Fateful Vote to Liquidate Itself

Posted By on Tue, Dec 21, 2010 at 1:36 AM

Reacting somberly to Monday nights vote were (l to r) Ken Hoover, former candidate for the Shelby County School  Board, SCS attorney Valerie Speakman, Shelby County schools superintendent John Aitken, and SCS Board chairman David Pickler.
  • JB
  • Reacting somberly to Monday night's vote were (l to r) Ken Hoover, former candidate for the Shelby County School Board, SCS attorney Valerie Speakman, Shelby County schools superintendent John Aitken, and SCS Board chairman David Pickler.

It took more than six hours and enough bloviating and redundancy and hair-splitting — mixed in with spurts of genuine eloquence — to put a Toastmasters’ Convention to shame. But when it was all over and the climactic votes were at hand, the Memphis School Board took the most decisive act in its history (and conceivably one of its very last acts of any kind)— voting 5-4 to allow city voters the privilege of voting Memphis City Schools out of existence.

That referendum — to be held within 45 to 60 days of Monday night’s vote — was a response to the crisis that had been brewing since Shelby County School Board president David Pickler announced last month, in the wake of the November 2 election, that the time seemed ripe for another attempt in the General Assembly to create a special school district for the Shelby County school system.

Pickler’s statement of intent would galvanize MCS Board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, fearful that a special school district in the county would inevitably drain property tax revenue from the city schools, to float a defensive strategy — that of surrendering the MCS charter, an action which, if approved by city voters, would automatically consolidate city and county schools.

Those two diametrically opposed plans came to be known as “nuclear options,” and they generated feverish attempts, sanctioned by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, to find a third way, some compromise agreement between the two school systems that would forestall a showdown.

Efforts to do so began last week with a summit of city and county officials presided over by city council member Wanda Halbert, and they culminated with a meeting of principal players on Sunday. Out of that came a plan that would freeze both nuclear options for a period of three years, during which mutual consultations would take place and neither would carry out its Doomsday Plan.

Memphis School Board member Jeff Warren proposed a variant of the compromise Monday night, one that was to founder after a good deal of contentious back and forthing, and the admission by MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson that no agreement between the two boards would be legally binding on the Tennessee legislature, already under pressure from the Tennessee School Boards Association to end a prohibition against new school districts.

Ultimately, Warren’s motion was brought to a vote and failed, with Jones, Hart, Sharon Webb, Stephanie Gatewood, and Patrice Robinson voting no, and Kenneth Whalum, Betty Mallott, Warren, and Board president Freda Williams voting yes. The next vote was on the motion to call the referendum on surrendering the charter, and it succeeded 5-4 with the former nay-sayers now the yea-sayers.

Besieged by reporters afterward, Pickler said his Board would meet to discuss a response. He declined to confirm rampant speculation that the Shelby County School Board would vote to seek legislation on behalf of a special school district.

Details to come.

Commission Defers Action on Two Key Issues

Posted By on Tue, Dec 21, 2010 at 1:35 AM

Clockwise from top left: Commissioners Steve Mulroy, Heidi Shafer, Sidney Chism, and Terry Roland
  • JB
  • Clockwise from top left: Commissioners Steve Mulroy, Heidi Shafer, Sidney Chism, and Terry Roland
. On Monday, a day that was destined to see momentous decisions made elsewhere in the Memphis social/political firmament, the Shelby County Commission, perhaps wisely punted some of its remaining year-end issues down the road — voting to put off naming an interim state representative for the seat of the late Ulysses Jones and backing off from a vote on overriding a key veto by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

The veto was of a resolution, introduced last month by Commissioner Heidi Shafer and narrowly passed, that would allow county departments to opt in or out, at will, of Luttrell’s proposed new unified county office for IT services. Shafer had seven votes for passage, but seemed to have encountered difficulty picking up the eighth vote she needed for an override.

The question became moot when most commissioners, clearly as much for convenience as for conviction, decided to support a delay proposed by Commissioner Henri Brooks, who wanted to wait until the state Attorney General could advisory on the likelihood of lawsuits from department heads relating to the effect of IT unification on their proprietary computer information.

Unless Attorney General Robert Cooper states an opinion in time for the commission to hold a special meeting before the end of the year, the veto automatically becomes permanent.

The postponement of naming a successor to Rep. Jones until the commission’s January 24 meeting means, as commission members conceded, that the winner of the January 20 Democratic primary will be appointed as interim representative a week or so after the General Assembly is getting down to serious business.

The field of candidates includes Antonio ‘2-Shay’ Parkinson, Stephanie Gatewood, Jannie C. Foster, and Brenda Oats-Williams, with the actual race most likely to be between Parkinson and Gatewood.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Monday's Other Key Vote: County Commission to Pick Interim State Representative

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Parkinson, flanked by Judges Deborah Henderson and Gina Higgins, who made courtesy calls at his Thursday night fundraiser at Kings Palace on Beale
  • JB
  • Parkinson, flanked by Judges Deborah Henderson and Gina Higgins, who made courtesy calls at his Thursday night fundraiser at King's Palace on Beale

Though most local attention, understandably, is on the pending vote Monday night by the Memphis School Board on whether to call for a referendum on surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter, another decision will be made of some consequence in government circles.

The Shelby County Commission will decide between five applicants for an interim appointment to the state House of Representatives seat that became vacant with the death in November of longtime state representative Ulysses Jones.

The applicants, all of whom were interviewed by the commission on Wednesday, are: Antonio Parkinson, a firefighter and prominent activist in the North Memphis/Frayer/Raleigh area; Sandra Richards, a battalion chief in the Memphis Fire Department and the surviving fiancée of Jones, who was also a Fire Department battalion chief; Stephanie Gatewood, a member of the Memphis School Board; Brenda Oats-Williams, an attorney; and Nicholas Pegues, a University of Memphis student.

All but Pegues, a Republican, are Democrats. All but Pegues and Richards intend to run in a special election to hold the seat on a permanent basis. Primary date for candidates is January 20, with the general election on March 8.

Also planning to run in the special election is Jannie C. Foster, who was not among those interviewed on Wednesday.
According to commission sources, those with the best chance to gain the interim appointment are Parkinson, Richards, and Gatewood — all of whom have support among the commissioners.

counter-clockwise, from top, left: Richards, Gatewood, Pegues, Oats-Williams
  • counter-clockwise, from top, left: Richards, Gatewood, Pegues, Oats-Williams

House Passes Tax Cut Bill, but Cohen Says No

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 10:06 AM

Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is alive and well in Washington, having just been the bagman for a deal between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans. The $858 billion package includes extension of the Bush across-the-board tax cuts for two years, a reduction in the estate tax, and, as a kind of throw-in, extension of expanded unemployment benefits through 2011.

The House completed congressional action on the bill Thursday, voting its approval 277-148 and sending the bill to President Obama for his signature. It is a mixed bag by any standards, and, according to 9th District Democrat Steve Cohen, who voted against it, something very like the proverbial bag of switches.

Cohen, calling the package a "seven-course meal with wine" for the wealthy, explained his reasoning in a speech on the floor of the House:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Depleted Democratic Corps in Legislature Looks West for Leaders

Posted By on Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 10:15 AM

Fitzhugh; Kyle
  • Fitzhugh; Kyle
The ill wind that blew down Democratic electoral hopes in November may have blown some good to West Tennessee Democrats.

In the aftermath of the election debacle that left Democrats with only 34 House seats —- compared to the Republican Party’s 64 (with Kent Williams of Elizabethton, erstwhile Speaker and “Carter County Republican,” a de facto independent) the party’s leadership has shifted back westward.

This is the region which provided the Democrats their leaders (John Wilder of Somerville as Senate Speaker; Jimmy Naifeh of Covington as House Speaker) during their most recent decades of domination, now gone.

On Wednesday, a reduced party caucus, meeting in Nashville, elected Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, 50-odd miles north of Memphis, to lead the Democrats in the state House (succeeding Gary Odom of Nashville). They also named two Memphis representatives — Joe Towns and Lois DeBerry, as assistant party leader and floor leader, respectively.

Yet a third Memphian, Rep. John DeBerry, had been a contestant for the position of minority leader.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, named three West Tennesseans as their principal officers. Jim Kyle of Memphis returns as Democratic Senate leader, Lowe Finney of Jackson was elected caucus chairman, and Beverly Marrero of Memphis was named secretary/treasurer. The Democrats’ vice chair is Andy Berke of Chattanooga.

Tennessee’s Republicans recently made their own recent selection of officers, with Ron Ramsey of Blountville returning as Senate Speaker, and Beth Harwell of Nashville having been nominated by the GOP as House Speaker. Memphis’ Mark Norris has been renominated as Senate Majority Leader, and Mark White of Memphis and Barret Rich of Somerville were nominated for GOP whip positions in the House.

This is It!: the School Board Resolution to Surrender the MCS Charter

Posted By on Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 8:26 AM

Martavius Jones
  • Martavius Jones
On Monday night, the Memphis City Schools Board of Directors will take an epochal vote, deciding on whether to call a referendum of Memphis voters on the question of surrendering the MCS charter.

The move, the brainchild of Board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, came about as a way to counter the expressed intention of Shelby County Schools chairman David Pickler to seek, once again, legislative approval for a special school district for the county schools. A charter surrender would force the automatic consolidation of the city and county school systems.

Five votes are required to pass the resolution. Besides Jones and Hart, Board members Sharon Webb and Stephanie Gatewood say they will vote yes. Committed to a no vote are current Board president Freda Williams and Kenneth Whalum Jr. Undecided are Dr. Jeff Warren, Betty Mallott, and Patrice Robinson.

The resolution reads as follows:

WHEREAS, the 1869 Tennessee Private Acts Chapter 30 established the Board of Education of the Memphis City Schools and placed the exclusive management and control of the school district known as Memphis City Schools with this body politic; and

WHEREAS, this school district known as Memphis City Schools has its boundaries coterminous to the boundaries of the City of Memphis and is responsible for providing the public primary and secondary education of residents of Memphis; and

WHEREAS, residents of the City of Memphis are also residents of the county of Shelby, who have never relinquished their county residency and its elected officials represent over 70% of the residents of Shelby County, Tennessee; and

WHEREAS, residents of Memphis, who are also residents of the county, are largely responsible for the growth of the population of Shelby County beyond the city limits of Memphis through property taxes that financed the infrastructure investments made, not limited to services provided by the Memphis Light, Gas, and Water Division of the City of Memphis; and

WHEREAS, residents of Shelby County, Tennessee, collectively fund education for children enrolled in Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools; and

WHEREAS, the infrastructure investments made by residents of the City of Memphis has resulted in 49% of the total residential appraised property values of Shelby County being located beyond the city limits of Memphis; and

WHEREAS, Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools commissioned a study conducted by the University of Memphis to determine the impact of Shelby County Schools obtaining special school district status; and

WHEREAS, said study concluded that special school district status for Shelby County Schools would result in an increased tax burden for residents of Memphis, the majority of residents of Shelby County, because ½ of the residential appraised property of the county that provides resources to all children receiving public education would no longer be available for funding for children for children that live in the city limits of Memphis; and

WHEREAS, the loss of ½ of the resident appraised property for funding would cause irreparable harm, threaten the existence of Memphis City Schools and its ability to continue as a going concern.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT, the Board of Commissioners of the Board of Education of Memphis City Schools surrenders its charter as authorized by 1961 Tennessee Private Acts Chapter 375.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT, the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners hereby request that the Shelby County Commissioners of Elections conduct a referendum that transfers the administration of Memphis City Schools to the Shelby County Board of Education as required by Tennessee Code Annotated Section 49-2-502 to take place at the same time as any future election is conducted by the Shelby County Election Commission or as provided by state law, whichever occurs sooner.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT, the Board of Commissioners of Memphis Schools authorizes the use of unrestricted fund balance to conduct said referendum.

Respectfully submitted by:

Martavius D. Jones
District 4

Seconded by:
Tomeka R. Hart
District 7

Quebec's Loss is Memphis' Gain as Electrolux Plant to Move Here

Posted By on Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 1:29 AM

Top: Bredesen and Electroluxs Scott; Bottom: Kisber, Wharton, and Luttrell
  • JB
  • Top: Bredesen and Electrolux's Scott; Bottom: Kisber, Wharton, and Luttrell
Wednesday was a day of seasonal good cheer at The Peabody as various messengers brought their glad tidings to a ballroom filled to capacity for the annual banquet of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, was there, with a simple and apparently heartfelt message, “Thank you, Memphis, for having the NBA!” Chamber president John Moore celebrated “Memphis Soul,” Phil Trenary of Pinnacle Airlines expressed his happiness at having relocated to a new downtown headquarters, and Mayors A C Wharton and Mark Luttrell professed satisfaction with each other and with certain prospects just ahead.

One of those prospects — the relocation of vast new Electrolux plant to Memphis — was formally announced by Governor Phil Bredesen, who was introduced to the audience by Matt Kisber, who has served Bredesen as the state’s Commissioner of Economic Development.

Bredesen, who was in Memphis last week to take part in a ceremony on behalf of the Books from Birth program, and thought that might have been his last trip to the Bluff City as governor, said he welcomed the opportunity to appear in Memphis once again to bring the “good news” of the Electrolux relocation

The 700,000 square-foot plant, to be located at the Pidgeon Industrial Park on Presidents’ Island, represents a $190 million investment and will bring some 1200 jobs, in addition to supplier jobs and other ancillary benefits, said Bredesen, who noted that Electrolux already had one plant operating successfully in Tennessee, at Springfield.

Kevin Scott, the CEO of Electrolux, jokingly expressed thanks to “Al Gore, who invented the Internet,” a possible reference to the fact that news of the plant relocation had already spread across cyberspace in advance of his coming. Scott noted that Electrolux, which makes Frigidaire appliances and other products, was the “largest manufacturer of cooking goods “in North America.

He expressed gratitude to local and state governments for providing “a strong financial support package” (reportedly $20 million from both Memphis and Shelby County for infrastructure improvements, and another $92 million from the state of Tennessee).

The new plant will essentially be an upgraded version of the existing Electrolux plant at L’Assomption in the Canadian province of Quebec, where — simultaneous with the celebratory atmosphere in Memphis — area political and business figures were lamenting the loss of the facility there, which will be closed down.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Collision Course

Posted By on Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 11:59 PM

Councilman Jim Strickland, County Commissiner Mike Carpenter, and County Mayor Mark Luttrell huddle before the summit.
  • JB
  • Councilman Jim Strickland, County Commissiner Mike Carpenter, and County Mayor Mark Luttrell huddle before the summit.
Though Monday afternoon’s hastily arranged “summit” of local political and school officials on the showdown between the Memphis and Shelby County school systems did not resolve disputed matters nor avert the continuing prospect of Armageddon, it did illuminate some of the power realities.

As it happens, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell are still in the early stages of exploring the nature of their own relationship — or partnership, as the case may be.

Both temporizing and conciliatory types by nature, they offered the hope, on behalf of their respective(and overlapping) jurisdictions that no action would go forward without protracted consultation and study — neither the creation of a special county school district nor de facto school consolidation via the surrender of the Memphis School Board’s charter.

Appropriately, perhaps, it was Luttrell, the head of what he acknowledges is a “weak-mayor” system and who believes he can best make progress by developing good working relations with other officials, who unveiled a specific plan — holding things in place for a year and meanwhile asking the state Comptroller’s office to conduct a study of the complicated financial aspects of either proposed course of action.

It surely said something that Kriner Cash said nothing.

Memphis schools superintendent Cash, who has previously indicated to his Board members that he opposed the idea of Memphis City Schools surrendering its charter, has apparently decided that discretion not only is the better part of valor but that silence is the better part of discretion.

The last thing he wants to do is reinforce the impression left by Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, who made the culminating speech at the Monday afternoon summit.

“You better start thinking about what’s right for your kids and not for yourself politically! You better do what’s right for your kids,” Chism thundered.

"They Don't Want to Give Up the Power!"

He went on for a while about the fact that power had shifted after this year’s elections and that the new Republican masters of the state legislature would likely take the attitude, “We’re going to make some major changes, whether you like it or not!” And those changes, he said, could result in the gutting of support for a Memphis school system, facing possible fiscal isolation with a truncated tax base.

Toward the end of his remarks, Chism turned slightly to his left and gestured in the direction of the seated panelists, eye-checking both MCS board president Freda Williams, a declared opponent of the charter surrender, and Cash.

“When this thing first came up, I said to my wife, ‘It will never happen, because politically they don’t want to give up no power they got, and they got about that much!”

Chism here held his thumb and forefinger the merest part of an inch apart. “And they don’t want to lose it. And yet the kids will suffer from now on because you think you got a position that you gotta hold to make somebody think you’re doing something in this town! You better do what’s right for these babies.”

For their part, perennial Shelby County School Board president David Pickler and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken were at pains to seem as reasonable and undemanding as possible. After all, either outcome would aggrandize their own power — the special school district by furthering what, for Pickler and many of his Board colleagues, has been a long-held dream; and the de facto combining of districts, which would place Pickler and Aitken at the head of the consolidated whole (though, to be sure, only temporarily).

Welcoming the involvement of the two mayors and the other officials, Pickler, who has relentlessly pushed the idea of a special school district for at least a decade, described Monday’s colloquy as “a conversation we’ve been wanting to have for ten years” and offered “to take the time if necessary to address any and all questions” — a pledge that clearly covered a longer span than Monday’s session, since, as MCS board members Martavius Jones, Tomeka Hart, and others noted, he never quite addressed the basic question: Why does the county system want to be separate in the first place?

Pickler did his best to convince the cityside contingent that the special school district need not be an immediate threat — that something like the year-long cooling-off period suggested by Luttrell was indeed possible. “We’ve asked the legislative leaders not to take any action,” he said, going on to outline the steps required to accomplish a special school district — legislative action to remove a 1982 state prohibition against new districts, followed by a private act which Pickler, threading a verbal needle, said “by custom, not by law, requires the consent of each member of the Shelby County delegation.”

Hardaway Rebuts

Aitken, installed as county schools superintendent only during the last year, was diffidence itself, urging the various parties to “step back and be careful” and declaring his need to “do a little homework myself.”

Pickler’s nicety on the matter of unanimous delegation consent did not escape the notice of state Representative G.A. Hardaway, the Memphis Democrat who currently serves as chair of the Shelby County legislative delegation, and, like Chism, sides with the MCS Board’s hard-liners — led by Jones and Hart, both of whom will be moving for a charter surrender when the Board meets next Monday night to decide that issue.

Hardaway declared point-blank his skepticism on the matter of “trust.” He would bluntly tell the attendees that enabling legislation for a special Shelby County school district had been introduced in the state House during the last session without the delegation’s unanimous consent, “was defeated by only one vote,”, and that, despite Luttrell’s urging and Pickler’s soothing intimations of a gradual, time-consuming process, the entire act could be accomplished, from beginning to end, in a single day. “We do a lot of bills that way at the end of a session,” he noted.

MCS had a brief window in which to operate and act on its own behalf, said Hardaway — mindful of the diminished status of inner-city Memphis Democrats in what will become a lopsidedly Republican legislature in January.

In a further effort to mollify critics, Pickler had suggested that the current A.D.A. (Average Daily Attendance) formula which mandates a 3:1 ratio favoring MCS in capital expenditures, might be continued after creation of a special school district. This, too, generated as much doubt as agreement.

Although the lineaments of the showdown between the two school systems seemed fairly starkly outlined, there was still some middle ground — much of it mined with complexities. MCS Board member Jeff Warren, a physician who represents a Midtown district and is a moderate’s moderate, was as distrustful of the county contingent — and the GOP legislature — as Jones and Hart, insisting on a “legally binding” guarantee that no special-school-district legislation would go forward in the coming session.

"Mutual Assured Defense"

What that came down to in practice he outlined in a special “work session” of the Board Monday evening that immediately followed the summit meeting. Keeping, as he said, to the Cold War rhetoric that has characterized the two boards’ mounting conflict — replete with talk of “nuclear” options — Warren embroidered on the old phrase “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD), a concept that kept the United States and the United States stalemated at the height of the Cold War.

Warren wondered: Why not a Mutual Assured Defense agreement between city schools and county schools — one that involved long-term guarantees that neither side would invoke its nuclear strike without allowing the other side to do the same? In other words, as soon as the county board moved for a special school district, the city board would be permitted to join it. Conversely, if the city board should move to surrender its charter, machinery would be in place to permit immediate legislation on behalf of a special county school district.

Legalistically speaking, Warren’s scenario seemed, to put it mildly, a ram in a thicket.

Other, equally complex issues had abounded in the summit discussion. City council member Jim Strickland, for example, wanted clarification on what might happen, if MCS ceased to exist as such, to the $70-odd million provided annually to city schools by the city council under a judicially mandated “maintenance-of-effort” formula? And what would be the fate of a pending $90 million grant to the city school system by the Gates Foundation.

Neither question was satisfactorily dealt with in either the summit session or the subsequent MCS board meeting, though Jones would hazard the hopeful guess that the Gates grant had been promised to a set of teacher-effectiveness initiatives rather than to MCS per se.

Another question was: Who would control the tax rate for a special school district — the county commission, the legislature, or the county school board? No consensus was reached on that one, either — nor on a myriad of other perplexities, all of which lurked under the surface of the discussion.

With a “town meeting” on the respective issues coming Friday and the MCS board’s showdown on charter surrender coming Monday, much remained unresolved. Indeed, the appropriate metaphor might be, not a nuclear showdown, but the Titanic’s encounter with a dimly glimpsed iceberg, the consequences of which could not be foreseen in advance. n

Bredesen's Sayonara: The Governor Prepares to Say His Goodbyes

Posted By on Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 11:36 PM

Bredesen with former county commissioner and PR consultant Deidre Malone at the Books from Birth event
  • JB
  • Bredesen with former county commissioner and PR consultant Deidre Malone at the Books from Birth event
It's been slightly more than 16 years since Phil Bredesen, the transplanted upstate New Yorker and health-care tycoon who was then the mayor of Nashville, delivered a speech at The Peabody that intrigued a lot of Memphians in his audience. The speech, to the downtown Kiwanis Club, was devoted to the theme of “Ten Things I Will Do for Memphis.”

And it was no ordinary laundry list. Bredesen, then the Democratic nominee in a gubernatorial contest with Republican nominee Don Sundquist, proposed, if elected, to accomplish a number of things that had long been coveted by residents of the Bluff City. Among them were securing for the city an NFL franchise and awarding the University of Memphis with its own independent governing board. The other eight items were just as tantalizing, and, had not Sundquist been a home-town candidate, the man from Nashville might have picked up enough local support to have carried Shelby County, and with it the governorship.

As it was, Bredesen would have to wait another eight years before taking over the reins of state government, and here it is eight years after that, and, sad to say, most of the “Ten Things I will Do for Memphis” remain undone (though Nashville has meanwhile become a staple on the NFL circuit).

Inasmuch as Sundquist didn't do those things, either, it's hard to fault Bredesen overmuch. The outgoing governor made what could be his last swing into Memphis last week, to help announce a grant for the Books from Birth program, a program he and his wife Andrea Conte especially favor, at the College Park Head Start Center. He said all the right things about Memphis: “…a tremendous city…a lot of energy…interesting politics here,” and said he had tried to be “very, very supportive,” while acknowledging there is sentiment in Memphis (face it, there is always such sentiment in Memphis) that the city has been overlooked and short-changed.

Perhaps justifiably, the governor took some pride in having stabilized state government during hard times. He characterized the current economic facts of life this way: “We've bounced up about a foot from the bottom, but we were 14 feet down to start with, so there's still a way to go.”

Was it likely he would take another fling in politics - say, by running for the U.S. Senate? Bredesen almost recoiled. “I don't think so. I don't think I'd be any good at that. I don't think I'd be happy. I don't think people would be happy with me. I would be terrible in the Senate. It's just not me.”

The one aspect of public life he said he was “really interested in” the issue of health care - one that's back on the front burner after a judicial decision this week finding unconstitutional a key portion of the federal health care bill passed last year. Bredesen had already made up his mind that the administration's bill needed to be modified.

“I think the president thinks so, too,” he opined. Who knows? Known to have been a candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services in late 2008, maybe he's got his hat in that ring again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

With a Schools Summit at Hand, the Questions and Dangers Proliferate

Posted By on Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 8:20 AM

As the current week begins, most local attention will focus on an ad hoc “summit” meeting scheduled for Monday afternoon, apparently at the Memphis School Board’s building and involving all the players in the ongoing nuclear showdown over the schools — both the city and county boards, city council members and county commission members, and, reportedly mayors A C Wharton of Memphis and Mark Luttrell of Shelby County
And, as that attempt to avert a showdown occurs, it will necessarily entwine with another developing drama — the unanticipated resurrection of the general city/county consolidation issue.

When two resolutions battled each other at the Shelby County Commission’s public meeting last Monday — one endorsing consolidation, the other condemning it and proposing a secessionist alternative — most people probably wondered which one was more irrelevant.

The fact is, neither is irrelevant. Both have new lives.

When first introduced in committee, the consolidation resolution introduced by Steve Mulroy seemed to be drastically at odds with an overwhelming rejection of city/county consolidation rendered by the voters of Shelby County barely a month beforehand.

That sentiment was at the heart of Commissioner Terry Roland’s surprise counter-resolution, which would have put the commission on record as favoring a constitutional effort on the part of suburban communities to extricate themselves from the Shelby County jurisdiction and unite with some acquiescent adjacent county. Even Roland observed that such an idea might seem crazy, but “no crazier than bringing up consolidation again after it got beat down.”

Neither resolution would pass — Mulroy’s failing by a single vote, Roland’s collecting only four votes, though its sponsor promised to bring it back as a corrective whenever needed.

Presto! A week later, both resolutions could have new life — especially if the current collision-course arcs of the Memphis and Shelby County school boards head toward consummation of either or both of the nuclear options each has proposed — the county board to seek legislation enabling a separate special school district for non-Memphis schools; the city board to surrender its charter, thereby forcing school consolidation.

Both prospects dramatize the irony that the issue of school consolidation — the supposed third rail that was purposely left out of the year-long consolidation fight because of its high-powered controversy — could be the first issue resolved in the post-referendum era.

The primum mobile of this development was, of course, the news that the Shelby County School Board, which had insistently sought Special School District status for the county schools in the last several General Assemblies, only to be turned away, would take advantage of the extraordinary Republican majorities created by the 2010 general election and get the deed done with the legislature that convenes in January

The city board’s move came next .with members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart proposing that the board surrender its charter — a move that would automatically consolidate the school systems. As of now, the Memphis board is scheduled to meet next Monday to vote on whether to approve such a step and to call a referendum for voter approval.

This week's summit will intervene — and all possibilities are live: a truce in place, with neither side pushing its initiative; a compromise plan, perhaps brokered by Wharton and Luttrell; or a breakdown in communications, with the race on toward an Armageddon in the New Year.

Behind the scenes, the players were rethinking the situation — sometimes in surprising ways. City councilman Jim Strickland noted that consolidation of the schools could save city government as much as $70 million annually in direct contributions to MCS. But he made a point at last week’s meeting of the council’s education committee, one attended by MCS superintendent Kriner Cash and other Board members, of saying that either of the nuclear options would be a “disaster.”

And anybody who thinks that the brewing school issue will be resolved along the lines of the recent consolidation vote — with city (and Democratic) voters split and county (and Republican) voters unalterably opposed — could be in for a surprise and a re-think.

One indication: At the Shelby County Republicans’ annual Christmas party on Saturday, a sizeable group of GOP activists, residents of both city and county, gathered on a back porch to express their openness toward the concept of an MCS charter surrender and resultant school consolidation and their concern about a special county school district.

One such, John Williams of Germantown, summed it up by noting what he saw as the possible tax advantages of an amalgamated district, along with the streamlining of school personnel and the simplification of such issues as school location and construction. The group focused less on Realpolitik and more on issues of educational betterment than one might have anticipated.

Nobody has really figured out the total fiscal implications of the competing scenarios, and there’s the pending fallout of either on those two competing county commission resolutions — suspended for the moment.

In particular, there are myriad complications in the secession scenario called for in Roland’s resolution:

Would both unincorporated areas of Shelby County and the county’s municipalities qualify for the incorporation in an adjoining county that the resolution addresses?

Since state law mandates that each county contain a minimum of 500 square miles, which of the leftover 284 square miles in Shelby County would qualify for secession and which might be left out?

And with two-thirds approval required of the governing bodies of both Shelby County and the adjacent county, just how likely is that in anything like the near future?

The very posing of those questions may seem absurd — as well as vexing. But a year ago, say, the same statement could have been made about the conundra now accruing to the Memphis and Shelby County schools. Those questions have to be answered first.

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