As the Memphis election process moves ahead slowly, dramatic events may be brewing on the County Commission. 

click to enlarge Scott McCormick at Commission meeting

Jackson Baker

Scott McCormick at Commission meeting

It is a strange and frustrating time for followers of local politics.

Strange, in that the rosters seem fairly complete for all the races to be run this year in the Memphis city election and seemed so even before it became possible for candidates to draw petitions from the Shelby County Election Commission on April 17.

And frustrating because, while there are surely surprises yet to come between now and July 17, the filing deadline for city races (the question of former School Board member’s Kenneth Whalum’s mayoral plans, for instance, or the status of his either-me-or-you agreement with declared mayoral candidate Mike Williams), the pace of change is agonizingly slow, almost glacial.

Oh, there are hot rumors to melt some of that ice (reports that Randy Wade, former Sheriff’s candidate and ex-aide to Congressman Steve Cohen, resume active politics as a candidate for City Council, for example), but for the most part, the sides seem to have been drawn, and we’ll just have to wait out the results, which won’t be final until all the votes are counted on October 8.

That’s anachronistically called “election day,” although active walk-in votes, probably amounting to at least half the total number, will be occurring in the early voting period, stretching from September 18 to September 29).

And, in the case of several of the Council’s seriously contested district races, there’s a whole new election to be had, involving runoffs likely to be completed on November 3.

Talk about anachronistic: That ruling, made then to prevent white voters from ganging up against a black mayoral candidate in a runoff, may actually work today to facilitate a white candidate’s chances in a plurality-wins environment, like the one developing this year, which, to date, features one strong white candidate , Councilman Jim Strickland, in a field including numerous well-known blacks.

•This-Just-In Department: An intriguing new development is the likelihood that Scott McCormick, currently executive director of Memphis Botanic Garden, a member of the Shelby County Schools Board, and a former Council member, will seek the Super District 9, Position 2 seat vacated by former member Shea Flinn, who resigned two weeks ago to become a Chamber of Commerce executive.

McCormick confided on Monday, after he and other proposed members of the Shelby County Health Care Corporation’s board of directors were approved by the County Commission, that he intended to draw a petition this week to run for the vacant Position 2 seat. If elected, McCormick would be required to resign from the School Board as of Next January 1, creating a vacancy there.

•And, hark! If the city election as a whole suffers just now from a case of the slows, there is one significant winner-take-all City Council “election” that will be resolved next week. This is the choice to be made on Tuesday, May 19, by the 12 remaining Council members of an interim Council member to replace Flinn.

Deadline for aspirants to that interim position to submit applications to the Council office is noon of Thursday, May 14, this week. And, though several of the candidates who intend also to be on the October 8 regular ballot will be seeking the interim position as well, it is beginning to seem likely that one of several candidates who profess themselves interested in the interim positon only have a better shot at being chosen.<
Among the more prominent of the interim-only candidates to have declared their interest so far are lawyer Alan Crone, a well-connected former chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, and Fran Triplett, who won recognition over the past year as a citizen advocate for the retention of city employees’ benefits guarantees. Also said to be contemplating a try for the seat is businessman Lester Litt, who previously sought a Council seat in the election of 2007.

•Although the agenda for Monday’s regular meeting of the Shelby County Commission seemed almost harmlessly bland, several matters of fairly serious import developed during discussion.

One such concerned, in the language of Monday’s agenda package, an “Amendment to the existing Planned Development to allow for one payday loan establishment in Parcel 1.” What that turned out to involve was a proposal for continuing to allow “Cash Now,” an existing payday loan company operated by a company called Financial One in Cordova at the intersection of Macon and Houston Levee Rds.

The “Cash Now” site has become the focus of controversy, in that several residents of the area, as well as the Land Use Control Board, contend that its very existence is in violation of previously adopted code applying to Gray’s Creek Area Plan. Specifically, the code would seem to prohibit such an enterprise “within 1,320 feet of a residential property.

What critics of the “Cash Now” establishment maintain is that Financial One’s original application, approved by the Office of Planning and Development and the Commission in 2013, misrepresented the nature of the establishment’s business as one related to financial planning or to investments rather than to payday loans.

Some Commission members allege that the issue goes deeper. Heidi Shafer, the Commission’s budget chair, said the process that resulted in the current location of “Cash Now” (which has announced plans to expand its premises) may not be the result of a mere misrepresentation or a bureaucratic oversight but instead “has an unpleasant odor of commissions past.”

She suggested that the Commission was in danger of being “gamed” and invoked the phrase “Tennessee Waltz,” seemingly implying that some sort of backroom arrangement had been responsible for the original approval of “Cash Now” at the location.

The property lies within the Commission district of George Chism, who also objected to the process that led to “Cash Now” being where it is, and is the proverbial stone’s throw from Shafer’s district.

In the end, the Commission voted to defer a vote on the matter until its next regular business meeting of June 1. There has also been a bit of a blowback from last week’s budget session, in which Commission members seemed so supportive of Shelby County Schools’ request for a $14.9 budget increase that some observers were calling the meeting a love-fest.

click to enlarge Bev Shelley makes her appeal - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Bev Shelley makes her appeal
Budget chair Shafer is taking the lead in walking back that enthusiasm. She has announced that she will be scheduling an additional “education-only” budget session “as soon as we can before we vote on the 20th” to discuss the ramifications for local school funding of the state’s Basic Education Plan, as well as future maintenance-of-effort and OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) obligations.

•After Monday’s meeting, members of the Commission had a dinner meeting with staffers of the non-profit organization JIFF (Juvenile Intervention and Faith-Based Follow-Up), which attempts to rehabilitate hard-core offenders in the Juvenile Court System, those with seemingly intractable records involving five or more offenses.

The Commission members were clearly affected by evidence of JIFF’s successes presented by executive director Richard Graham and the organization’s board chair, Lauren Young, and most of all by hearty recommendations of the organization by Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael and by JIFF board member Bev Shelley, whose husband John in 2013was robbed and then shot and killed by youthful gang members while he was appraising a house in the Parkway Village area for potential renovation.

Bev Shelley has since become a crusader for rehabilitation efforts like those provided by JIFF and made a moving appeal on behalf of “intervening these children’s lives” and giving them “the help that they need” to move away from criminality and into the social mainstream.

The upshot Monday was an apparent consensus among the attending Commissioners to include JIFF’s request for a $150,000 annual funding contract to supplement its limited resources within the budget for Judge Michael’s office.

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