First-day infighting highlights sharper partisan edges in new county commission.


Not that the previous version of the Shelby County Commission was exactly ecumenical, but it was a model of bipartisanship compared to what's shaping up in the newest incarnation.

Or so it would seem after an organizational meeting at which a Republican chairman pro tem was elected. It was the GOP's turn, in a pattern which annually rotates the chairmanship from one party to the other. Democrat Sidney Chism, the chairman pro tem for this past year, had been elected chairman earlier Monday without objection or incident.

Mike Carpenter won the contest to be chairman pro tem for the current year by the margin of 7-6 — but only on the strength of his own vote and that of six Democrats. Mike Ritz, the Republicans' clear favorite, got every other GOP vote, plus that of newly inaugurated chairman Chism.

All of this was payback, one way or another. Chism's vote was Ritz's as a result of a complicated series of quid pro quos the two engaged in last year. Along with Chism, Ritz had reason to believe he could count on another Democratic vote — that of Justin Ford, one of six new members of the commission elected on August 5th.

Ford is the son of former commissioner Joe Ford, a Democrat who served several months as interim mayor before being defeated in the election by Republican Mark Luttrell. And that interim chairmanship was made possible by the persistence of two Republicans — Ritz and Wyatt Bunker — in holding fast for him in a multiple-ballot contest with former commissioner J.W. Gibson.

"He told me he'd vote for me," a chagrined Ritz said after Monday's meeting. But the youthful Ford did something less than that. He passed on rounds one and two, and that kept things balanced at 6-6, until the third ballot. But then he changed his vote, voting with his fellow Democrats for Carpenter rather than for Ritz.

After Carpenter's victory was cinched by Ford's vote change, new Republican commissioner Chris Thomas moved that Carpenter's election be made unanimous by acclamation. That was duly done, though Carpenter — who in his first term deviated from Republican unanimity to vote with the Democrats on several key issues — had clearly been presented with a warning from his party-mates regarding the new term. A year from now, if custom holds, Carpenter will be up for the chairmanship — and for another showdown vote.

There were other party-line votes Monday — Carolyn Watkins' re-selection as Equal Opportunity Commission director over the GOP-backed Michael Floyd being a case in point.

Yet another partisan issue flared up during the course of discussions involving the commission's vote on approving Mayor Luttrell's nomination of Kelly Rayne as county attorney.

Democrat Steve Mulroy objected to the fact that longtime assistant county attorney John Ryder was representing the Shelby County Election Commission in post-election litigation by 10 defeated candidates, including eight Democratic nominees, who contend that election irregularities made the outcome "incurably uncertain."

Rayne noted that Ryder's involvement with the case had preceded her own appointment and that, in any case, Ryder had represented the Election Commission in past election challenges, when the commission had a 3-2 Democratic majority. That didn't satisfy Mulroy, who pointed out Ryder's active involvement in GOP undertakings, notably his current status as national director of Republican redistricting efforts, and asked that Ryder be reassigned to other cases.

The bottom line: After a good deal of back-and-forth, during which several Republican commissioners objected to Mulroy's demand, Rayne said she would review the situation.

Another Luttrell appointee drew some fire before gaining the commission's approval. This one was Dottie Jones, the new mayor's choice for director of community services. The objectors — Democratic commissioners Henri Brooks and Walter Bailey — did not cite partisan reasons for their concerns, focusing instead on what Brooks, who frequently asks for additional data from county agencies and employees, said was Jones' "slow" response to a request made last week.

Luttrell himself intervened in the discussion, saying in essence that Jones had performed swiftly in coming up with the requested information, and he took exception to the prospect of the commission's deferring action on Jones, who went on to be confirmed in short order.

Though, again, Bailey and Brooks had not objected on the basis of an overtly partisan issue, their collaboration Monday indicated a predisposition to act in concert on other issues to come. And the outspokenness of new GOP members Chris Thomas and Terry Roland illustrated, similarly, that they, too, are likely to up the ante on contentious matters.

The upshot of Monday's meeting was that, while the partisan lineup is unchanged — seven Democrats, six Republicans, as before — the partisan polarities may be more accentuated on the new commission.

• Meanwhile, even as new Shelby County officers, formally certified and sworn in, commence their activity, the legal challenge to the August 5th election continues.

Attorneys representing the two sides — the 10 litigants and the Election Commission — will confer on Friday with Chancellor Arnold Goldin, who has inherited the two suits previously filed in challenge to the election results and will decide whether and how to combine them and schedule them for trial.

On behalf of the Election Commission, Ryder filed a brief last Thursday responding to the charges of litigants — the eight aforementioned Democratic nominees, plus two defeated judicial candidates — of 12 specific irregularities.

The filing offered partial concurrence on some of the points alleged by the plaintiffs but only to minor circumstantial aspects of them and not at all to any charge of serious irregularity. The most obvious concession by the commission — composed of three Republicans and two Democrats — was its admission that "there was a problem with the entry of data for the electronic poll book."

This admission, relating to the fact that the names of some 5,400 people who had early-voted during the May primary season had been improperly fed into the data bank for August 5th election-day voting, had already been acknowledged by the commission. Previously, in reporting on its own internal investigation of the matter, the commission had conceded what it termed "human error" and denied any consequences that could have transformed the result of any of the election races.

That reasoning, repeated again in Thursday's filing, was that at least 2,000 of the potentially affected voters ended up voting, either by means of provisional ballots or after signing "fail-safe" affidavits that allowed them to vote normally. The number of those remaining, argued the commission, was insufficient to have altered any outcome. (It should be noted, however, that by this reasoning, one of the petitioners, defeated judicial candidate Glenn Wright, came within 1,516 votes of the winning candidate in his race, putting Wright potentially within the margin of doubt.)

In conversation afterward, Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini and other commission members elaborated on some of the points at issue in the dispute. One of the most controversial has been that of a "manual override" function in the county's Diebold machinery, alleged by the plaintiffs to have permitted alteration of the voting results. As explained by Giannini and the others, the use of the manual override function was restricted to allowing the addition of the aforesaid provisional ballots to the voting totals.

Giannini said that the other allegations — including one relating to disparities in the numbers of votes cast and voters certified as having voted and one that some of the machines were programmed with a "ghost race" in addition to the ones on the regular ballot visible to voters — would be addressed in greater detail in a follow-up document.

Spokespersons for the litigants were manifestly unimpressed with the commission filing, noting its general vagueness on several of the contested points. And the two consultants engaged by the litigants — Bev Harris and Susan Pynchon of — have made new charges, including that there was an "anomaly" in the way the vote totals of Shep Wilbun, the Democratic candidate for Juvenile Court clerk, were recorded.

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