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Policing the Jails

One oversight proposal is deferred, but action on a review board may be imminent.

by Jackson Baker

ction on a proposal for the Shelby County Commission to appoint three jail inspectors was postponed at the commission's Monday meeting, but some strict new measures may be in the offing to provide oversight of the Sheriff's Department.

And that could take the form of the civilian review board which commission chairman Shep Wilbun has long sought.

That was the word according to Buck Wellford, chairman of the commission's law-enforcement committee, after the commission tabled a Wilbun resolution to name the jail inspectors under the terms of an 1850 Tennessee statute.

"That's an archaic statute that has nothing to do with the real world today. It's a virtual invitation to the commission to put itself in legal vulnerability," said Wellford, who -- believing that votes were not on hand for the resolution -- had sought an immediate vote on it Monday.

The resolution would have named three inspectors with short terms set to expire at the end of this year. The three would be empowered to make official visits to the county jail facilities once a month "or oftener;" to "make rules and regulations for the preservation of the health and decorum of the prisoners"; to "decide all disputes between the jailer and the prisoners;" to establish methods for separating violent prisoners from others; and to make reports on jail conditions at each commission meeting.

Word had circulated among commissioners that the identity of the three would-be inspectors had been arrived upon and that they were on hand for Monday's meeting. These were: Novella Smith-Arnold, the activist on behalf of AIDS patients and the mentally ill who was banned from visiting the jail by Sheriff A.C. Gilless three years ago; Dr. Max West, a psychiatrist; and Helen Adamo, president of the local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

"It's not true that we were set to be the inspectors. But we are supporters of the measure, we were there to support it, and we would be happy to serve," said Smith-Arnold, who added that she was pleased at the wording of the resolution, whose provisions were reminiscent of her own former mission into the jail, which had been authorized as an outreach program of Calvary Episcopal Church.

Smith-Arnold believes she was banished from the jail not because of her AIDS activism but because of her efforts to identify mentally ill prisoners and to have them removed from ordinary custody. She said she had since proposed a "truce" with Gilless.

In response to Wellford's contention that the resolution, if passed, would cause "a multitude of lawsuits" involving the commissioners themselves, Smith-Arnold said it would reduce the number of potential suits by applying preventive means in advance.

In predicting that a civilian review-board proposal would have "good support" when and if reintroduced, Wellford said, "Ironically, the chief reason why it was voted down when it was first proposed was that Sheriff Gilless told the commission that he had appointed Harold Hays to take care of the same problems such a board would have to deal with."

Hays, an internal affairs officer, was discharged by Gilless after he furnished evidence of wholesale job-selling activities within the department. Two leading department figures, former Chief Deputy Ray Mills and unofficial reserve deputy Stephen Toarmina, are now under Criminal Court indictment for the charges.

* Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas, who has indicated he will run for city mayor, has no plans to hide his conservative stripes. He was asked about his plans at last week's annual Chamber of Commerce "Hobnob" event at Libertyland, and declared he would make no special effort to appear to be a "centrist" candidate of the sort that the local Republican establishment is trying to recruit.

"I've got where I am by being a conservative, and I'm not going to change who I am for the sake of an election," said Thomas.

A Democratic Dissent

Not all party members are pleased with the state committee's income-tax proposal.

by Jackson Baker

he recent decision by the state Democratic executive committee to endorse a state income tax at its annual spring meeting in Nashville has not met with universal plaudits from party cadres across the state.

The 66-member governing body voted by a margin of 33 to 7 (several members absent or not voting) to adopt a resolution urging legislators to approve a comprehensive tax-reform package, including repeal of the 6-percent state sales tax on grocery food and an income-tax provision designated by party chairman Doug Horne as an "education privilege fee."

City court clerk candidate Scott Sammons (left) listens skeptically but politely as incumbent clerk Thomas Long pitches a voter at last week’s “Hobnob” event, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce at Libertyland.
The elimination of the grocery sales tax was among the items on Governor Don Sundquist's tax-reform wish list presented during his State of the State address in February. The "education privilege fee" would be a 2.5 percent levy on the adjusted gross income of all Tennesseans, as calculated on their federal income tax returns. This next tax, according to Horne, who shepherded the idea, would raise about $2 billion annually for educational programs.

Memphis' John Farris was one of the seven dissenters. "I don't quibble with the fact that we do need to have tax reform," he said, but argued that Horne's "flat tax" failed to take into account income differences among Tennesseans. Farris also quarreled with the idea of designating all the proposed revenue from the tax for education and said the legislature should convene a constitutional convention to cap the income tax before imposing one.

"That's the only way the public will ever buy it, if the rate is set forth in the Constitution so it can't be changed at the whim of the General Assembly," Farris said, adding, "We want to present a unified Democratic Party, but when my gut's telling me that it's not the right thing to do, I just can't go along with it."

Another naysayer was Jeff Clark of Murfreesboro, the political fund-raiser and former party treasurer who was an observer for the proceeding. "It was shocking to a lot of people," said Clark. "I thought, surely they'll just let it out on the floor as a courtesy and then just not vote on it. But it was like suddenly there just weren't enough knives around for people to fall on."

Clark said that Sundquist's protracted -- and so far unsuccessful -- campaign for tax reform had caused the GOP to take "some of the heat for being the tax guys." But, he said, "This was like, 'Oh no, you can't steal my issue.' For the record, I'm happy to say it's horrible politics, and I think it's probably bad policy."

Horne, a wealthy businessman from Knoxville, continues to stand behind his plan, however. He's promising to travel the state this summer to promote it. "Right now we think Tennessee is becoming a third-world state. It's time to do something about it," he said.

Under the plan adopted by the state committee, Horne said, "There will be free tuition for any kid graduating from high school regardless of grades. The children of our state will have a great opportunity to get ahead of the curve in education improvement versus any other state. Business will benefit by having a better work force."

About $400 million in new revenues would go toward offsetting the lost grocery sales tax, Horne said. Next, another $350 million to $450 million would go toward providing free tuition and books to all Tennessee high-school graduates attending a "public institution of higher learning" within the state. The remaining $1.2 billion would be earmarked for funding kindergarten-through-12th-grade education and higher education as well.

Predictably, state Republican leaders who helped doom Sundquist's tax-reform package piled on in opposition to the newly sanctioned Democratic proposal. Said former state GOP chairman Tommy Hopper, now chairman of an anti-tax organization called the Free Enterprise Coalition,"The GOP is in lockstep with Tennesseans, while the Democrat party is in a ditch on the left-hand side of the road."

And state Republican chairman Chip Saltsman, whose last-minute intervention against a bipartisan income-tax proposal doomed its prospects in the late legislative session, weighed in as well. Saltsman criticized the Horne proposal as "a typical Democratic solution to a problem" and ridiculed Horne's usage of the term "education privilege fee." Saltsman said, "I think the old saying about a duck applies here. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's usually a duck." Or in this case an income tax, Saltsman said.

(Jeff Woods, editor of the online periodical Tennessee Politics, contributed to this account.)

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