Red Herring for Lunch 

In the last few weeks, amid an unusual degree of pressure and conflict, our two major local government organs — the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission — got down to the serious business of squeezing out their annual budgets. In both cases, momentous decisions, involving sums in the millions of dollars and impacting the lives and fortune of many thousands of people, had to be made. And in the case of both governments, not only have there been lasting recriminations, there are still active efforts on the part of some to amend what has been done.

It has all been momentous in the extreme.

And then there's this silliness about free lunches. In both legislative chambers, proposals were made to abolish the practice of providing lunch for members during long working days. We're talking about modest amounts of money, in the low five figures. In the case of the Shelby County Commission, where, amazingly, the issue resurfaced on Monday, the annual budget for such things, including coffee in the pot and bottled water, runs to all of $16,000.

A little background: In the course of a six-hour meeting last month, the 13 commissioners, representing the far corners and varied populations of Shelby County, were considering matters of considerable magnitude. One concerned the matter of the Office of Early Childhood and Youth, a $475,000 budget item. But even more was at stake, insisted proponents of the office, who included Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, who pointed out that at stake for a hard-pressed county government was another $6 milllion in state and federal funds that were dependent on the office being appropriated. After some tense to-and-fro that stretched into the next meeting, the office was finally funded.

Whatever one's point of view about the matter, it was clearly serious business — one of several items that could almost literally be considered a life-and-death matter.

But it was the free-lunches issue that was catnip for much of the media. At last, here was an easy theme. The headlines and sound bites wrote themselves — all involving variations on the old saw "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Oh yeah?

What that expression actually means is that the acceptance of such a modest gratuity carries with it implicit obligations. When the issue of stopping the free lunches arose again Monday on the county commission, amid all the fustian and bombast about shared sacrifice, good P.R., and fealty to the taxpayers, a little common sense finally emerged.

We credit Commissioners Sidney Chism, Walter Bailey, and James Harvey, all of whom pointed out that the coffee, water, and modest snacks provided commission members on workdays (no haute cuisine here!) had the same rationale as the restroom facilities on the premises: They kept the commissioners in the building, on the job, and accessible at all times to the constituents who come to meetings and expect their elected representatives to be on hand. And to sit down to table together has an obvious moderating effect on these often fractious members. Case closed, and the proposal went down.

Moral of the story: There's no such thing as an easy issue, either.

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