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Starting Over

As county government changes faces, deeper alterations may be needed.

Jackson Baker Sep 6, 2018 4:00 AM

The change has come. There is a new Shelby County Mayor, Lee Harris, and he will serve along with a Shelby County Commission that numbers eight new members on the 13-member body.

And all these newcomers will inherit some old business — two issues that were apparently resolved last Monday, on the final meeting day of the old Commission, but became unresolved late Friday when outgoing Mayor Mark Luttrell — timing his action for the last possible moment so as to avoid a possible override — vetoed two resolutions.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris

One of these resolutions gave the go-ahead to a 390-unit subdivision, to be built in the southeastern corner of the county, adjacent to Collierville. The other resolution served to restore some post-retirement benefits, curtailed a decade ago, for county employees who serve a minimum of eight years. (Perhaps not coincidentally, eight years is the amount of time in office just served by the outgoing term-limited members of the Commission.)

In conferring his veto, Luttrell cited the expenses to Shelby County government of the two resolutions — the unspecified costs of providing county services and infrastructure in the case of the subdivision, an estimated $6 to $10 million in direct annual outlays in the case of the post-retirement benefits. The financial sum was the estimate of Harvey Kennedy, Luttrell's CAO, and Luttrell said that, at the very least, some actuarial study ought to be given the project before final approval.

That, in a public-policy sense, was the crux of the matter as Luttrell saw it. There was, additionally, a highly private side to the disagreement between mayor and commission, and, in taking his veto action, Luttrell had managed to strike the last blow in what had amounted to a nearly three-year power struggle between himself and the commission — one that, on Thursday of last week, only a day previously, had seen him conspicuously on the losing end.

That had been the occasion of the public swearing-in at the Cannon Center of mayor-elect Harris, along with the eight new commissioners and the clerks and charter officials who had been elected, along with them in the county general election of August 2nd. The ceremony had been pointedly organized and conducted under commission auspices, after, it was said, Luttrell himself had declined to commit resources to it from the county's general fund.

Some confusion persists on that latter point. Luttrell later maintained that he had authorized a disbursement from the general fund to pay for the ceremony, while outgoing commission chair Heidi Shafer said that commission funds had paid for it and that Luttrell's offer of funding had come too late and only after he had received inquiries from the media about responsibility for the event.

It was Shafer — who, along with Commissioner Terry Roland, had been the chief organizer of resistance to Luttrell over the years — who was front and center for the swearing-in ceremony, and who made it clear to the large audience that the event was a commission project. She identified the outgoing mayor only as "Mark Luttrell," sans title, when, at the request of two of the new officials, he assisted in administering the oath of office.

What was it that lay behind this schism? Political partisanship? That wouldn't seem to be the case; while the commission's Democrats quite often voted against the mayor's will on particular cases, there was no doubting that the rebellion against Luttrell, a Republican, was led by Shafer and Terry Roland, both GOP members. Nor were personality differences the reason, though they existed. Ditto with govermental ideology. True, Luttrell's main concern as mayor seemed to be that of debt retirement über alles, while commission members tended to be freer spenders. But beyond all that, what separated mayor and commissioners in recent years seemed to be honest disagreement about the balance of power between branches of government. The Commission saw itself as entitled to a greater degree of oversight, especially over financial matters, while Luttrell saw his executive responsibilities to be dependent on the kind of strong-mayor role that the county charter, as currently constituted, may not fully license.

It seems clear that, as county government goes forward with a new mayor and new commissioners, the argument is likely to rear again. Further change may be called for, and not only in two leftover resolutions.

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