Wednesday, September 21, 2016

County Commission Renews Power Struggle with Mayor Luttrell

Ordinance to be voted on Monday would impose stringent guidelines on administrative appointments, with new test case brewing on interim County Attorney Pascover.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 21, 2016 at 10:25 PM

click to enlarge Interim County Attorney Kathryn Pasocver's Day in Three Stages: L to r, with County CAO Harvey Kennedy, dealing with Commission questions; shmoozing with potential critic Terry Roland; and chatting up George Chism - JB
  • JB
  • Interim County Attorney Kathryn Pasocver's Day in Three Stages: L to r, with County CAO Harvey Kennedy, dealing with Commission questions; shmoozing with potential critic Terry Roland; and chatting up George Chism

The power struggle between the Shelby County Commission — or a substantial portion of its membership — and the administration of County Mayor Mark Luttrell goes on.

The latest installment, which generated a good deal of fire and fury, took place on Wednesday during a discussion of an ordinance that would subject the administration to new Commission guidelines in making interim appointments to a wide variety of positions.

Co-sponsored by Commissioner Terry Roland, a Republican, and Van Turner, a Democrat, the ordinance makes a point of affirming the Commission’s power to confirm such appointments and would establish a 90-day maximum as the time an interim appointee could serve in office before a vote of confirmation would be mandated.

Or, in the language of the ordinance, “The County Commission hereby deems 90 days as a reasonable time period for an interim to serve in such capacity before a nominee is to be presented to the County Commission for final confirmation….{i]mmediately upon the expiration of the interim division director’s appointment…a nominee to fill the vacancy for the aforementioned position shall be presented to the County Commission for consideration of confirmation to fill the vacancy.”

Said vote to confirm or deny would then require a simple majority of the Commission.

Harvey Kennedy, the Mayor’s CAO, immediately condemned the proposed ordinance as “totally unnecessary…an inappropriate intrusion into the Mayor’s appointive authority” and pronounced the 90-day limit provision “unreasonable,” especially given the time restrictions laid down by outside search committees.

Roland retorted that, as matters stand, the administration can prolong indefinitely the tenure of an interim appointee, especially if Commission confirmation came to seem unlikely, so as to “circumvent” the Commission’s authority. And he quarreled with the administration’s penchant for hiring on the outside. “Why do you have to go somewhere else to find somebody when you’ve got somebody that’s qualified?”

That was a tacit reference to the administration’s announced plan, as of two weeks ago, to engage Memphis lawyer Kathryn Pascover as an interim attorney. Toi the Commission, it seemed clear the administration would eventually propose her as permanent County Attorney —bypassing in the process Marcy Ingram, a longtime assistant County Attorney who, with fellow assistant Kim Koratsky, has been serving on an interim basis. A vacancy arose earlier this year when former County Attorney Ross Dyer was appointed by Governor Bill Haslam to a state appellate judgeship.

Roland suggested that Ingram had run afoul of the administration by preparing, at Commission request, a proposal for a ballot referendum enlarging the scope of the Commission’s advise-and-consent function to include dismissal of appointees as well as confirmation of their appointments. That proposal got a positive vote from the Commission.

The background of the newly proposed ordinance includes several other skirmishes already fought between Commission and administration — notably the matter of the Commission’s continuing desire to have its own counsel. That was something stoutly resisted on the Mayor’s side — although, after a good deal of tugging back and forth, the administration has reluctantly consented to former Commissioner Julian Bolton’s serving the Commission as a “policy advisor.”

Besides the independent-attorney issue per se, there have been numerous other points of contention between Commission and administration, many of them having to do with fiscal control. The professional background of Pascover, most recently associated with the Ford Harrison law firm, is one in which she has represented employers in a variety of labor-management issues.

When the administration tried to have Pasocver’s status placed on the agenda of the most recent public meeting of the Commission, enough Commissioners objected that it was kept off, and there was some subtle bargaining back and forth that resulted in Bolton’s being able to claim, for the first time, at least a modicum of pay for his assistance to the Commission.

In any case, the infighting goes on, and Pascover’s status is the latest test case. During some of the prolonged wrangling on Wednesday, Democratic Commissioner Reginald Milton said with an air of weary reluctance that he would vote for the ordinance but served notice that he was “at the end of my rope” with the “constant battle” between legislative branches.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” said GOP Commissioner Heidi Shafer apropos the need to establish checks and balances between the two branches, and she defended the proposed ordinance as a means to ensure that both branches, as well as the people themselves, were properly served. She argued further that, while the Mayor had the right to name his staff, the County Attorney should not, properly speaking, be regarded as a member of his staff but as a representative of county government as a whole.

Pascover acquitted herself with a fair degree of aplomb and diplomacy when various questions were posed to her from Commissioners — especially when Commissioner Mark Billingsley asked if the proposed ordinance required changes in the charter.

She headed off some brewing objections by saying she was “conflicted out” of answering because her own circumstances were at stake and that the legal staff was seeking outside counsel for advice, with an answer of sorts due on Monday, when the issue goes to the floor for a vote.

Tentatively, the Commissioners present for the committee meeting on Wednesday gave the proposal a 6-2 endorsement, with Commissioners Billingsley and George Chism voting no.

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