Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lois DeBerry: Legislative Pioneer, Party Leader, and Doughty Fighter

Longtime Speaker Pro Tem in Tennessee House was a force and change-maker for 40 years. State and local officials mourn her passing.

Posted By on Sun, Jul 28, 2013 at 4:09 PM

Lois DeBerry
  • Lois DeBerry
Lois DeBerry, who for four decades represented District 91 in Memphis and served with distinction as a ranking officer of the Tennessee General Assembly for much of that time, died Sunday after a prolonged illness of several years’ duration.

It is usual to say, when someone passes from the consequences of cancer, that they have lost a battle with that disease. Perhaps that is true of Lois DeBerry as well, but the fact is, she had already won several rounds in her battle, returning to the lesser combats of the legislature after each one and handling challenges there with the mixture of grace, charm, and toughness that always characterized her tenure.

Rep. DeBerry grew up in Memphis, geraduating from Hamilton High School and LeMoyne - Owen College. In l972, she became the first African-American woman elected to the legislature from Memphis, and, at the time of her death, she was the longest serving member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Relatively early on, she was appointed to the powerful House Finance, Ways and Means Committee.z

She served 11 terms (22 years) as Speaker Pro Tem of the House, from the 95th through the 106th General Assemblies, and relinquished that office only when the chamber passed from Democratic to Republican control in 2009. She was the first female Speaker Pro Tem and, so far, the only African American to serve in what is one of the most powerful positions in state government.

In 2011, the legislature passed Joint Resolution 516, sponsored by Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, which honored Rep. DeBerry with the title of "Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus.”

As a member of the minority party in her last several years, she continued to exert enormous influence on events, using both her command of parliamentary procedure and her personal rapport with members of both parties to gain the best outcomes possible for causes she championed. During the 107th and 108th General Assemblies, though dealing with her illness, she was a stout defender of Democratic issues and, as a member of the Education Committee, of school-related positions she regarded as crucial to the residents of her district and of the whole county as well.

She leaves her husband, Charles Traughber, who recently retired as chairman of the state Pardon and Parole Board, and her son, Michael Boyer. As of yet, no information about funeral arrangements has been released. Meanwhile, donations in her honor may be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at

In 2012, three years after her initial diagnosis, DeBerry joined with Governor Haslam in proclaiming November to be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month to heighten efforts to find more effective treatments for the disease.

The first of what will be many testimoniuals have begun to pour in:

Said House Democratic Caucus chair Mike Turner of Nashville:

“Tennessee owes Lois DeBerry a debt of gratitude for her immeasurable contributions to improving the health, welfare, and well-being of the people of our state. Lois was an irreplaceable member of our caucus and she will always have a place in our hearts and memories.”

Said Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis):

"I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work with Rep. DeBerry. When I first got elected she took me under her wing and helped teach me how to best represent the needs of my constituents. I know there were many other legislators like me over the years, both Democrat and Republican, who benefited from her wisdom and generosity. I am truly blessed to have known and worked with Rep. Lois DeBerry.”

Said 9th District congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis):

“Tennessee has lost a legend today. Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry was an historic African American legislator and a go to person on everything from civil rights to children's and women's issues. She led a life of firsts, becoming the first African American female to be elected to the General Assembly from Shelby County and the first female as well as the only African American to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore of the House.<./p>

"As the longest serving member of the House, her fame was greatest in her hometown but the respect she earned extended nationally among members of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and the Deltas. Since being elected in 1972, she always served her community in a special manner and gave so much back. She will be sorely missed by all of those she helped. It was an honor to serve with Lois and see the difference she made each and every day. Hers was truly a life well lived.”

Said Governor Bill Haslam:

""Coming in as a new governor, Lois quickly became one of my favorite people on Capitol Hill because of her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents. Lois was a history maker, a wonderful woman, a great legislator and a true friend. I will miss her."

Said House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville):

“Lois DeBerry dedicated her life to service. From the Civil Rights Movement, to becoming the first female African-American Speaker Pro Tempore, Lois always made public service a priority. The impact she has had on this great state, the lives of countless Tennesseans, and people all across the country is astounding. She certainly made her mark on history, and it was an honor to know her and serve alongside her in Tennessee General Assembly. I valued our friendship, and will deeply miss her sage advice, and her remarkable sprit and smile. Her dedication to children’s issues, women’s issues, and criminal justice reform have resulted in a better Tennessee. My thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

Said /House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley:

"Lois DeBerry was my friend and my mentor. From my first day on the hill in 1994, she was someone I could turn to in every situation. She taught me the importance of working across party lines to get things done for the state, but also to never be afraid to stand up for a cause--even if sometimes you stand alone. Lois was a fighter. She always fought and fought hardest for children.

"She fought for those on the margins of society and for the city of Memphis which she loved so dearly. Most recently she waged a courageous battle against cancer, inspiring everyone with her upbeat attitude and her determination to survive. I loved Lois DeBerry. Her absence will leave a hole in the House that no one can fill; we are a better state for the service she provided. God rest her soul and be with her family during this difficult time."

Said Senate Demociratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis:

“Lois DeBerry was a peerless leader for her community, her city and for all women, It’s a uniquely American story – a woman who became frustrated with the conditions in her community and dedicated her life to making it better, rising to heights that no African American woman had seen before in Tennessee. We are deeply saddened by her passing.”

Said Sen..Lowe Finney (/D-Jackson):

“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry. She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her, and by her words could inspire people to take action and get involved. Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”

There was this lengthy statement from Mayor A C Wharton:

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry.

"For those in political circles, she was Speaker DeBerry, a trusted partner and consummate advocate for the people of Memphis and our state. Many of her friends and people across the community, however, also knew her as Lady D - an intelligent, cosmopolitan, personality whose passion for the people she served knew no bounds.

"Lois earned the title of trailblazer as the first African-American woman from the City of Memphis to be elected to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives. This title applied to her also being elected as the first African-American woman to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore for the State House. Despite the accolades she continually received throughout her career, Lois remained equally at home among the well-to-do and political powerful as well as the residents in the neighborhoods of her district. She was unquestionably a woman of the people who never lost the common touch.

"And of all of the attributes that defined her, Lois’ faith and signature outspokenness earned her the respect of her colleagues and the adoration of the community she called home. In fact, her willingness to speak up and speak out for the voiceless was in her view a consequence of her discipleship and the Christian admonition to minister to “the least of” our brothers and sisters."

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell had this to say:

“This was a loss. I knew Lois quite well. She was integrally involved with corrections issues all the time that I was, and it’s a tribute to her and her efforts that there’s a corrections center in Nashville named after her. Her husband, Charlie Traughber, was an appointee to the Parole Board in 1972 by my father, who was then state Commissioner of Corrections. She was quite committed and extraordinarily effective in her quiet way of getting things done.

"Representative DeBerry served Tennessee's General Assembly with honor and distinction. She was a true champion of civil rights and fought to ensure the needs of all citizens were represented during her decades of service in Nashville.

"Representative DeBerry had a determined spirit that not only led to a more effective state government but inspired those of us at the local level as well.

"All of us at Shelby County Government share in the sorrow of her passing."

Said U.S. Senator Bob Corker:

“Lois DeBerry will be remembered as a tireless advocate for her community, and as one of the longest-serving women lawmakers in the nation and the first African-American female speaker pro tempore in the House, Lois’ legacy will be remembered in Memphis and across our state for generations to come. I appreciate her many years of public service and her friendship and kindness. My heart goes out to her family during this difficult time.”

From former state Senator Roy Herron, now chairman of the state Democratic Party:

"Speaker Lois DeBerry was one of America's Heroes and one of God's Saints. So many of us owe her so much. Speaker DeBerry led, she inspired, she witnessed with a spirit filled with The Spirit. Much will be said in the days ahead. Not enough can be said. We mourn her passing and celebrate her life."

From House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh:

“I have known Lois DeBerry since 1974 when I was first elected to the House of Representatives. She had been elected just two years earlier and we were best friends from the very beginning.

"Lois is a true Tennessee stateswoman. In the Legislature she led the way on a number of issues important to all Tennesseans including healthcare, education, corrections oversight, and economic development. The Lois DeBerry Center in Nashville, named after her, revolutionized the way we dealt with our incarcerated population and she deserves much of the credit for bringing our prison system out from under federal oversight and into the 21st century.

"She served with, worked with and provided advice not only to legislators but also to seven Tennessee Governors including Governors Haslam, Bredesen, Sundquist, McWherter, Alexander, Blanton and Dunn. They all respected her opinion and listened closely to her advice.

"During my 18 years as Speaker of the House, Lois served as Speaker Pro Tempore--the first African American woman to fill this role. She was my constant helpmate and someone I could count on during those difficult days in the legislature. In 2000, the National Conference of State Legislators recognized Lois with the William Bulger Award for Legislative Leadership. This prestigious prize is given to one legislator each year who promotes the good of legislative institutions by displaying real leadership qualities, including honesty, integrity and hard work. That was the Lois we all knew.

"Lois loved this state. She loved the people of this state. She was the voice for people all across this state, who could not speak out for themselves in our governmental process; the poor, the oppressed, the proverbial people standing in the shadows of life. She rebuffed repeated calls to run for higher office. In 1994 she even turned down a prestigious federal appointment from President Clinton, telling him that her work in Tennessee was simply not finished.

"I will miss Lois DeBerry. I will miss sitting with her on the floor of the House Chamber. I will miss her laughter and her great sense of humor that I saw so often in our daily discussions. I will miss her example and her leadership for our state. But most of all, I will miss my best friend.”

Friday, July 26, 2013

More on the Cohen Matter

An anniversary note, a reprise of a column, a new link, and an unexpected hat tip.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 26, 2013 at 1:11 AM

It needs to be noted that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen has every right to change the subject and is trying to, by peppering his email list, as always, with news of federal grants to his district, stands he's taking on topical issues, and pending congressional business bearing directly on his constituents. 

The latest press release he's sent out notes that next Monday will be the “the 5th anniversary of the passage in this House of the first and only apology for slavery and Jim Crow laws in this nation’s history” — a reminder of what indeed is one of the signal achievements of the four-term Memphis Democrat, that measure's proud sponsor. (Has it really been five years??!) Here's a link to Cohen's statement about the anniversary:.

Cohen has much to boast of, and, like the rest of us, a few things in his memory book he'd just as soon got forgotten. One thing he surely wishes he could get out of the way is something for which, not only is he not the perp (in a case where there may not be one), he is clearly the victim. Here was my response in this week's "Politics" column in the Flyer print issue:

It is to be hoped that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen enjoyed the weather in Washington last week. There was not much else for him to take comfort from.

First, for those few who might have missed what became a national story and viral on a large scale, CNN announced the results of a DNA test it had administered to Cohen, Victoria Brink, the Houston model whom he introduced to the world back in February as his daughter, and John Brink, the Houston oil man who had raised her as his own daughter.

The results were as astonishing as the Memphis Democrat's original announcement of proud paternity — but, for obvious reasons, devastating.

The tests showed that Brink was the actual father and not Cohen, who had been involved with Victoria Brink's mother at a time consistent with his possible fatherhood and had apparently been informed, almost four years ago, that he was indeed the father.

A "stunned and dismayed" Cohen said, "I still love Victoria, hold dear the time I have shared with her, and hope to continue to be a part of her life."

But that was not the end. In what he probably saw as no more than a gallant evasion, Cohen told a reporter seeking further reaction that, while she was "very attractive," he had resolved to say no more about the issue. That got him some more hits from media types, who must have scented blood, and he got even more after a tweet in which he quoted an African-American tow-truck driver (yes, Cohen's vintage Cadillac chose this week to quit on him) as saying, sympathetically, in a clearly ich-bin-ein-Berliner way, "You're black!"

The piling on was especially curious in that, with an Obama news conference, major bills, and foreign discords to deal with, it wasn't a slow news week in D.C.

Here is a link to a Daily Beast article on the same subject.

And here, is a Facebook newsfeed from Rep. Cohen touting the same piece with a surprise aside:


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ritz Serves It Up With Feathers Off

Posted By on Thu, Jul 25, 2013 at 11:50 AM

  • JB
Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz, addressing the Memphis Rotary Club, uses facts and numbers to dispel some cherished illusions, city-siide and county-side alike. See this week's editorial.

David Kernell is Out From Under

Convicted Palin hacker, having done his time, is freed from federal probation.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 25, 2013 at 10:19 AM

David Kernell in 2009
  • David Kernell in 2009
David Kernell is a free man, as of Wednesday. Kernell, you may remember, was the sometime Memphian and University of Tennessee student who, more or less as a prank, was able to access then vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's email account back in 2008, performed some minimal mischief, let others in on the secret, (including the Palin account's password) and ultimately got himself canned, judged, and sentenced.

Shouldn'a done it, that's for sure. It was invasion of privacy, any way you cut it. He apparently posted a few family pictures and email messages that were innocuous (and apolitical). Bad enough. Worse was his disclosure of Palin's password. Actually, his own password. No professional hacker he, all he had done was guess at the code word Palin used to protect her account, employed the email provider's standard software to change the password, and got in there on his own. Whoopee!

In the process, he left enough tracks that anybody from a Tenderfoot Boy Scout to the FBI could have discovered his identity. The FBI did, he stood trial in Knoxville, fairly sensationally, and was found guilty of a felony. Presiding federal judge Thomas Phillips (a Republican appointee, by the way) ordered him to a halfway house — a fairly lenient reprimand — but the U.S. Bureau of Prisons,which in the federal system, has ultimate authority over internment ((Hmmm. What do you liberty-loving Tea Parties think about that?), overruled Phillips and sent young Kernell to prison for a year.

Kernell has long since done his time and went on to complete his degree at UT, but he remained under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office. This week, at the request of Kernell's attorney, Phillips had the prerogative to remove that provision, and as the Knoxville News Sentinel's Jamie Satterfield (who very skillfully reported on these matters of record) said, David Kernell was finally free.

Kernell is the son of longtime state representative Mike Kernell, a Memphis Democrat who served from his late boyhood (oh, 20-something) until he was forced, via Republican-controlled redistricting, to run against fellow Democrat G.A. Hardaway in 2012 and was defeated.

Something of a Teddy Bear, the well-liked and conscientious Kernell was a loyal Democrat but enough of a free-thinker that he had numerous friends across the aisle. One of them, Republican state representative Jim Coley, was prominent at a testimonial affair arranged in Kernell's honor last winter.

Rep. Kernell conducted himself with admirable aplomb and grace throughout the ordeal of his son, but he did not escape — be it a curse or a blessing — the limelight. There was the following, for example, from


Go figure.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Luttrell Tax Rate Passes With Help from Chism and Ford

Vote for $4.38 tax rate clears last hurdle at Commission meeting.

Posted By on Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 3:08 PM

Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, who has been abstaining on all prior votes on the 2013-14 tax rate out of consideration for a possible conflict-of-interest situation, made the dramatic announcement at the beginning of Monday's meeting that he would be voting, and explained why.

Previously, said Chism, he had been legally advised that, as proprietor of a South Memphis day care center which received some of its funding from Shelby County government, it might be a conflict of interest for him to vote on a budget that authorized such funding. The center, which the commissioner said was under the control of members, not himself, was in any case no longer receiving such funding, and Chismj continued,, “I’’ve been advised that with full disclosure I will be able to vote.”

On another contentious issue, Chism acknowledged that he would be a board member of a charter school whicdh his granddaughter has applied to operate but that such a circumstance would not arise until he had left the Commission, even if her application got approval. So he regarded himself as unhampered on that count as well.

The bottom line was that Chism would be recorded in favor, and that, along with another major conversion, that of Commissioner Justin Ford, would make the the final tally 7-5-1 in favor of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s $4.38 tax rate, with the lone absentee being Commissioner Heidi Shafer, a tax-rate opponent.

Ford’s conversion was actually a return to form. The commissioner had voted aye on the first two readings of the Luttrell tax rate, but he switched to no, along with new chairman-elect James Harvey two weeks ago. On onday Ford said he had spoken with members of the administration about their considering the idea of money for summer jobs programs and was satisfied that they were open to discussion.

The absence of Shafer from Monday's meeting, along with the (relatively) perfunctory resistance put up by tax-rate opponents, was an indication that Commissioners of all persuasions saw the handwriting on the wall and that there would be no more stalemates on the tax-rate question like those which have stalled implementation of the budget in recent weeks.

Various grants and new hires that were put on deep freeze until a tax rate could be approved are now free to be implemented. That includes programs for the homeless that had received vocal support from audience menmbers at the last several meetings.

So forgone was the conclusion as the relatively brief meeting got underway that the only tension was an angry exchange between Commissioner Terry Roland and chairman Mike Ritz over a verbal attack by Roland on Commissioner Walter Bailey, a tax-rate supporter.

Ritz gaveled Roland down as "out of order" for making "personal" remarks, and Roland responded "You're out of order!" Reminded by Ritz that he had the duty to maintain order as chairman, Roland retorted, "Well, you won't be much longer."

At the Commission's last meeting, Commissioner James Harvey became chairman-elect, helped along by votes from tax-rate opponents.

(See this week's print edition of the Flyer for more information on the tax-rate issue.)

Friday, July 19, 2013

On the Zimmerman Case: An Addendum

Beyond all the memes, the fact is that both shooter and deceased acted with fatal misjudgment.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 19, 2013 at 11:43 PM


Consider this a second take on the essay I wrote this week entitled “Two Trials,” which compared and contrasted the O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman murder trials and conveyed my view that both cases were skewed by an overdose of racial perspectives.

I appreciate all the comments appended to that piece and all the points of view I hear expressed on all the TV forums, some of them well-intentioned, some of them not. What mainly concerns me is the extreme prevalence of red herrings in so many of the ongoing discussions about the Zimmerman case.

Red herrings:: I’ve already indicated I thought race was one. I’ll do some add-ons. Upon further reflection, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which I expressed implicit criticism of in the original essay, is another. And genderism: I have since heard someone contend quite seriously on CNN that a jury of “six white women” (actually five “whites” and one Hispanic) could never have grasped the state of mind when Trayvon Martin, young, male, and African-American, turned on someone he regarded as his pursuer..

Not that there isn’t some sense to all of these memes, but that’s what they all are: just memes, self-contained little tautologies, and none of them touch the heart of the case. The one word which comes closest to getting at the fundamental problem that ended with the death of Trayvon Martin is “vigilantism,” and, to extend that concept more fully, vigilantism coupled with an absurd amount of gun permissiveness. Another word that comes close?: “macho,” which, writ large, is a sense that “I, not the law, am the law.”

POINT ONE: Lookit, no private citizen, no one who isn’t a law enforcement officer, has any business stalking someone else on a dark street with a gun. Just think about it. George Zimmerman was advised to cease and desist when he phoned in his suspicions about Trayvon Martin to a dispatcher, and he ignored that perfectly good advice.

Under the circumstances — under any circumstances — to do what Zimmerman did would be over-the-top provocative and asking for big trouble.

POINT TWO: To do what Trayvon Martin did, whether scared, angry, or just fed up with being stereotyped — i.e., to physically attack someone else holding a gun — is insanely reckless. (This is true whether he knew Zimmerman was armed or not; given the degree of 2nd Amendment fetishism these days, it may be impossible to judge that for certain about another individual who isn’t stark naked.)

You hear about people committing “suicide by cop?” Well, this, arguably, was a case of suicide by stalker.

The evidence in the case — however unpalatable to the legions of special-interest pleaders now exploiting the outcome for this or that pre-existing thematic purpose — is that Martin was the aggressor, the initiator of an altercation, the one on top meting out serious physical punishment, and doing all this to a man with a gun.

Was that brave, crazy, rash, or, again, suicidal? And Zimmerman: If he was indeed in the physical danger he says he felt himself to be in, he has no one to blame but himself for being in that kind of mortal peril. He, too: Had be died — from a blow to the head, say — could have been considered the victim of a kind of suicide.

It hardly matters who was black, who was white, or what it is that “Stand Your Ground” laws permit. There was enough logic to a self-defense argument to influence the jurors’ verdict, but even it is a stretch. Zimmerman wasn’t being followed, he was following someone else — and with a gun. And Trayvon Martin wasn’t some innocent, pure-hearted teenage Gandhi. He yielded to a dangerous macho impulse.

Nothing in the dialogue which allegedly began the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin — “Why are you following me?” followed by “What are you doing here?” —- should have led to fatal consequences. Nothing in the racial makeup or perspective of either man should have, and nothing in the line item of “Stand Your Ground.”

That it did can ultimately be credited to the presence of a private individual’s gun and a feeling, significantly on George Zimmerman’s part but also on that of Trayvon Martin, that “I, not the law, will handle this,” the “this” being based, in both instances, on a stupid misapprehension.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

The County Commission Tax-Rate Standoff for Dummies

A supposed compromise figure takes a beating, and, as county schools nervously wait things out, the Shelby County Commission goes back to the drawing board.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 18, 2013 at 10:20 PM

Commissioners Heidi Shafer, Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, and Sidney Chism in the throes
  • JB
  • Commissioners Heidi Shafer, Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, and Sidney Chism in the throes

In yet another of a series of stormy, divided sessions on Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission, with 12 of its 13 members meeting in budget and finance committee, failed once again to agree on a tax rate for fiscal 2013-14.

As a consequence, the $1.2 billion budget agreed to on June 3 remains in limbo, with funds frozen for a variety of programs and with the new Shelby County Unified School System — formally, as of July 1, a complete entity — remaining unfunded, its future more uncertain than ever.

For at least the coming school year, the system will contain all the public schools of Shelby County, city and suburban alike. But the county’s six suburban municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington — voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to establish independent municipal school systems.

It was essentially a rerun of 2012, when the six suburbs voted for their own school systems, but the legislation enabling that vote had restricted the lifting of a ban on new special school districts to Shelby County, and U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays found the resulting law unconstitutional. A new measure in 2013 lifted the ban statewide and seems to have passed judicial muster.

Along with that first abortive vote in 2012 the six suburbs had also voted to assess themselves a half-cent sales tax to pay for the new schools, which they now hope to open in August 2014.

The revenues from those taxes remain in escrow for the time being, and Henri Brooks, an outspoken commission Democrat and veteran of the Tennessee House, insisted again on Wednesday, as she has before, that the suburbs should free up some of that money to help defray the costs of the unified district for at least the next year, since their students will be served by it. “Get some skin in the game,” she said, sardonically echoing a phrase used earlier by Republican commissioner Terry Roland of Millington.

The equally outspoken Roland retorted that the suburbs might consider the point if the commission should drop its continuing lawsuit against the municipalities’ effort to establish independent school districts. The major remaining issue is whether the new systems would foster re-segregation, as argued in the still ongoing legal action supported by the commission’s 7 Democrats and Republican chairman Mike Ritz.

(Other outstanding issues are: the conditions under which the suburban school districts might acquire title to existing school buildings, as well as which district or districts get to serve students in outlying unincorporated areas.)

Both Brooks and Roland may have a point — a fact that doesn’t, however, mean that agreement on the point is remotely near.

SHELBY COUNTY MAYOR MARK LUTTRELL, a Republican, has proposed a $4.38 tax rate, and that amount was approved on first reading, along with the budget, on June 3. Since then, however, there have been defections among commission Democrats, and, when the tax rate proposal came up for its third and final reading last week, it failed by two votes — those of previously supportive Democrats Justin Ford and James Harvey, the latter of whom ended up as chairman-elect, with votes from Republican tax-rate opponents enhancing what had been his dark-horse prospects.

Luttrell’s budget proposal began with a 30-cent increase from the current $4.02 tax rate merely to get to the level of the new certified tax rate of $4.32, based on drastically lowered overall property-value assessments in the most recent appraisal.

For non-initiates, the state-established certified tax rate is that which guarantees annual revenues equivalent to those raised under the prior rate. The hugeness of that 30-cent factor not only made good rhetorical fodder for tax-rate opponents, it demonstrated how precipitately local property values had dropped.

Beyond the certified-rate level, the mayor added another 6 cents to account for what all (or virtually all) parties seem to agree is a bare-bones budget for the hard-pressed new school district. Estimates of the additional revenue raised by those 6 cents go as high as $20 million, though some opinions posit a lower figure.

After the failure last week to approve the $4.38 rate, there was optimism and some advance indication that Wednesday’s meeting would see a coalescing around the certified rate figure of $4.32. Indeed, preliminary head counts pointed in that direction.

The $4.32 figure, said Luttrell and his aides, would necessitate a loss of $9.6 million in potential revenue from his requested $4.38 figure and would mean cutting jobs and programs. But it looked like a potential compromise figure.

When Wednesday came, it was Roland, previously a diehard opponent of any tax increase, who surprisingly made a proposal for the $4.32 rate (that being the circumstance for his everybody-put-skin-in-the game plea), and, either because the brash Millingtonian was too controversial a sponsor or because various commissioners had second thoughts, that proposal garnered only two votes.

Roland, a prototypical come-on-hard type, has gone out of his way to antagonize several of his colleagues, and it may have cost him on Wednesday. Though introductory remarks Monday by chairman Mike Ritz seemingly had cleared the way for a $4.32 outcome, Roland may have been the wrong messenger. In any case, he would soon be buffaloed by adverse reaction to his proposal from Democrats Melvin Burgess and Walter Bailey.

Budget chairman Burgess is one of two colleagues (the other is Sidney Chism) whose potential enthusiasm for a tax increase Roland had attempted to check in advance by raising conflict-of-interest questions about their benefiting, directly or indirectly, from county funds.

Chism, owner of a day-care center that receives some wrap-around funds, has been abstaining throughout the tax-rate debate. But Burgess, a school system employee, has been defiant about what he called “bullying” (though it may have restrained him, as chairman pro tem, from seeking the chairmanship), and he vehemently took issue with Roland.

“We don’t have a plan,” he said, by way of characterizing Roland’s proposal. He further referred to it as a case of “wake up in the morning, come up with some numbers, and ask the administration to go and cut.” He concluded, “I’m not supporting this today.”

Bailey was even more blunt, though he seemed to be addressing the commission’s other conservatives more than Roland when he slung together a philippic containing terms like “whimsicalness... capriciousness... bordering on irresponsibility... armchair pundits... pander... utter nonsense... disservice.”

Bailey said no to $4.32 as well, even though an aggrieved Roland made a point of offering concessions. He agreed with Burgess and his fellow conservative Heidi Shafer that the schools should probably not be penalized.

Thus, while the first version of his plan had evenly distributed the nut-cutting between the schools and the county’s general fund, Roland amended his proposal, which envisioned taking $5 million in one-time-only money from the county’s $20 million reserve fund to start with, and suggested the whole of the remaining $4.6 million in reductions could come from the general fund.

“I’m trying to extend the olive branch,” said Roland. “At the end of the day I love each and every one of y’all to death. Like my grandma would say, ‘I love you but sometimes I don’t like you.’” Criticism of his plan, which “hurts my feelings,” amounted to so much “Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said “We’ve got to come together to find common ground.”

He defended his basic plan against Burgess’ charge that it was a hastily improvised wake-up-in-the-morning affair, insisting that he and Shafer had spent several of the preceding days in the commission and mayoral offices toiling over options ("me, too," Harvey would later note), but, in the end, both of the two variants Roland offered came to naught.

“Forgive me for trying to compromise,” Roland said bitterly. “It didn’t work. It’s either all or none.” And he would later return to making common cause with the GOP hard-core on the commission.

AGREEMENT ON A COUNTY TAX RATE is complicated by the fact that a minority of GOP conservatives on the commission — Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, Shafer, and, until Wednesday, Roland — have been reluctant to extend the existing $4.02 tax rate at all, contending that the budget is being balanced on the taxpayers’ backs, as always before, and that maybe the time has finally come for serious downsizing of county government.

Bunker was vehement to the point of intractability. “This is not a time to compromise, it’s a time to stand strong,” he said, maintaining it was “not my job” to puzzle out specific cuts. That was up to the administration. “My job is to tell you what people can and can’t afford.” What he demanded was “a balanced budget with cuts that are appropriate to this county.”

A piece of financial accounting accepted by everyone is that, at the certified tax rate of $4.32 (which, even after the battering it took on Wednesday, remains a possible compromise figure), 73 percent of the county‘s taxpaying population would see lower taxes, while taxes for the remainder would either remain level or increase. Businesses, especially, would see dramatic increases, say the dissenters.

Looking ahead to the next public commission meeting on Monday, word is beginning to circulate again that Luttrell may have been persuasive enough in his insistence on his original $4.38 rate as a rock-bottom necessity that the two fall-away Democrats might return to the fold and approve that original figure.

Or not. And, if not, the commission has to face up to the fact that the fiscal year is already underway and that funds are already being spent on the basis of the pre-approved budget. Meanwhile, as the waiting game continues, various programs and grants are in a state of freeze, and the schools, priming to open within the month, worry about where their operating money is going to come from.

Never Say Die — Grants are frozen until a tax rate is declared, but advocate for homeless services Brad Watkins makes the case anyway.
  • JB
  • Never Say Die — Grants are frozen until a tax rate is declared, but advocate for homeless services Brad Watkins makes the case anyway.

So Congressman Cohen is Not a Proud Papa After All?

DNA tests reveal that Houston oilman John Brink, the former presumed father of Houston model Victoria Brink, is the Daddy for real.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 18, 2013 at 10:54 AM

Rep. Cohen and Victoria Brink
  • Rep. Cohen and Victoria Brink
“A weird one. Never seen one like it.” That’s what Chris Cuomo said, after he and CNN co-host Kate Bolduan concluded their report Thursday morning on the surprising news — should we say, latest surprising news — regarding 9th District congressman Steve Cohen and Victoria Brink of Houston, the congressman’s erstwhile tweet-mate and, we had supposed, his daughter.

That supposition — held by ourselves, Ms. Brink, and most of the attending world since last February — has now been dispelled by a simple DNA test, taken by Cohen, Brink, and the man who raised her, Houston oilman John Brink. The test results show that Cohen, who had apparently been involved with Ms. Brink’s mother during a period when he could have been the young aspiring model’s father, is, however, not her father.

John Brink is. He never thought he wasn’t, even when Rep. Cohen announced to the world in February that he was. As the Washington Post quotes oilman Brink after the DNA testing, which was voluntary all the way around: “I changed her first diaper; I cut her umbilical cord. You can’t doubt that.”

Cohen’s claim of paternity had come after it was disclosed he had been sending fond tweets to Victoria Brink while sitting in the House of Representatives chamber during President Obama’s State-of-the-Union address.

The congressman’s critics pounced on the fact, and, in response, he made what he clearly thought at the time was a full — and authentic — disclosure: The young lady was his daughter, a fact which, he said, he had discovered some three years earlier and which had led to their spending considerable catch-up time together.

Many wondered at the time just how John Brink, who had been her presumed father, would respond to this. Now we know.

Cohen’s reaction to the DNA news was, understandably, somewhat crestfallen. Pronouncing himself “stunned and dismayed,” he said, “I still love Victoria, hold dear the time I have shared with her and hope to continue to be a part of her life.”

It is to be hoped that all, indeed, live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, no evident change in the status of Cohen’s feelings about chanteuse Cindy Lauper, whom the congressman also got caught tweeting back in April, rhapsodically praising her rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” at a just concluded tribute to Memphis music at the White House.

At the time, Cohen said his tweet had been part of a conscious effort to show up the sensation-hungry media.

Race, Justice, and Vigilantism: Two Trials

Posted By on Thu, Jul 18, 2013 at 9:20 AM

Almost 20 years apart, the O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman murder trials sparked racial controversy. Should they have? See this week's Viewpoint.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wednesday is Day of Reckoning for Shelby County Commission

Members in last-ditch effort to set tax rate; consensus building for $4.32.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 17, 2013 at 12:10 AM


As members of the Shelby County Commission prepared to meet for their normal committee sessions on Wednesday, Item Number One on the agenda was that of the county tax rate for fiscal 2013-14.

Scheduled to be taken up bright and early by the Commission’s budget committee, the tax-rate issue experienced a surprise unraveling last week when, on third and final reading of County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposed $4.38 tax rate, two Commission Democrats who had previously supported that rate defected and voted no, along with five of the Commission’s Republicans (all save outgoing chairman Mike Ritz).

The two Democrats were Justin Ford and new chairman-elect James Harvey, whose announced conversion to the ranks of tax-rate opponents may have influenced chairmanship voting, which took place the same day. A third Democrat, Sidney Chism, has consistently abstained from voting for the tax rate, out of concern for conflict-of-interest charges lodged against him by Commissioner Terry Roland, a GOP opponent of the proposed tax rate.

Roland has made an issue of the fact that Chism’s day care center is the recipient of some county funds and that Chism had previously not disclosed that circumstance.

If even one of those three Democrats had voted yes last week, along with chairman Ritz and fellow Democrats Walter Bailey, Melvin Burgess, Henri Brooks, and Steve Mulroy, it was generally supposed that Republican Commissioner Steve Basar was a yes vote in reserve.

Basar and what would appear to a solid majority of commissioners, including all of those who voted for Luttrell’s tax-rate proposal last week and defectors Ford and Harvey, are thought to be cohering behind a substitute tax-rate proposal of $4.32, the amount of the county’s certified tax rate as determined by the state.

The certified tax rate is a technical figure representing the rate necessary to raise the same amount of revenue as the previous year. The 2012-13 rate, which preceded a new county-wide property assessment reflecting dramatically lowered values, was $4.02.

Ritz, who will remain at the Commission’s helm until Harvey begins his one-year term in September, said he thinks the Commission will enact the $4.32 rate on the expectation that no funds will be cut from the currently approved education budget and that an anticipated $9.6 million reduction will come entirely from the county’s general fund.

That would leave intact the 6-cent increase in Luttrell’s budget for school funding, expected to generate an additional $20 million or the newly merged city-county school system..

“We can live with that,” said Billy Orgel, chairman of the Shelby County unified school board.

Ritz said that, if necessary, the Commission might hold special meetings in advance of its next scheduled public meeting next Monday in order to expedite passage of a new tax-rate formula.

For the record, the Commission has already approved an operating budget of some $1. 2 Billion, which includes approximately $388 million for the schools. The total school budget, which draws on county, state, federal, and foundation sources, also totals almost $1.2 billion.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In Surprise Votes, County Commission Rejects Luttrell Tax Rate, Elects Harvey Chairman

Commissioners must now find a new budget/tax-rate solution and do it on the wing

Posted By on Tue, Jul 9, 2013 at 8:57 AM

Commissioners Mulroy and Basar in a moment of impromptu negotiaton on Monday
  • JB
  • Commissioners Mulroy and Basar in a moment of impromptu negotiaton on Monday

Monday was a day of surprises at the Shelby County Commission.

Unforeseen developments and unexpected outcomes marked the resolution of two vital matters — the fate of County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposed $4.38 tax rate, which was rejected by the Commission on third reading; and the selection of a chairman for 2013-14, dark horse contender James Harvey.

And, in the aftermath of those two intensely disputed matters, a third proposition, regarding a proposed Juvenile Court contract with a provider of detainee medical services, sailed through with the barest shadow of the controversies that had obstructed it previously.

The chairmanship issue was first on the agenda but ended up being deferred until a decision on the tax rate had been reached. That the two issues were related was clear, and Harvey’s victory, in a multi-ballot contest with current chairman Mike Ritz and Commissioner Steve Mulroy, undoubtedly owed something to his vote against the tax rate proposal.

The meeting had gotten underway with the nomination of Ritz, Mulroy, and Harvey, and, after several ballots had been taken on the chairmanship, it became obvious that the Commission’s 13 votes were so evenly and unchangeably distributed between the three contenders that no immediate resolution was likely.

Though there were modest fluctuations from ballot to ballot, the allocation of votes conformed to a fairly rigid pattern.

Ritz, a Republican who during his year at the helm had essentially presided over a coalition with the Commission’s seven Democrats, had solid commitments from Democrats Walter Bailey, who nominated him; vice chair Melvin Burgess; and Sidney Chism, along with Republican Steve Basar.

Democrat Mulroy, though he has in his two terms carved out a reputation as the Commission’s leading liberal, began the voting with a solid corps of supporters from the body’s Republican right wing — Heidi Shafer, who nominated him; Chris Thomas; and Wyatt Bunker. This odd-looking allegiance was based on those Republicans’ wish to have done with Ritz, from whom they are estranged, along with a sense that the victory of a Democrat, together with his support for restoring the pattern of alternating annual chairmanships between Republicans and Democrats, was desirable.

Democrat Harvey, an independent-minded eccentric with a spotty attendance record and a habit of making rambling speeches on issues during which he would seemingly change his position back and forth, was something of a variable. He was nominated by Terry Roland, the gonzo Republican from Millington who nursed grievances against both Ritz and Mulroy; and got support from Democrats Henri Brooks and Justin Ford, two other freebooters famous for keeping their own counsel.

Once the fact of impasse was recognized and the Commission shelved the chairmanship matter temporarily to deal with the tax rate, discussion turned rancorous, with Democrat Bailey denouncing opposition to the Luttrell formula as ideologically driven “political posturing” and actually proposing an additional 4 cents for the schools, while Shafer and Bunker took turns mocking what they characterized as a faux annual funding urgency and proposed a return to the previous year’s $4.02 tax rate, based on overall property-value assessments that have since declined.

Chairman-elect James Harvey
  • JB
  • Chairman-elect James Harvey
The key moment in the debate came early when Harvey made it obvious that, as he had indicated in a recent committee meeting, he would not support the Luttrell tax rate, which he had favored on its initial reading last month. What had once appeared to be a slam-dunk prospect of passage for the tax rate unraveled further with the unexplained opposition of Justin Ford, another prior supporter.

There might still have been a chance of passing the $4.38 tax rate, which Luttrell, in a plea to the Commission’s GOP contingent, characterized as consistent with responsible Republican conservatism, in that Basar, an on-the-fence Republican, was presumed to be willing to be the seventh vote for the tax rate if a sixth could be found.

But with Harvey and Ford both opting out, there remained only abject recuser Sidney Chism, who, concerned about conflict-of interest charges being pressed against him by Roland on the basis of Chism’s receiving county wraparound funds for his day care center, has declined to follow the defiant example of colleague Burgess, a consistent tax-rate supporter who was similarly accused by Roland on the basis of his receiving a county-funded school salary.

Thus it was that on the final vote the Luttrell tax rate failed, mustering only 5 votes and laying a serious challenge to the Commission, which, as Ritz pointed out, has already begun the new fiscal year, committing funds that were budgeted on the assumption of the $4.38 tax rate. — which is now at least temporarily defunct.

Between now and the next public meeting of the full Commission on July 22, the Commission must somehow find a new resolve — and a new coalition — on behalf of the Luttrell tax rate or arrive upon a new tax rate and, along with it, a hastily revamped budget.

One possibility, discussed late in Monday’s session, and known to be advocated by Basar, is a tax rate of $4.32, the amount of the state-formulated “certified tax rate,” a formula which, given the latest property assessments, would provide the same amount of funding as the previous year’s. As Basar sees it, Luttrell’s proposed school funding would remain intact, with deductions in the county’s general fund amounting to some $10 million.

Ritz, now a lame-duck chairman and a supporter of the original Luttrell proposal, will bend his efforts to getting the best deal he can, while his successor, Harvey, awaits his moment of authority, which will come in September.

In a nutshell, once the tax rate vote had been taken and the Commission’s attention had returned to the chairmanship matter, the same deadlock prevailed as had been in place before, with neither Ritz nor Mulroy, the presumed main contenders, willing to yield, until finally, the impasse was broken in a chain reaction started by Basar, who switched off Ritz to go for Harvey, who only moments before had seemed an also-ran about to be eliminated.

Meanwhile, the corps of conservatives who, determined above all to spurn Ritz, had consistently supported Mulroy, a firm supporter of Luttrell’s tax rate proposal, had apparently begun seeing Harvey, who had voted their way on the tax rate, as a plausible alternative and followed Basar’s lead.

There was a brief sequel to the chairmanship vote in a three-way contest for chairman pro tem between Mulroy, Shafer, and Basar. When Mulroy, who clearly was half-hearted about that office, which clearly is no longer a prelude to a next-year’s chairmanship, withdrew, Basar would triumph 7-6 over Shafer.

And, in the wake of that vote, the Commission, obviously in no mood for further combat, would make quick work of the Juvenile Court matter, voting 9-3 to award a medical-services contract worth some $800,000 to Correct Care Solutions, with not even Henri Brooks, an inveterate foe of the current Court administration, making much of a fuss.

Commissioners Bunker and Roland in an Ive-got-a-secret moment
  • JB
  • Commissioners Bunker and Roland in an I've-got-a-secret moment

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Fireworks Likely at Monday's County Commission Meeting

A battle for the chairmanship, a fight over the tax rate, and a showdown over Juvenile Court — it's the 4th of July all over again!

Posted By on Sat, Jul 6, 2013 at 7:48 PM

That cacophony you might hear from the vicinity of the Vasco Smith County Building on Monday won’t be from leftover 4th-of -July bottle rockets or cherry bombs. They are most likely to be the natural consequence of the Shelby County Commission’s regular public meeting, which has three agenda items that are likely to be — well, bombshells.

Volatile item #1 will be the selection of a Commission chairperson for the 2013-14 year. Long gone are the days when the Commission alternated Republican chairs with Democratic ones on a year-by-year basis, with one year’s vice chair routinely becoming the next year’s chair.

That tradition, already shaky, faded away in 2011 when Democrat Sidney Chism won a second straight term, aided by a feeling among GOP members that one of their own, then vice chair and chairman-apparent Mike Carpenter, was of suspect loyalty to the party line.

The alternating pattern was technically restored a year ago with the come-from-nowhere victory of Republican Mike Ritz, who waited out a multiple-ballot stalemate situation involving contenders Wyatt Bunker, then the Republican chairman pro tem, Democrat Henri Brooks, and Chism himself, who was hankering for a third term.

But it had mainly been Democrats whose votes ultimately elected Ritz, a District One representative who is a resident of Germantown but, in his assertion of Commission authority over school-merger matters, had come to be seen as a determined foe of the municipal-school movement in the suburbs. In rank-and-file GOP eyes he had, in effect, become the new Carpenter.

The term-limited Ritz is now actively campaigning to be chairman again in 2013-14, his last year on the Commission. Democratic vice chair Melvin Burgess is not seeking elevation to the post of chairman, but two other Democrats — Steve Mulroy and James Harvey — are. Ritz believes he has the votes to win, but others are not so sure, seeing Mulroy as running neck-and-neck with the current chairman.

Volatile item #2 will be the third and final vote on County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposed $4.38 tax rate for fiscal 2013-14. Ritz and six Democrats are expected to vote yes, providing the bare majority of seven that is required for passage. That the outcome is chancy results from a couple of factors: One is consistent opposition among the Commission’s Republicans to the proposed tax rate, which is a significant jump up from the current rate of $4.02 ($4.06 in the suburbs, due to an obligation to fund the rural school bonds that built Arlington High School in 2004).

The other factor which threatens what has been a bare-bones majority in favor of the tax rate is that of defections, actual and potential, among Democratic supporters. Chism has already been peeled off by legal action threatened by GOP Commissioner Terry Roland of Millington, who has accused both Chism and Commission chairman Melvin Burgess of conflicts of interest in voting for a budget that provides both wraparound funds for Chism’s day care center and the salary for Burgess’ job as audit manager of the Unified School System.

Declaring he won’t be bullied, tax-rate supporter Burgess makes a show of disclosing his relationship before casting any and every vote. Chism, however, has turned cautious and is likely to be, as he has of late, either an abstention on the tax rate or a no vote.

Without Chism, there is literally not a vote to spare for those who support Luttrell’s tax rate proposal.

Then there is Harvey — a universally liked Democrat who has the awkward habit of making his mind up as he talks out loud about an issue. He is unique among elected public officials in the frequency with which he begins a speech on one side of something and concludes by having turned full cycle, arriving at altogether opposite conclusion.

When the tax rate was last considered in committee on Wednesday, June 26, Harvey engaged in another bout of extended self-scrutiny, rambling through the alternatives in his mind and saying at one point, “If I had to vote today, I would vote not for the tax rate, to be honest with you. …”

Harvey’s pro tax-rate colleagues insist he will be with them on Monday, but, should he not, or should anybody else get run over by a truck or come down with the flu by meeting time, the tax rate — and with it the budget already passed — is in serious trouble. There is, however, a strong likelihood that Luttrell has a safety valve in Republican Steve Basar, who has done his best to straddle the fiscal issue, voting so far for the budget but not the tax rate.

Volatile item #3 will come in the form of routine-looking vote to approve a contract with a company called Correct Care Solutions to provide medical services for Juvenile Court detainees at a cost of $800,000. The issue here is not the money involved, but a seriously eroded relationship between Juvenile Court officials and Commission members, notably Commissioner Henri Brooks.

It was Brooks who requested the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 to investigate conditions at Juvenile Court, resulting in a DOJ report finding numerous problems, including racial profiling and other improper procedures. Subsequently the Court entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Department to correct the problems but offended members of the Commission, which has to foot the bill for the changes, by not including them in the negotiations.

The medical services contract has already gone through a couple of rejections in tense sessions with commissioners, several of whom, including Chairman Ritz, feel the Court, embodied in Judge Curtis Person and his CEO, Larry Scroggs, has been less than forthcoming about essential matters.

Things went from bad to worse at a June 26 committee meeting when Brooks made public an extraordinary letter she’d received from Scroggs rejecting her request for a group of constituents to assist her as “monitors” of the Court’s operations.

Portions of the letter read as follows:

Judge Person has concluded your recent words and actions make it clear your presence and that of others selected by you and working under your direction would be disruptive and detrimental to the Court and the judicial process....

Your votes and actions, which may result in the Court being non-compliant with the DOJ agreement, could prompt a federal lawsuit against Shelby County Government. As the initiator of the complaint which led to DOJ involvement, you are conflicted and your direct contacts with Juvenile Court are not appropriate or permissible and cannot be allowed.....

Therefore, Judge Person has determined it is necessary, appropriate and essential to the fair and impartial administration of justice to exclude you and other persons selected by you, whom you have proposed to act in a capacity as "community monitors," from any judicial proceedings at Juvenile Court.....

Predictably, Brooks was furious, but she is not alone. Mulroy, among others, found the Court’s response to be high-handed on a number of counts — including its rejection of oversight, its appearing to impose a de facto reprisal for the Commission’s prior negative votes on the contract, and its noting as part of its rejection the fact of Brooks’ announced candidacy for Juvenile Court clerk in 2004.

To be sure, Brooks is not easy to deal with on contentious matters (nor does she attempt to be), but she won’t be the only antagonist Scroggs and other Court staffers will have to deal with on Monday. Though it has the apparent support of county Health Department director Yvonne Madlock, the medical services contract is anything but a slam dunk.

The Juvenile Court matter could, in fact, end up generating more fire and brimstone than the chairmanship and tax rate matters combined.


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