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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