County Commission Moves to Safeguard Independence of County Employees 

Two ordinances introduced Monday for a first reading by the Shelby County Commission could be, and have been interpreted as such, measures to curtail the power of Mayor Mark Luttrell and to give the commission a leg up on the mayor.

Regardless of how these measures might affect the principle of checks and balances or the relative balance of power in county government, those are not their primary purposes. What they mean to do, quite simply, is to ensure stability and balance for the county's workforce.

The first ordinance involves setting guidelines for the interim appointments of senior cabinet-level members in the county administration. It received five yes votes and six abstentions at this week's commission meeting on Monday. That result, signaling a desire to produce a compromise ordinance before the third and final reading, was in conformity with the commission's general agreement, during debate, on its merits.

Currently, our rules provide that an interim appointment shall serve in that temporary role for a "reasonable amount" of time.  The intent of the ordinance is to define "reasonable."  

The probationary period for a new county hire is six months. I believe that the commission and the administration can agree that this is a reasonable time period for an interim tenure, with the possibility of an extension if one is necessary and requested by the administration. That would involve a modest change in the language of the ordinance, which, as originally written, specified a 90-day limit. County CAO Harvey Kennedy indicated on Monday the administration could live with a limit of 180 days.

click to enlarge Van Turner
  • Van Turner

The proposed ordinance is unrelated, in my mind, to Mayor Mark Luttrell's recent decision to seat attorney Kathryn Pascover as the interim county attorney.  I will support her ratification as permanent county attorney when a resolution to that effect is presented. Attorney Pascover comes highly recommended from a very reputable firm, and I think she will do well as our county attorney.  

To be sure, there is a need for more diversity among the administration's senior cabinet positions, particularly in the case of African Americans. Of the nine specific appointive positions directly named in the ordinance, only two are served by African-American men, and there are no African-American women. However, I am convinced that Mayor Luttrell is committed to the principle of diversity, and I have expressed my willingness to work with him going forward to make sure that his senior cabinet fairly reflects the nature of our whole community. 

The second ordinance introduced on Monday originally proposed classifying all attorneys subordinate to the county attorney as civil service employees. On Monday, however, commission debate turned away from reclassifying these lawyers as civil service employees toward the idea of echoing a referendum that will be on the ballot in November. That referendum, if approved, would establish the right of the commission to ratify or deny a decision by the administration to terminate an attorney on the county payroll.  

Currently, the county attorney is selected by the mayor and ratified by the county commission. All subordinate attorneys to the county attorney are hired, fired, and serve at the will and pleasure of the mayor. The goal of the ordinance is to protect the county attorney's office from the sometimes unpredictable political fallout that may occur based on the opinion of one of the county attorneys.  

The intent is not to protect attorneys who are performing badly. The ordinance simply seeks to ensure that a county attorney's considered legal advice does not subject the lawyer to the danger of termination, should either the administration or the commission object to the advice.

The point is to allow attorneys in the county attorney's office to practice their craft without fear of political retribution. The county attorney's office should serve the entire county — including the administration and commission — without intimidation, fear, or threat of termination based on legal advice.  

As in the case with the ordinance on appointments, this one will return to committee for further discussion and will achieve its final form between now and its third and final reading.

However it finally reads, the ordinance would ensure that attorneys working in the county attorney's office can practice law without fear of job loss because of how that attorney decides an issue. We want sound legal advice from the county attorney's office, and we don't want the politics of the day to affect that advice adversely.

Van Turner is a Democratic member of the Shelby County Commission and a co-author, with Republican Terry Roland, of the two ordinances described above.


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