Shelby County Commission: A Matter of Law 

Not unexpectedly, a bid by the Shelby County Commission to hire Julian Bolton, a former commissioner, as the commission's independent attorney has been turned back by the existing county attorney, Ross Dyer.

click to enlarge Terry Roland - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Terry Roland

Dyer cited the county charter in ruling basically that the new attorney — any new attorney — would have to be agreeable to him and would have to be a member of his staff. It is as if King George III determined that the 13 American colonies could function "independently," so long as their actions were subject to approval by the House of Lords.

Those members of the commission who arrived at Monday's meeting in a giddy state of expectation were understandably dismayed and predictably backed away from the substitute resolution that Dyer's s staff had prepared.

Not to be foiled, the irrepressible commission chair, Terry Roland, immediately hired Bolton as a special attorney to figure out how to get around Dyer's ruling. An odd quirk in the charter apparently allows for such ad hoc — and temporary — outsourcings.

At press time, Dyer had not responded, though he could conceivably claim to have the option of hiring Bolton himself to counter whatever move Bolton makes on behalf of the commission.

And we halfway expect to hear from somebody involved in this curious caper some variation of the ubiquitous Donald Trump punchline: "Julian, you're fired."

But let's be serious. The background of this seemingly outlandish matter is a conviction on the part of a commission majority (transcending matters of race or party) that the administration of County Mayor Mark Luttrell has not played fair and square with commissioners on matters of county spending, and on the contrary has usurped the commission's authority to approve a budget by issuing incomplete and/or misleading reports on the county's fiscal situation, and by attempting to play commissioners off against each other by dangling now-you-seem-them-now-you-don't "surplus" funds.

What the commission majority wants is the same wherewithal possessed by the Memphis City Council, which back in the 1990s was able successfully to engage its own permanent full-time attorney, Allan Wade, who continues in that role and is responsible to the council and only to the council. It is this capability that County Attorney Dyer, who insists he represents all county officials, administrative and legislative, maintains is denied the commission by the County Charter.

The issue of an independent attorney is by no means the only matter dividing the commission from the Luttrell administration, but it has become the lynchpin of a generalized rebellion in which the commission intends to assert itself not merely as the administration's equal but also as its superior in matters of governmental oversight.

What has become a full-blown power struggle has come to rest on a legalistic point involving attorneys and may well end up being contested by adversary sets of attorneys and finally decided in a court of law. We know that we should be comforted by this fact, but for reasons we can't fully explain, it is making us uneasy.

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