Capitol Serendipity 

County Mayor Luttrell and Memphis Mayor Strickland get some useful exposure in Washington.

Between the time these words are written on Tuesday morning and the time they are read, Wednesday (when Flyer copies first hit the street) or thereafter, Memphis officials will have made their presence known in Washington.

click to enlarge politics_luttrellstrickland-mag.jpg

This is true in both a literal and a figurative sense — literal, in that both Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland are sure to have seen by a national audience; figurative, in that, in the nation’s capitol, in the state capitol of Nashville, and (not least) back home, the sighting(s) will create a positive vibe for various public purposes of importance to Memphis and Shelby County.

As has been well publicized, Luttrell was expressly invited to sit in the box of First Lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address by President ObamaTuesday night.

Luttrell’s presence was accounted for in a White House statement regarding all of the First Lady’s boxmates: “The guests personify President Obama's time in office and, most importantly, they represent who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative, and courageous.” In particular, Luttrell apparently was included because of his work on criminal justice reform — the subject of an address the county mayor delivered to a White House conference last year and one which Obama is keen to address, in light of several volatile and sometimes fatal incidents nationwide that have scarred citizen relations with police and with the legal system at large. Prior to his elections as Shelby County sheriff and county mayor, Luttrell’s background had been in penal administration.

After the Luttrell invitation was made public, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen evidently thought the newly inaugurated Strickland should be in on the action as well, and invited the mayor to the State of the Union address as his guest.

Strickland should not necessarily expect to get as much air time as his county counterpart Luttrell, but that prospect should not be discounted, either. There probably has not been a single State of the Union telecast since Cohen was first elected to Congress in 2006 at which the irrepressible Memphis congressman has not figured prominently, both before and after the speech itself, in proximity to the President.

Assuming that congressional protocol allows Strickland, at least at some point, to join Cohen on the floor of the House of Representatives, where members of both congressional chambers convene to hear the address, the Memphis mayor is fairly sure to get his share of the limelight.

While in Washington, Strickland has also scheduled visits to the offices of Cohen and U.S. Representative Stephen Fincher (R-8th), as well as to those of Tennessee’s two Republican Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. Cohen’s invitation to Strickland, while a thoughtful gesture under the circumstances, also has obvious political ramifications for both men. It gives Strickland some useful exposure beyond his own bailiwick, and it provides Cohen with a practical opportunity to cement relations with the new mayor after an election in which the congressman publicly endorsed Strickland’s major opponent, then-incumbent Mayor A C Wharton.

Luttrell’s trip to Washington as the First Lady’s guest has already paid some specific dividends to him locally, earning the mayor both a respite from his ongoing power struggle with the Terry Roland-chaired Shelby County Commission and perhaps even a temporary truce.

Roland took to the well of the auditorium of the Vasco Smith County Administration Building at Monday’s regularly scheduled county commission meeting to read into the record a resolution of congratulations to the mayor from Commissioner Walter Bailey, adding some gracious words of tribute of his own and thereby making a point of associating himself with Luttrell’s enhanced persona and White House honor. 

It was one of the few moments of emotional unity in Shelby County government since sometime last year, when the commission, more or less as a whole, fell out with Luttrell over the administration’s fiscal accounting and what commissioners saw as an over-proprietary role vis-à-vis the commission. The resolution received unanimous approval.

The fact is, though, that Luttrell, who had left the county building to make his plane to Washington and could not respond directly to the commission’s resolution, is not out of the woods yet. Just before he received his invitation from the First Lady and the fact was publicized, the mayor had been involved in a developing imbroglio.

Roland and the chairman’s main commission ally, Heidi Shafer, had accused the administration of doctoring a commission resolution prepared by Roland and routing the doctored version to the state comptroller’s office in Nashville by way of embarrassing the chairman.

Roland’s resolution, clearly intended as a salvo in the running argument between an apparent commission majority and the mayor, sought to have the county’s fund surplus — the amount of which has been a matter of dispute between the commission and the mayor — routed from the administration’s financial office to the commission’s contingency fund.

Such a resolution, if passed, would not only put points on the board for the commission in its contest with the mayor, it would in theory give the commission an independent set of eyes in determining just exactly what the county’s surplus for 2014-2015 had been — whether $6 million, as the administration had first reported in advising the commission against a property tax decrease, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $21 million or even higher, as commissioners came to believe on the basis of late-breaking information.       

Before the resolution could be acted on by the full commission, however, a copy of it went to the comptroller’s office, and where there had been a blank for the amount of the imagined surplus intended for transfer, there was now entered an amount of $107,772,795.00 — which was the amount of the county’s entire fund balance!

As the comptroller’s office promptly notified all the local parties, such a transfer would be illegal and impossible, since it would deprive the county of its entire operating monies for any and all purposes. When that response went public, Roland cried foul, and he and Shafer suggested that nothing short of forgery could account for what he called a “blatantly altered” document.

A planned “discussion” of the matter was on the commission’s agenda for its committee sessions on Wednesday, but Roland said it was being withdrawn pending further “investigation” of the matter. Asked for his response to the matter on Thursday, Luttrell recalled that, during a recent weekend budget summit between the administration and the commission, there had been a dispute over the issue of who should have supervision of the county’s surplus funds.

“That alarmed us,” said Luttrell. “And then when this draft resolution came down, we said, 'Okay, we really need to get some clarity from the state comptroller’s office. Let’s just go to the comptroller, so we’ll know where we stand.'” That accounts for the dispatching of a copy of the resolution to Nashville.

A letter last week from Kim Hackney, deputy CAO, to Roland supplies further explanation of the incident from the administration’s point of view. The letter suggests that the alteration of the amount sought for transfer occurred inadvertently as copies of the resolution were passed back and forth between deputy County Attorney Marcy Ingram, commission administration assistant Quoran Folsom, and county financial officer Mike Swift.

The details, as set forth in the letter, seemed plausible enough as a defense of the altered number as an unfortunate accident, but even this de facto apology, forthrightly stated for the most part, contained a hint of reproach: “[W]e regret that our office and your office were not working directly with each other on this matter. Perhaps some confusion would have been eliminated.” 

For all the public kumbaya of this week, the power struggle seems likely to continue.

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