The Shelby County Commission Kerfluffle 

click to enlarge steve_basar_2012.jpg

"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Those lines are familiar to most students of literature as the first words in Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities. After Monday, they may have a somewhat different meaning to Steve Basar, a member of the Shelby County Commission.

Basar, who represents an East Memphis district and has a major concern with economic development, has desired to be chairman of the commission for some time. Two years ago, he was elected to serve as the body's vice chair, an office which, once upon a time, positioned one to ascend to the chairmanship in a year's time. Harboring such expectations, which were reinforced by another commission tradition, that the chairmanship should be rotated from year to year by party, Republican Basar made ready for his ascension to the chairmanship a year ago, at the end of outgoing Democrat James Harvey's one-year term.

Like Harvey before him, Basar even had a speech ready. But, for reasons that have never been fully explained and that may be as much personal as political, Basar was not elected. His fellow Republicans, whom he expected to serve as his base, not only deserted him, they ended up voting in Democratic Commissioner Justin Ford.

Stunned and understandably aggrieved, Basar fell into a pattern of cooperating with the commission's Democrats on key matters. The positive lure of bipartisanship may have been one of his reasons, but there were other reasons for the de facto alliance, which has held firm for most of the succeeding time. For, just as Basar felt he'd been done wrong by his fellow Republicans, the Democrats on the commission were suspicious that Ford, to gain his chairmanship, had made some deal with the Republicans.

Nobody wants to use the term "payback," but the ad hoc Basar/Democrat coalition set out on a systematic campaign to depose chairman Ford, and, if not that, then at least to set limits on his powers. They succeeded in the latter aim, reducing from eight to seven the number of commission votes necessary to overrule the chairman's control of the agenda.

Came Monday, and Basar, more or less on the strength of his Democratic alliance, won election as chairman by the whisker-width of a single vote. The best of times. 

But payback is a two-edged sword, and to the astonishment of Basar (and everyone else, except whoever was in on the deal), the new chairman-elect saw his chairmanship abruptly taken away from him an hour after he got it, when one of his previous voters, whether induced or not, went over to the other side and forced a reconsideration vote that went against Basar. The worst of times.

For the time being, the commission is leaderless and won't have another chairmanship election until next month. Other people's ambitions, and other factors, including no doubt some real issues, went into this outcome. But, at root, what it signifies is that political gamesmanship has gotten the upper hand in what is constitutionally the supreme legislative body in Shelby County and which has real business to accomplish. Any more of this hanky-panky just won't do.

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