Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Sun Also Rises (And the City Council Manages to Agree on a Budget!)

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2011 at 10:37 AM

Mayor A C Wharton and CAO George Little minotored proceedings all night.
  • JB
  • Mayor A C Wharton and CAO George Little minotored proceedings all night.

“Ain’t No Sunshine…”: At a City Council meeting, as at County Commission meetings, or at equally crucial meeting of any other public body, the spirit and letter of the state Sunshine law, which in theory prohibits private meetings on matters being deliberated, is scarcely even winked at. Private conclaves occur with regularity, some in plain view, others not — especially during formal breaks in proceedings, when members can absent themselves in the break room.

Speaking of which, recent discussions about eliminating such modest council perks as drinks and snacks were reflected in the fact that only water bottles seemed to be in abundance Tuesday night as the Council, just under the gun of a pending deadline, convened to try to agree on a budget. There came a moment when lawyer Jim Strickland, one of those council members who have made a point of being willing to eliminate perks, went in search of a refreshment.

With dollar bills conspicuously gripped in his hand, long side up, Strickland headed out of the council chamber down the side aisle. He would emerge minutes later, striding up the center aisle, holding a bottle of Diet Sprite from the vending machine in the lobby. That’s called Making a Statement! (Pizza would turn up later for Council members, but it was reportedly paid for by Lowery out of pocket.)

Breaks: Aside from relieving the monotony of things at any given moment, or allowing for bathroom visitations and suchlike, the Council’s declared breaks often have, as indicated above, a strategic function. This is very likely why there is a complete lack of literalism in the allotted times specified by chairman Myron Lowery. As a rule of thumb, one might apply a factor of 3X. I.e., a “ten-minute” break on Tuesday night lasted perhaps 30 minutes, while a “15-minute” break lasted correspondingly longer.

The case can be made that, instead of rotating the chairmanship among members, Lowery should be made permanent chairman. Brusque as he is in cutting to the chase and moving members along, Lowery plays no favorites. He isn’t lacking in finesse, but his is ground to a fine edge, and his sense of proper order is both more flexible and more precise than Roberts’ Rules.

Given a situation like that of Tuesday night, when the full auditorium, as my colleague John Branston has noted, “belonged to AFSCME,” Lowery is vigilant in keeping down crowd shouts and ex tempore outbursts. But he knows when to give in, as when, at the tag end of public discussion, one audience member showed up in the well of the auditorium without having filled out a card requesting permission to speak. When the man, who was not unruly, made a show of stubbornness, and a murmur of support began in the crowd, Lowery relented. “Speak, brother,” he said. (Or words to that effect.)

There was a disproportion between the organized show of force in condemnation of privatizing the city’s sanitation work and the likelihood that a privatization proposal, like the one previously pushed by Councilman Kemp Conrad, would materialize in the budget. (Conrad himself kept a discreet low profile Tuesday night, and it was a telling fact that headlines around the nation on an AP story about Tuesday night's deliberations were variations on "Memphis Saves Jobs of Union Championed by King." )

But the lengthy series of speeches by union members and supporters — ranging from the first-person testimonies of workers to the cadenced slogans of activists to dry abstractions and number-crunching by men in rumpled suits — were perhaps a necessary background to the compromise eventually sounded by Council member Janis Fullilove.

The exact origin of Fullilove’s proposal — essentially to allow for workers to put in for voluntary buyouts, apparently independent of any fixed retirement age but according to a sliding scale relative to time on the job — is shrouded in mystery. But it resonated with her colleagues — and with Mayor A C Wharton, a constant side-aisle presence, along with his CAO, George Little. Wharton came to the well to offer his support and a pledge to fill in the blanks of such an arrangement.

The speaker mentioned above who was allowed to proceed without a card had attempted to get a commitment from Chairman Lowery that privatization of the sanitation workforce would be off the table in perpetuity. Lowery had answered that he could not commit future councils but that privatization wouldn’t be happening this time around.

For his part, Wharton resorted to the tried-and-true politician’s formula that he had “no plans, no intentions” to seek privatization and promised that any future such proposal would be subject to full public discussion.

Just as Fullilove’s buyout proposal had, in a sense, come out of nowhere, so in a way did budget chairman Shea Flinn’s proposal to add back the 18 cents that was dropped from the city’s property tax rate in 2008 when the Council made the ill-fated decision to withdraw. That was on the gamble that the entire burden would shift by state law to county government, thereby cutting $57 million off city's scheduled annual allotment to Memphis City Schools.

As is surely well known, the courts have since ruled otherwise, although, as Flinn acknowledged Tuesday night in tying his proposal to the longevity of “Memphis City Schools as an entity,” the ongoing process of merging MCS with Shelby County Schools, another matter undergoing judicial scrutiny, could resolve city government’s dilemma in reasonably short order.

Flinn’s formula was probably the right way to arrange it, but he was ultimately brought to accept as a friendly amendment the idea of a one-year 18-cent increase — one that, of course, could be renewed a year from now. Like the buyout, the tax proposal met with virtually no opposition. The only Council members not voting Aye were Ed Ford, who recused himself as a city school teacher, and Strickland, who chose to see the 18 cents not as a restoration but as a tax increase.

In the end, after weeks of discussion and disagreement, the budget seemed to have resolved itself more or less along lines — involving a judicious balance of cuts and additional revenue — suggested some time back by Wharton.

There was astonishingly little bloviating or showboating Tuesday night, a fact summed up, perhaps, by the fact that Joe Brown (an unusually accommodating presence himself) appeared to have used the expression “in so many words or less” only once — a record. Another inveterate dissenter, Wanda Halbert, contributed to the consensus as well, although a caveat of hers on the buyout, a to-whom-it-may-concern reminder that a $50,000 lump sum can be gone in no time, was well put.

Halbert, incidentally, proved to be the beneficiary of an ambiguous statement by Lowery, who habitually reminds members conducting private conversations that their mikes are “hot,” meaning still transmitting sound. At one point, he shorthanded the prompting, telling Halbert, “You’re hot.”

As a beaming Halbert herself would proclaim from the stage, that one became the subject of multiple tweets.

A hat-tip to the tweeters, btw, a legion of whom, both in the auditorium and following proceedings online from elsewhere, kept up a steady stream of advisories, in so many words (no more than 140 characters at a time) or less.

One way or another, their basic message was: Let the Sushine In.

A recently famous labor-friendly camera crew kept its eye on things, too.
  • JB
  • A recently famous labor-friendly camera crew kept its eye on things, too.

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