Friday, June 29, 2012

Snake-bit Attorney Fields Now Under Suspension

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 12:24 PM

Richard Fields
  • JB
  • Richard Fields
Even in the news world, there’s a case to be made on behalf of forbearance when it comes to reporting all the events in the history of someone’s slide downward.

There were numerous people, of course, who for basically partisan reasons rejoiced in every jot and tittle of Richard Nixon’s fall. Presumably most Americans, especially those members of Nixon’s “silent majority” who had just voted for him, winced as the details of Watergate kept tumbling out in 1973-4. Not for nothing did Nixon’s successor as president, Gerald Ford, proclaim upon his resignation that “our long national nightmare is over.”

So, honestly, it gives us no pleasure to report the latest calamity in the saga of attorney Richard Fields, the once-upon-a-time well-regarded civil rights attorney, whose career has become something of a train wreck.

So we’ve held on to a piece of news for more than a week before deciding, reluctantly and even sadly, that it has to be reported.

Here it is, in its entirety, as reported by the state Board of Professional Responsibility:

On June 19, 2012, the Supreme Court of Tennessee issued an Order summarily and temporarily suspending Richard Bryan Fields from the practice of law upon finding that Mr. Fields has failed to respond to the Board regarding a complaint of misconduct. Section 4.3 of Supreme Court Rule 9 provides for the immediate summary suspension of an attorney's license to practice law in cases of an attorney's failure to respond to the Board regarding a complaint of misconduct.

Effective June 19, 2012, Mr. Fields is precluded from accepting any new cases and he must cease representing existing clients by July 19, 2012. After July 19, 2012, Mr. Fields shall not use any indicia of lawyer, legal assistant, or law clerk nor maintain a presence where the practice of law is conducted.

Mr. Fields must notify all clients being represented in pending matters, as well as co-counsel and opposing counsel of the Supreme Court's Order suspending his law license. Section 18 of Supreme Court Rule 9 requires Mr. Fields to deliver to all clients any papers or property to which they are entitled.

This suspension remains in effect until dissolution or modification by the Supreme Court. Mr. Fields may for good cause request dissolution or modification of the suspension by petition to the Supreme Court.

As my colleague John Branston has documented in the past, there was a longish time in local history when Fields, as attorney for various civil rights plaintiffs, performed well and successfully.

All of that began to change dramatically when Fields, not quite a decade ago, began to reinvent himself as a kingmaker, playing on an existing relationship with then Mayor Willie Herenton and both releasing and ballyhooing sample ballots containing the names of his preferred candidates at election time.

He also made a point of trashing candidates he disapproved of, publicizing every misdeed of theirs, real and imagined, without a grain of mercy.

There was always something disingenuous at the heart of this. Several candidates whom Fields had found nothing to muckrake about and whom he had promised an endorsement complained that he had pulled the rug out from under them, switching ballot favorites at the last minute for nakedly political reasons.

We now condense. In a word, Fields became Ozymandias. His empire of influence crumbled. First, his longtime ally Herenton accused Fields of trying to set him up with a sexual liaison as part of a blackmail plot designed to force Herenton out of a reelection campaign. Accused by Herenton of being both a "rat" and a "snake," Fields began to appear snake-bit.

There followed a period of erratic behavior, both in and out of the courtroom, where he once became involved in a shouting match with a judge. At one point he was the subject of an official censure by the state Supreme Court, later expunged at Fields’ determined pleading.

He was twice forced off the Shelby County Democratic executive committee, to which he had been elected in 2005, the second time for good. He had the misfortune to become the steady object of vilification by influential blogger/activist Thaddeus Matthews, who accused Fields of private debaucheries as well as public mendacity.

By fits and starts, Fields made efforts to regain his former prominence. His attempts to become a party to proceedings in the complicated city/county school-merger case died on the vine, however, and the following paragraph from a Flyer article of last September 29 documents another effort by Fields, speaking from the dock of the County Commission, to insert himself into a subject of personal controversy, this one a case of misappropriated funds involving Chancery Court employees:

“…In rapid sequence, Fields made an unelaborated accusation that[Shelby County Attorney Kelly] Rayne, who has issued at least an arguably comprehensive report on the Chancery situation, was ‘incompetent,’ made unsourced allegations of oral sex performed by employees on Chancery officials, told Commissioner James Harvey, who was commenting on the Chancery situation, that he had no right to speak, and was finally gaveled into silence by commission chairman Sidney Chism, who must have wondered if a full moon had somehow risen in broad daylight. …”

And now the suspension, for reasons as yet unexplained. In the idiom of the day: It is what it is, and right now it doesn't seem to favor Richard Fields.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Prodigal's Return: Don Sundquist Gets a Standing O

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 2:28 PM

Sundquist at GOP Master Meal
  • JB
  • Sundquist at GOP Master Meal

The East Shelby County Republican Club, largest such organization in Shelby County, was founded someime in the 1970s by a group of GOP pioneers who included one Don Sundquist, then an advertising man and Republican activist for whom an active political career of his own was still years away.

On Tuesday night of this week at the Great Hall of Germantown, the club held its annual Master Meal, a buffet-style banquet which serves up impressive guest speakers each year – an example being former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee on the eve of his announcing a 2008 presidential run.

This year’s speaker, making one of his few appearances in erstwhile home-town Memphis since serving a stormy second term as Tennessee governor which ended in 2003, was the self-same Don Sundquist, now a resident, with wife Martha, of a hilltop manse in Townsend, a Smoky Mountain hamlet in East Tennessee.

After several terms as a back-bench Republican congressman representing the 7th District, Sundquist was elected governor in 1994, defeating Phil Bredesen, then Nashville's mayor. Toward the end of his gubernatorial tenure, Sundquist had plumbed the depths of unpopularity with his fellow Republicans, on account of his attempts to resolve a state financial crisis by sponsoring several failed attempts at a state income tax.

Joining the chorus of heckling from the right, ironically, was Democrat Bredesen. Indeed, a political scientist from Mars, familiar with American political parties only as defined in a textbook, would have assumed that Sundquist, who, besides sponsoring tax reform, labored hard to sustain the state's TennCare medical system at peak levels, was the Democrat, while Bredesen, who would succeed Sundquist and pride himself on budget-squeezing, was the Republican.

A formal address to the county’s annual Lincoln Day banquet in 2000 was especially painful for then governor Sundquist , who talked to a hostile dead silence and received only perfunctory applause from the filled ballroom upon concluding. Thereafter, in and out of office, Sundquist was not to be found at a Lincoln Day affair in Memphis.

That was then, this is now. At a testimonial dinner for nonagenarian GOP eminence Lewis Donelson in Memphis last year, Sundquist dropped in and was received warmly. That was just a warm-up. Something resembling hosannas greeted his delivery of a keynote address to this week's Master Meal audience. He receivied standing ovations at the beginning and end of his speech, a standard piece of GOP election-year boilerplate, and was applauded loudly and often in between.

Near the end, seemingly on the edge of tearing up, a happy Sundquist said, “Thank you for inviting me back home!” and got an especially big hand.

Time does indeed heal all wounds.

"Fartin' in the Wind": Issues of Superintendency, Commission Lawsuit Get Roiled Reactions

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 7:44 AM

Even under the tense circumstances of this weeks school board meeting, superintendents Aitken and Cash maintained cordial relations.
  • JB
  • Even under the tense circumstances of this week's school board meeting, superintendents Aitken and Cash maintained cordial relations.
Reaction was rampant Wednesday to the continuing wrangles on the Unified School Board about the superintendency as well as to a new County Commission suit to block pending referenda on suburban school districts.

The Superintendency: Perhaps the most succinct summation of what happened at Tuesday night’s board meeting came from Tomeka Hart, an MCS holdover who put it this way Wednesday night: “It was about whether there would be a search or whether [John] Aitken would be superintendent. We voted for the search.”

Hart said the choice had been a fundamental one and took issue with published accounts suggesting the board, which debated for almost two hours the issue of whether to launch a search for a superintendent, had wasted its time.

She said that either Aitken, superintendent of Shelby County Schools, or Memphis City School superintendent Kriner Cash would be “fine with me,” but did not think the issue of who serves as superintendent should be closed yet.

Hart’s attitude contrasted with that of Martavius Jones, with whom she had led the move in December 2010 to surrender the MSC charter, thereby forcing the merger with SCS.
Jones had either abstained or voted No in the series of votes that led to a board vote authorizing chairman Billy Orgel to appoint a committee to arrange a search.

So did David Pickler, the former SCS chairman who is now running for a position on the permanent Unified Board as a supporter of municipal school independence.

In debate Tuesday night, both Jones and Pickler had based much of their positions on the premise that the board’s preeminent need was to digest the recommendations made to it earlier in the meeting by the Transition Planning Commission.

In separate conversations Wednesday, however, both admitted to nursing a belief that a failure to authorize or initiate a search would tend to confirm the prospects of one of the existing superintendents – Aitken, in the case of Pickler, who is a resolute supporter of the Shelby County Schools chief; Cash, in the case of Jones, who maintains an optimism about the MCS head’s prospects.

Pickler’s belief is founded on the fact that Aitken is already the superintendent of the only duly constituted county educational unit, that he has a contract that extends all the way to 2005, and that, failing any action by the school board to designate a different superintendent, he is the de facto chief of whatever expanded version of a county school system is produced by the MCS-SCS merger.

For his part, Jones is undeterred by the action of the board last week in declining to renew Cash’s contract, which is due to expire in August 2013, the point at which the MCS-SCS merger becomes effective. (On the same night, the board rejected a motion of non-renewal for Aitken.)

As Jones points out, the current 23-member School Board is an interim body. On August 2, a new 7-member permanent board will be elected.

A necessary parenthesis, because this gets hard to follow: The seven winners of the August races will take office immediately, co-existing for a year with holdovers from the interim board, the two groups together sustaiing a 23-member body until August 2013.

Since several of the contested races pit current members against each other, temporary vacancies will be created, which the County Commission will fill for the meantime. But as of August 2013 only the elected seven will constitute the permanent board. Complicated, right? You betcha!

Anaother complication is that some point the County Commission will petition Judge Mays to expand the board to 13, at which point the sequence of appointed members and subsequent elections will commence again. Whew! End of necessary parenthesis.

Clearly, the composition of the Unified Board is due for so many potential changeovers as to make it possible, Jones contends, for the existence at some point of a board membership friendly to Cash, one that could decide to hire the MCS leader, despite his apparent rejection last week.

Jones’ emergence as a full-tilt booster of Cash has surprised many observers, who had gotten used to his role as an apostle of county-wide school unification for the last year and a half. Jones concedes that there has been a boom for Aitken on the part of other such unifiers, but he professes doubts that he SCS superintendent has enough experience with the inner city, and he points out that a 150,000 –student county-wide school system will still be predominantly urban.

There was an ironic footnote to Jones’ position on Wednesday afternoon. As he was discussing the schools situation on a downtown street corner with this reporter, a retired Marine colonel named David Dotson happened by.

Recognizing Jones, Dotson initiated a conversation in which he courteously but bluntly (“You’re fartin’ in the wind,” he said at one point) told Jones that resistance to efforts by Shelby County’s six suburban municipalities to establish independent school systems was futile, akin to a husband’s trying to tell an estranged wife she had no power to leave.

And Cash, whose champion Jones had become, was not only not a unifying element, he was one of the major causes of the breakup, insisted Dotson, who went on to praise Aitken, likening the SCS head’s persona to that of Marine officers he had served with.

The Commission Lawsuit: Meanwhile, it became apparent that there was resistance from within Shelby County government and from within the Shelby County Commission itself to the suit filed under the auspices of the Commission requesting intercession by presiding U,S. District Judge Hardy Mays against the carrying out of the schooled August 2 referenda.

In separate news releases District 4 (suburban) commissioners Terry Roland and Chris Thomas challenged the legality of the suit as having been decided upon in violation of the state Sunshine Law and without an expressly conducted and legally binding vote by the Commission.


And Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who increasingly has become a front-and-center presence in the ongoing schools matters, issued his own objection to the suit.

In a press release Wednesday, Luttrell said: “I’m not surprised by the lawsuit. However, I was shocked by the language. The lawsuit needs to be based on constitutional merits and not on race. Additionally, state law allows for these special elections. They should be held as planned.”

He continued: “Citizens in municipalities within Shelby County should have the right to vote on whether they want to operate their own school systems,” And the press release containing Luttrell’s comments pointedly noted that “the Shelby County Attorney’s Office has received a request to investigate whether the lawsuit was legally filed since no official vote was taken by the entire Shelby County Commission” and that “Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne will also determine whether any sunshine laws were violated.” rellOpposesLawsuittoBlockMunicipalSchoolElections6-27-12.pdf

Fartin' in the wind... Martavius Jones and Colonel Dotson in their street-corner dialogue
  • JB
  • "Fartin' in the wind..."" Martavius Jones and Colonel Dotson in their street-corner dialogue

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Memphian Lindstrom Collecting Signatures to Repeal Citizens United

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 5:08 PM

Dave Lindstrom with petition packet
  • JB
  • Dave Lindstrom with petition packet

Former presidential candidate John McCain would invalidate it if he could, the State of Montana tried to, but the U.S. Supreme Court just this week wouldn’t let it. None of that is going to dissuade Dave Lindstrom of Memphis, a retired fundraiser and consultant, from giving it another shot.

What is this seemingly impossible task? The overturning of Citizens United, the now notorious Supreme Court decision of 2010 which struck down congressional and state curbs or limits on campaign spending by corporations and independent groups. In effect, this decision by the Roberts Court gave a green light to unlimited use of big money in campaigns for the first time since the out-of-control Nixon election of 1972.

In connection with MoveOn. org, Lindstrom last week took a petition bearing the names of 2,181 citizens to the downtown Memphis office of U.S. Senator Bob Corker. The petition seeks the Senator’s support for a constitutional amendment striking down Citizens United and restoring the right of governments to put response restrictions on campaign spending.

As it happened, Corker was not in Memphis when Lindstrom went by the Senator’s Peabody Place office to leave the petition and thus received no answer. The Flyer, too, in calls to Corker’s Washington office has been unable so far to get a response to the petition from the Senator or his staff.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Montana statute imposing limits on corporate campaign spending that the state’s Supreme Court had upheld.

Lindstrom feels that it behooves the state’s officeholders to take a position on Citizens United and vows to keep trying to get Corker and others to. He elicited a promise from us that the next time Senator Corker is in our neighborhood, or we in his, we’ll ask him what he thinks of Lindstrom’s petition and the Memphian’s efforts. Ditto with other congressional representatives.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Being Leaderly: Two Views

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 12:13 AM


Being a top dog in a political party often means having to herd cats. And it means, in an election year, doing what it takes to make sure the party's tent spreads wide. Here"s Justin Joy (left), chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, making nice with a couple of the GOP's outliers —Woody Degan and Zach Poskevich, primary challengers to a pair of the Republican Party's main men, state Senator Majority Leader Mark Norris and U.S. Senator Bob Corker, respectively.

(You can bet Joy will go out of his way to be all smiles to Norris and Corker the next time he encounters them.)

The conversation shown above took place Wednesday night at the opening of the Shelby County Republican Headquarters at the Kirby Woods Shopping Center in Germantown.

Next, a day later, here's Mike Turner of Nashville (center), caucus chair of the Democrats in the state House, making his rounds in Memphis on Thursday and stopping by the Mesquite Steak House in downtown Memphis with state Representative Joe Towns (right) of Whitehaven, to give lodge brother Antonio "Two Shay" Parkinson (left), a first-term state representative from Raleigh-Frayser, a hand at Parkinson's fundraiser.


As they say, all in a day 's work.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

School Board Postpones Superintendent Hire but Votes to Jettison Cash; Aitken Survives Similar Test

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 6:43 PM

As the Unified School Board of Shelby County prepared late Tuesday afternoon for what was billed as a showdown meeting on the selection of a superintendent for a new era,sides were being chosen both inside and outside the Teaching and Learning Academy building on Union Ave.

Chanting and carrying placards on the front grounds of the building, a large group was supportive of the candidacy of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken, who, just before the Unified Board was formed last year, was gifted by his carry-over SCS board with a contract extension until 2015 – two full years into the planned merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools in August 2013.


The Aitken boosters were opposed by a smaller group, led by the Rev. Isaac Richmond, who are attempting to prevent the Board from hiring the current Shelby County Schools superintendent (whom they identified on pass-out materials last week as “Robert Aitken,” a gaffe that prompted John Aitken to jest that his “cousin” Robert was indeed, as the handouts proclaimed, “unfit” to head the school board.

In the rear of the building, a rally of the Stand for Children group of activists took place. It was hard to ascertain where they stood on the superintendency, but several members held signs touting Unified School Board member (and current candidate) Kevin Woods.

Inside, the School Board members, composed of former MCS and SCS board members and seven new people appointed by the Shelby County Commission, were gathering to consider a lengthy work-session agenda, on which Point 24 concerned the selection of a superintendent.

In preliminary announcements as the meeting got underway, SCS superintendent Aitken, whose contract, along with that of MCS superintendent Kriner Cash, was destined for review , demonstrated what was perhaps an unintentional sense of irony, announcing, inter alia, a weather-oriented awareness program for students entitled “After the Storm.”

That was, of course, before the storm, which began to roil after the announcement period, with a proposal from member Jeff Warren to postpone voting until next week, when the subject would be whether to conduct a candidate search or adopt some other method.

Then the clouds began to rumble good and proper, with a variety of possibilities being proposed. It brought to mind remarks made earlier in the day to the Memphis Rotary Club by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

Asked after a luncheon address if John Aitken was the logical choice, Luttrell acknowledged the SCS superintendent might have a slight advantage but said that both current superintendents were still eligible. Two other possibilities he suggested -- hiring from within and hiring someone with executive ability from the larger community.

Clearly, Luttrell was not in favor of a prolonged search, nor one beyond the county's borders.

But others were — including several MCS board holdovers and SCS maverick Diane George, who pressed for a "national" search and a lengthy process.

Most SCS holdovers felt the other way, like Snowden Carruthers, who said the need for immediate leadership would be forfeited by a prolonged search period.

Sara Lewis, ex of the MCS board, had a colorful metaphor in favor of a search process. "Unless I go outside in the parking lot, I don't know what's out there."

Then it was David Pickler's turn. The former longtime SCS chairman warned of letting too much time pass and touted the action of the Transition Planning Commission, to which he also belongs, in suggesting August as a terminal point of decision on the superintendency. (That had been more or less what an adopted motion by Luttrell, also a TPC member, had suggested.)

Martavius Jones noted that it is the board that is charged with being "the ultimate decision maker," not the TPC. He was supported in that statement by fellow MCS holdover Tomeka Hart, who had been, with Jones, a mover and shaker in the late 2010 MCS charter surrender that began the merger process.

Warren, who had proposed the search motion, then chimed in to the effect that it was hard to see how somebody not on the ground already could "fix a local problem. Therefore he recommended a vote against his own motion, which presumably had been made just to get the idea on the floor.

"Dr. Warren, the maker of the motion is not allowed to talk against it," jested board chair Billy Orgel, to general laughter.

George then offered a friendly amendment removing the term (and the concept) "national" from Warren's motion. But Patrice Robinson objected to such a modification and proposed a "separate work session" as a time to make the decision.

Mike Wissman, the Arlington mayor and SCS holdover, argued for making "the tough decision" now. He said he could support a search if "we address the other issues first," those issues being the contracts of the two current superintendents.

Chris Caldwell, one of the seven County Commission appointees, then weighed in on behalf of a search, but Valencia Kimbrough, another appointee, countered, "We are the committee. We should make the decision now." But she noted that time was left on both superintendents' contracts. "Dr. Aitken should lead us forward. ... I do not agree that Dr. Cash's work is done.

Concurring, MCS holdover Betty Mallott noted that "we have delayed for months a decision that we knew we would have to make. ... There is more than enough work for both these qualified gentlemen to do."

Pickler again, supporting Mallot's position: "I believe this is the defining moment on this board. ... The issue is, who is going to lead?"

Sara Lewis: "We need to move. We are delaying the inevitable." She then moved to call the question, and, when Orgel called for a vote, 15 of the 23 members stood, enough to prevail.

Next the vote on Warren's search motion, which had to be clarified: When it was, 14 members stood, a majority.

That was the effective end of that particular matter — until next week.

But that wasn't all. Now came a resolution from Martavius Jomes, who reviewed for his fellow board members the whole complex of coming events, including August 2nd municipal referenda and the August 2 elections for a 7-member permanent board. Then his resolution: To include on the agenda of the next meeting a proposal to delay any action on superintendency matters — until a point 45 days from the time of his remarks, the date of the current June 19 meeting. In other words, until early September, freezing the two superintendents' status until then.

David Reaves, a current member running for reelection, objected, noting that many present board members would no longer be serving. The question was called, however, with 20 members authorizing it on standing vote.

But the next vote, to confirm the addition of Jones' resolution to the next meeting's agenda, failed with only three supporters. Upshot: No freeze on superintendency matters.

Still one more debate, on a motion by MCS holdover Betty Mallott to add to the same agenda next week a resolution to begin the transfer of authority to SCS superintendent Aitken on a de facto basis.

The debate went this way and that, and the motion finally carried.

Adjournment seemed to beckon, but (and this was a big "but")there was a five-minute recess before the almost forgotten item, a special called meeting (by chairman Orgel) on the superintendents' contracts per se.

In a sense, this has been the implicit issue in everything that went beforehand.So here we go (in stream-of-consciousness present tense): Mike Wissman moves for "the hard vote" to non-renew Kriner Cash's contract. After a good deal of wrangling, parliamentarian Charles Schulz recommends the strategy of an "indefinite postponement" while continuing with discussion.

"Ladies and gentlemen, people are watching us," admonishes David Pickler (perhaps an optimist on that point, at going-on-10-o'clock). He argues against indefinite postponement. Predictably, others disagree.

Extensive conversation about the Cash contract. Hiring, firing, etc. (Where is Donald Trump when you need him?)

Meanwhile, the parliamentary knots get more complicated. (A thought: pure politicians, interested above all in getting to a deal, would never let things drag on this way.)

And further meanwhile, another motion to adjourn is defeated, with Orgel engaging in hair-splitting language about how to announce the fact. (O Dante! Behold another, undreamt-of circle of hell!)

Now, a vote approaches on "postponing indefinitely" the main motion (Wissman's). It fails, 7-13, with 2 abstentions.

Next, the question is called on Wissman's motion. Majority rise in favor of voting on it, 14-5-3.

Restating, Wissman says, "Motion is to non-renew Dr Cash's contract." A roll-call vote proceeds. The vote total is 14-8-0, 1 absent." Just like that, sayonara Cash. The momentous motion carries.

Next is the matter of Aitken's contract. Jones reads what he says is an attorney general's ruling invalidating the SCS superintendent's contract extension. A round robin amongst the board attorneys ensues, and Jones' point is somehow rendered moot. Jeff Warren moves to have matter submitted to the special master alluded to (but never appointed) by presiding federal judge Hardy Mays in his 2010 ruling on merger litigation.

Before this can be pursued (or puzzled out), Patrice Robinson moves to "non-renew" Aitken's contract and "move forward with superintendent search."

Vanecia Kimbrow has the ultimate put-down. This is not being done "for the children." Stephanie Gatewood: "I never never ever play the race card ..." But: "this issue is about black and white." (For her or for others? It's never quite clear.) If "we do it for one." she says. (i.e., fire Cash), "we need to do it for both."

Finally Patrice Robinson's motion is up, to non-renew Aitken contract "and move ahead with search." A roll-call vote fails badly, with 14 nay votes, and adjournment follows.

As the whole exhausted ensemble — board, media, audience — make their way outside for the first time in some hours, someone says to Aitken, "So now you know how the undecideds lean," and he nods. He is cornered by reporters and answers a round of questions, then says, "Hang in there!"

He says that, to them.

Poor Cash, meanwhile, has left the building and is long gone.

No K.O. in First Weirich-Chumney Encounter

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 4:18 PM

Weirich makes notes as Chumney makes a point.
  • JB
  • Weirich makes notes as Chumney makes a point.

Monday night’s matchup of candidates for District Attorney General, in a forum conducted by the League of Women Voters at Hooks Central Library, was more of an even-steven affair than most attendees might have expected, to start with.

The proponents of incumbent D.A. Amy Weirich, the Republican candidate, had every reason to believe that she would perform competently and well, and she did. If there was a surprise in the event, and perhaps there shouldn’t have been, it was the degree to which Carol Chumney, the Democratic candidate, was able to match Weirich answer for answer overall.

Weirich has made a generous number of personal appearances since being appointed by Governor Bill Haslam in early 2009 to succeed her former boss, Bill Gibbons, now serving as state Director of Homeland Security and Public Safety. That shows, as does her 21 years as a prosecutor, the ample trial experience that goes with it, and the sheer familiarity with the business of her office.

Chumney had been more of a question mark. She can boast 13 years in the state legislature and four years as a member of the Memphis City Council. But legislative experience – for reasons corresponding to the distance between Nashville and Memphis – tends to go less noticed than it should, and Chumney’s Council term, in which she figured as a constant and conspicuous critic of customary practices, is now five years in the past.

And, though she ran well in a mayoral race against then incumbent Willie Herenton in 2007, finishing a strong second in a three-candidate field, her follow-up race against eventual winner A C Wharton in the special mayoral election of 2009 was a relative bust.

Moreover, Weirich’s opening remarks at Monday night’s forum effectively removed from Chumney’s arsenal the “glass ceiling” issue of gender representation: “My name is Amy Weirich I am your District Attorney General, and I am the first female to hold that job in Shelby County.”

So far this campaign season, Chumney had not been front and center to nearly the same degree as Weirich – a fact that had troubled Democratic activists – though she did hold a recent press conference at the local party’s new Poplar Avenue headquarters, in tandem with Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner.

At that press conference Chumney — whose resume includes the former chairmanship of a legislative committee on children’s services and her sponsorship of reform measures — had expressed concern about a Department of Justice report finding deficiencies at Juvenile Court, ranging from what was arguably racial discrimination to vague presentation of charges at hearings.

Predictably, the Juvenile Court matter came up Monday night, though the League’s strictures against ad hominem comments and direct challenges of one candidate against another, which were firmly stressed by LWV president and event moderator Peg Watkins, effectively kept the issue from gaining real traction.

And Weirich was able to argue plausibly that several of the alleged defects had been mitigated since DOJ investigators had acquired their data and that much of the problem could be blamed on incomplete reports by arresting officers.

In general, Weirich had a commanding presence, especially in regard to the practices and procedures of her office. But Chumney held her own, consistently making connections between issues being discussed and matters she had dealt with in the legislature and on the Council.

If either contender displayed a leaning, it was, in Weirich’s case, toward the meting out of justice in the sense of imposing specific curbs on crime, and her history of biting that bullet of “tough enforcement,” and, in Chumney’s, on seeking out preventive measures like youth mentoring programs. But each candidate displayed an ability to discuss both ends of the process –the before and the after scenarios regarding crime in the community.

Weirich had an eloquent moment addressing the subject of victims’’ rights in the context of holding lawbreakers "accountable,” while Chumney approached the level of inspiring in speaking of “restorative justice,” an innovative method of handling first offenders though such means as mock trials and peer pressure.

The candidates hit specific issues head on when their buttons were pushed. . Asked about the proposal of Councilman Shea Flinn (a Weirich supporter) for an official “red-light” district, Weirich would have none of it. “As I have said many many times to my good friend Shea Flinn,” such attempts at rationing vice would not succeed. “That industry creates crime and creates dysfunction”

And to a question as to whether the D.A.’s office should actively investigate claims of voter suppression, Chumney grew impassioned: “I can’t imagine anything more important than making sure the democratic process works. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that when you cast your vote it’s going to be for who you want."

Monday night’s event suggested that, all other things being equal, this could be a race. But there’s the rub. Weirich has considerably more financial backing, and her support is to some degree bipartisan. If she wants to be a true contender, Chumney will have to play some serious catch-up. But her performance Monday night should at least give her the opportunity to try.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Chancellor Goldin Rules for Single-Member Commission Districts

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2012 at 7:45 AM

Chancellor Arnold Goldin
  • Chancellor Arnold Goldin
The Flyer has learned that Chancellor Arnold Goldin has entered a summary judgment order that would end the prolonged redistricting controversy on the Shelby County Commission, ruling in favor of Commission Plan 2-J, which would divide the county into 13 single-member Commission districts.

The plan was one of many that were considered by the Commission beginning in mid-2011. Discussion was contentious, with several members preferring a multi-member format similar to the one which has pertained up until now and others preferring single-member plans of various kinds.

When no plan had been approved by the end of last year, several commissioners filed suit in Chancery Court, asking Judge Goldin to impose a solution. He put the ball back in the Commission's court, requesting commissioners to keep trying.

Of several plans discussed, Plan 2-J was the most successful in attracting Aye votes, but on third reading recently failed to get 9 votes on the 13-member body, the two-thirds supermajority of commissioners required by the county charter. The plan did, however, garner 7 votes on the Commission.

State law requires only a simple majority of the members of a legislative body engaged in redistricting, and Chancellor Goldin has declared in a summary judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs that state law had precedence over the requirements of the county charter, giving the final green light to 2-J.

It is important to note (and Chancellor Goldin does so, in a footnote) that that portion of the ruling that gives priority to state law over the county charter is applicable only to the issue of redistricting, the relevant precedents and permutations of which the ruling focuses on at some length. As the judge carefully points out, "No other provision of the charter is before the court nor is the validity of any other provision of the charter being challenged or interpreted."

Which is to say, those aspects of taxation which the charter requires a commission supermajority in order to be levied are left intact. This had been a concern of two of the original plaintiffs, Mike Ritz and Terry Roland, who had withdrawn from the suit when the issue before Goldin seemed likely to contrast state law and the counter charter. (Roland had subsequently re-submitted 2-J to begin a new round of Commission readings on it.)

The third original plaintiff, Walter Bailey, continued to press the litigation, however.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Aitken Wins a Round on the TPC

The SCS superintendent is considered the beneficiary of the Commission’s call for a quick hire of a Unified District head. Tense debate gets issue into final report.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2012 at 5:11 PM

Setterlujnd (left) and Aitken follow TPC debate.
  • JB
  • Setterlujnd (left) and Aitken follow TPC debate.

Make no mistake: John Aitken wants the job of superintendent of the Unified School District. More than that, he thinks he already has the job of superintendent of the district which is a year away from becoming. And, as a result of a decisive vote taken by the Transition Planning Commission on Thursday, the current superintendent of the soon-to-expire Shelby County Schools system is closer than ever before to having those beliefs confirmed.

Meeting at the county's Code Enforcement headquarters building at Shelby Farms, the TPC members debated on how and whether, in their official final report, they should insist on an expedited hiring of a superintendent. 16 members of the 21-member advisory body — a more than sufficient number — would eventually vote for a resolution by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell that a superintendent should be hired “as soon as possible and no later than fall 2012.”

Although the resolution thereby became a part of the TPC’s provisional final report (to be formally released Friday), it is couched as a recommendation to the Unified School Board, which has the definitive say on matters regarding the new all-county district, scheduled to go into business in August 2013, when the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools takes place.

The Board will meet on Tuesday and its members will doubtless have some reaction to the TPC’s final plan, which they have the responsibility to vet, along with the state Education Department. And, as an urgent counterpart to Thursday’s TPC vote on the superintendence matter the Board will consider, and no doubt rule on, the contractual status of both Aitken and his MCS counterpart, Kriner Cash.

On both the Board and the TPC, there is an obvious sense in which representatives of county interests on both bodies have looked with favor on the idea of Aitken as superintendent of the merged district. As a corollary, those members of the Board and TPC whose backgrounds are closer to the city’s educational structure are more resistant to that idea and, if not directly supportive of Cash’s credentials for the new job, have been the MCS superintendent’s defender against ongoing efforts on the Board to close out his tenure.

It isn’t a cut-and-dried division, however, since on both bodies there are adherents of unification and opponents of independent municipal districts who have regarded Aitken as a personality capable of assuaging opposition to merger in the county’s six suburban municipalities, which are due to hold referenda on establishing separate school systems on August 2.

Several of the municipal school proponents on both the Unified Board and the TPC are motivated differently. They see Cash as a desirable liaison figure, someone familiar and comfortable to deal with if they are successful in establishing their breakaway districts.

And there would seem to be people both places who think Cash is getting a bum’s rush out of a job. The city superintendent’s contract is set to expire in a matter of days before the new Unified District begins in August 2013, and when Billy Orgel, president of the Unified Board, recently called a special meeting to deal with Cash’s contract, his move drew serious opposition from several Board members – notably Martavius Jones.

Jones had been a leader on the Memphis City Schools Board in late 2010 in calling for the surrender of the MCS charter, the action which forced SCS-MCS merger and triggered in the legislature the defensive action called the Norris-Todd Act, which, along with follow-up legislation this year, allows the suburbs the municipal-school-district option as of the merger date. As a member of both the TPC and the Unified School Board, Jones has subsequently been one of the staunched champions of the unification process.

But, for whatever complex of motives, what he saw as a move to force Cash out of the unification process and move Aitken in spurred Jones to try to block that process. He set out to include the matter of Aitken’s contract on the agenda of Orgel’s called meeting, and, after several fits and starts and deferrals, the issue was resolved in his favor by the inclusion of the matter of both superintendent’s contracts on the agenda of Tuesday’s Board meeting.

During the TPC debate on the superintendency issue Thursday, Dr. Reginald Green made the startling statement that, so far as he knew, neither of the two superintendents had overtly indicated a desire for the top post in the Unified District. That might be an accurate description of Cash’s posture for the record, but the MCS superintendent has left little doubt privately that he’d happy to have the job.

Aitken, on the other hand, had made no secret whatever of his interest in the position. He has said “Yes” explicitly whenever asked about his interest by the Flyer, and he has been similarly quoted by several other media outlets. He said so again recently when his credentials seemed to be questioned by Jones and others, who also have raised doubts, citing formal requirements concerning public notice, as to whether the SCS superintendent’s contract, set now to expire in 2005, had been validly extended by the SCS Board.

Aitken’s contract is a key issue. Both he and Timothy Setterlund, SCS assistant superintendent, told the Flyer Thursday, even as the TPC debate was raging, that they regard Aitken’s contract, which makes him the continuing head of a legally constituted Shelby County school unit, entitles him to head the new version of the county school district – indeed confers on him that status even as of now. “He’s got the job!” insisted Setterlund.

In actuality, such a claim would seem to require confirmation by the Unified School Board, where there is clearly a sentiment, so far unquantified, to do just that. That portion of Tuesday’s School Board meeting is sure to be a touch-and-go affair.

The TPC’s Thursday debate on Luttrell’s resolution certainly was. Jones was the first objector to it, contending that hurrying up the hiring process would, in the likelihood of Yes votes on August 2 for municipal school systems, be disruptive to the 85 percent of county residents actually involved with the Unified District. Others disclaimed the importance of dealing with the superintendency issue now, and still others, like Kenya Bradsaw, argued that a careful and systematic search process should precede the hiring of a superintendent.

At one point, TPC member Jim Boyd asked Luttrell to accept a friendly amendment to his resolution, urging the School Board to go ahead and expedite hiring a superintendent but to engage in just such a search procedure. This seemed to stun Luttrell, who had just delivered an impassioned statement on behalf of leadership and the need for decisive direction in affairs of “an educational institution, a military campaign, or a prison.” (Luttrell is a former prison superintendent.)

The mayor considered the matter for an elongated period of time and eventually accepted Boyd’s amendment. Fairly quickly, a counter-reaction set in among proponents of Luttrell’s original unalloyed resolution, including TPC chair Barbara Prescott. When ultimately the mayor considered taking back his acceptance of the amendment, some debate ensued as to whether the Commission’s rules of order permitted that. As a fail-safe measure, Daniel Kiel offered another friendly amendment, canceling out the first one, but the issue was finally resolved when Boyd, catching the drift, volunteered to withdraw his amendment.

Then came first a positive vote to call the question, and when the original Luttrell resolution itself was voted on, it passed easily. But there had been a fair degree of tension and considerable rhetorical combat before that finally came to pass.

Almost everybody saw the whole brouhaha not as an abstract discussion but as a test case on the John Aitken candidacy. Count him as the winner of Round One, on points.

Round Two is Tuesday night, and there’s no telling how that will go. For his part, Cash surely hopes he’ll still be standing when it’s all over – perhaps in a new compromise status as a long-term contractual “mentor” for the new Unified superintendent, whoever that turns out to be.

Prescott indulges in some nervous laughter as Luttrell considers what to do with  Boyds amendment.
  • JB
  • Prescott indulges in some nervous laughter as Luttrell considers what to do with Boyd's amendment.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Commissioner Roland Raises Alarms Involving Charter Schools and Turkish Cleric

Posted By on Tue, Jun 12, 2012 at 9:27 AM

Fethulleh Gulen
  • Fethulleh Gulen
A Tuesday morning press conference scheduled by Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland may, if Roland is inferring correctly from a set of documents he has come by, set off an explosion with consequences for his Commission colleague Brent Taylor, for former Mayor and Memphis school superintendent Willie Herenton, and for the charter school movement now gaining sway in Tennessee with the backing of Governor Bill Haslam's administration.

Roland announced at the close of Monday's regular Commission meeting that he would be holding the press conference at 10:30 Tuesday in the fourth floor Commission library and would be discussing a variety of questions relating to pending charter school operations in Shelby County. A follow-up press release indicated that he would "disclose the findings of an investigation into Charter Schools in Shelby County... after receiving a tip from a concerned constituent regarding a connection to a County Commissioner."�

According to documents made available to the Flyer and other media, the commissioner is Taylor, a fellow Republican with whom Roland has clashed on a number of matters. Taylor is listed as a member of the Board of Directors of the W.E.B. Dubois charter schools which former Mayor Herenton proposes to operate in Shelby County.

State Treasurer David Lillard cleared the way for the schools' operation when he overruled a rejection of Herenton's application earlier this year by the Unified School Board. The Board had cited financial reasons. Herenton has since begun negotiations with the Board and the County for the use of several surplus school buildings.

Roland's charges are several. He alleges that Taylor is guilty of an ethics violation by having improperly withheld information about his involvement with the Dubois schools when asked about his affiliations last year when he became one of several candidates to fill a Commission vacancy. He was ultimately appointed to the vacancy by a Commission majority.

Roland weights his charge against Taylor with allegations in the documents that the W.E.B. Dubois Schools are associated with the Harmony Schools based in Houston and with the Cosmos Schools, education networks under the domination of one Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic cleric who was the subject last week of a lengthy New York Times article (a copy of which is provide in Roland's document pack).

The article and other materials attest to a range of opinion about Gulen, ranging from fears that he is masterminding a sinister Sharia-based world cult called the Gulen Movement to other, milder readings of the cleric as a pure educational crusader whose Islamic faith runs to the moderate variety. A characteristic of the charter schools he is alleged to be controlling, including one already operating in Memphis, is that the schools' faculty is overwhelmingly composed of Turkish nationals.

It should be said many of the school networks cited in the Times story and other documents, which by all accounts stress a secular curriculum heavy in math, science, and technology, deny a connection to Gulen. It should also be noted that Taylor, when asked on Monday about his involvement with Herenton's charter school application, said that he knew very little about the schools and had agreed to serve on the Dubois board as a courtesy to Herenton when he was requested to.

Herenton himself was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as denying any involvement with Harmony schools, acknowledging that he had claimed a relationship with the chain in his charter school application but saying he did so merely to "impress" state Achievement School District supervisor Chris Barbic.

"Either he's involved with them, or he's admitting to falsifying his application," Roland would counter when he finally met with reporters on Tuesday.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Cohen v. Holder on Delta Conundrum

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 1:44 PM

Given the ongoing controversy about high airfares on Delta flights out of Memphis, where the airline maintains a “fortress hub” (i.e., one that is quasi-monopolistic), this colloquy between 9th District congressman Steve Cohen and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is revealing.

Basically, this clip can speak for itself. But: Note how Cohen doesn’t shy away from interrupting the A.G.’s efforts to bloviate, btw. And who knew about the swap of spheres-of-influence between Kroger and Schnucks?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cohen Opens HQ, Pledges Support to Other Democrats

Backs Marrero over Kyle in primary race and vows to give GOP's Flinn "his worst defeat ."

Posted By on Sun, Jun 3, 2012 at 2:03 AM

Cohen at headquarters opening
  • JB
  • Cohen at headquarters opening

Formally opening his newest campaign headquarters on Union Avenue Saturday, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen cast himself not only as a candidate for reelection but, in both subtle and overt ways, as an organizing figure in local Democratic politics.

“We want to have a ballot this year that takes the best people into office,” said Cohen in words that echoed the longtime practice of one of his predecessors, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., who published sample ballots at election time indicating his preferences for various positions.

In the manner of the senior congressman Ford, Cohen indicated he would not shy away from taking sides in a Democratic primary, and he did just that with respect to the race between his longtime friend and ally, state Senator Beverly Marrero, and another incumbent Democratic senator, Jim Kyle, currently the leader of the state Senate’s Democrats.

Cohen described Marrero as “my good friend, my successor, the lady who stands up when people need to stand up, the person with courage, the person with the right voice for the City of Memphis and for Senate District 30,” while he referred to Kyle, a longtime party rival, as someone “who in redistricting took Senate District 30 and made it into something different.”

Staying with that theme, Cohen in effect continued to lay claim to those East Memphis portions of his district which were reassigned by the legislature’s Republican majority to the 8th District, where GOP congressman Stephen Fincher now holds sway.

“They took a lot of my constituents whom I’ve served for many years out of my district. I’m going to continue to represent those people because they need help, and I’m going to continue to be their voice, because they need a voice in Congress, and they’re not going to have one in Congress from the state of Tennessee other than me.”

Simultaneously, he welcomed “the people of Cordova and Frayser and Millington who’ve been added to the district.”

Of his own reelection campaign, in which he has Tomeka Hart as a Democratic primary opponent, Cohen focused on the likely Republican nominee in the 9th District race, former Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn, the wealthy radiologist and broadcast magnate who, as Cohen noted, has waged unsuccessful races in the past for county mayor, City Council, and Congress.

“We’ve got a primary, but the enemy is the Republicans, and we’ve got a self-funder that‘ll be running against me in the fall….He’s going to spend a lot of money, so we’re going to spend some money, too, and we’ll do everything we can to see that his is his worst defeat.”

Noting that suburban referenda for municipal school districts will occur on August 2 and draw out Republicans, Cohen also urged his listeners to come to the support of countywide Democratic candidates Ed Stanton and Cheyenne Johnson, who are running to continue as General Sessions Clerk and Assessor, respectively.

And Cohen looked beyond the races on the local ballot.

Referring to a recent Department of Justice study showing a variety of problems at Juvenile Court, Cohen conferred a plug on Veronica Coleman, a onetime candidate for Juvenile Court Clerk, as someone who could help remedy the situation there.

He said, too, that, despite having the burden of reelection himself, he was “still going to do national campaign work for president Obama,” and he viewed with concern the prospect that a President Mitt Romney could make appointments to the Supreme Court.

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