Out of Commission 

A GOP hard core finds ways, including the threat of secession, to forestall a pro-consolidation vote.

Consolidation, a casualty of the November 2nd election, lost again on Monday, and the way it did illuminated another recurrent feature of the political year — the degree to which Republicans at every governmental level have been able to unite around their political goals and, when needed, to get extra help from disunited Democrats.

The pattern held again Monday on the Shelby County Commission, a body which comprises a technical Democratic majority of 7-6.

Not only did a resolution offering generalized support for the goal of consolidation fail at Monday's regular commission meeting, but the stage may have been set for a later vote on a resolution that not only would condemn consolidation outright but provide for outlying Shelby County communities to break off and align themselves with an adjacent county.

Secession, in other words — a specter which thereby reared itself locally for the first time in almost a generation.

The first resolution, on behalf of consolidation, was the brainchild of Democrat Steve Mulroy; the second, repudiating it and threatening to truncate Shelby County, came from Republican Terry Roland, who would confide, "Well, maybe this is crazy, but no crazier than bringing up consolidation again after it got beat down."

Late in Monday's session, a confident Mulroy had asked that other agenda items be leap-frogged to allow an earlier-than-scheduled vote on his resolution putting the commission on record as favoring a new consolidation try.

And, after all, Mulroy had managed a triumph of chutzpah last Wednesday when, seemingly out of nowhere, he won six committee votes (to three opposed) for the premise that city/county consolidation was "appropriate and inevitable" and "that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners supports the concept of consolidation, and is open to the idea of revisiting a Metro Charter process in an upcoming election cycle."

Not only was the resolution a response to the recent election outcome, it was a conscious rebuff to the action of the very same commission when, a week or so before the election, it had voted to oppose the then pending referendum on consolidation.   

Mulroy was shrewd enough to see that, while most of the Republicans on the commission were intractable on consolidation, the Democrats might be another story.

One such, commission chairman Sidney Chism, was typical of several commission Democrats — African Americans who saw the inner city's political power being diluted in the charter commission's proposals or who took umbrage that school consolidation had been excluded from consideration.

Mulroy's resolution made allowance for these misgivings, explicitly putting the issue of the schools back on the table, verbally taking distance from the "corporate" backers who, rightly or wrongly, were suspected of having pulled strings on the referendum, and promising diversity and evenhandedness in the selection of a new charter commission.

That was good enough to get the six votes last Wednesday — five Democrats, including Chism, plus commission vice chair Mike Carpenter, a famously independent-minded Republican. All Mulroy needed on Monday to get the necessary seven votes for final passage was one vote from either of the two Democrats — Justin Ford and Henri Brooks — who had been absent on Wednesday and, like Chism, had not supported the earlier charter referendum.

Brooks' objections in November had focused on the exclusion of the schools; Ford, a freshman commissioner, was thought to have voted no on the metro charter in homage to his father, former commissioner and interim mayor Joe Ford, who had opposed consolidation in his losing mayoral race this year, though the senior Ford allegedly nudged his son toward voting aye this week.

"He'll vote for it [the Mulroy resolution]," was the confident prophecy last Wednesday from Democrat James Harvey. "He'll follow Sidney's example."    But when the time came on Monday, Roland aggressively followed up Mulroy's attempted jump-start of a debate on the pro-consolidation resolution by introducing his own resolution, one that underscored the November election result and stated that the commission would "support the right of county residents outside the city limits of Memphis at the ballot box, at their earliest legal opportunity, to determine which county they may wish to reside in."

The Roland resolution was accompanied by an opinion from Shelby County attorney Kelly Rayne spelling out the conditions — essentially, a two-thirds vote of the commission, followed by approval by the legislature and the governor — under which a portion of the county (or a maximum 284 square miles of it) could break away and join another county jurisdiction.

Offered as an amendment to Mulroy's resolution, Roland's resolution garnered no more than three votes, his own and those of fellow Republicans Heidi Shafer and Wyatt Bunker — though the vote of a fourth member of what Carpenter refers to, somewhat sardonically, as "the Fab Four," Chris Thomas, was added later.

But Roland indicated that his resolution could yet become a future agenda item in its own right. And, even in defeat, it set the stage for an impassioned debate on the Mulroy resolution, one in which Roland himself and several audience members joined in a concerted attack on Mulroy for bringing his consolidation resolution in the first place and asking him to withdraw it.

Whether motivated by the intensity of the response or by some other factor, Brooks, who often goes her own way for her own reasons, did so again. She, too, would speak against the Mulroy resolution as a "slap in the face" of the voters who had rejected consolidation in November — though she offered some faint praise for its having included possible school consolidation within its compass.

Mike Ritz, a Republican commissioner who also pursues his own initiatives, pointedly announced he would abstain, as he has on several issues with clear partisan overtones.

That left the issue in the balance, with Ford not having committed himself in the debate, either in committee last week or in Monday's full session. He, too, abstained, leaving the resolution with only its original six supporters, one vote short of the seven needed for approval.

Mulroy, who could take solace from having swung around some of those who had voted to disapprove consolidation in the October vote, was blunt afterward about Ford's role in deciding the outcome on Monday. "In case after case, for whatever reason, he's ended up aligned with the hard-right Republicans."

Strictly speaking, the vote was decided along nonpartisan lines, with the GOP's Carpenter voting with the Democrats and Democrat Brooks going with the Republicans. Each party had one abstainer. And the vote — 6 for, 5 against, and 2 abstaining — was as narrow as could be.

But there was a sense afterward that the Republicans, emboldened by the hard core of Bunker, Shafer, Thomas, and Roland, had made the most of their minority position. And, in another key vote Monday, they managed, with help from several commission Democrats, to stave off the reconsideration of a proposal, stalemated two weeks ago, to hire a chief information officer to administer the county's IT functions.

Back then, the aforementioned Republican quartet had spearheaded the case for a CIO, the vote on which had occurred after passage of a Shafer resolution allowing individual county divisions to opt out of a consolidated IT structure proposed by Mayor Mark Luttrell, a Republican himself but one with decidedly nonpartisan leanings.

What has happened in the meantime was a veto of Shafer's opt-out resolution by Luttrell, and it served the purposes of the Republican resisters on Monday to argue for a deferral of a new vote while they cast about for a way to override the Luttrell veto.

An override would require 8 votes from the full 13-member body, and even supporters of the Luttrell plan concede on the strength of the outcome Monday that the GOP hard core might succeed in finding a way to pry loose enough Democratic votes to prevail.

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