Jul 09 2014

Playing to his base

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

The suburbs get a tax break this big...the city? Well, about that...

The suburbs get a tax break this big…the city? Well, about that…

Every once in a while someone does something that makes you wonder if they think you’re stupid.

You’ve probably felt what I’m talking about a time or two.

They give you that look.

They slight you in some way.

Or they sell you on a tax cut in an election year, to hide the fact that they gave someone else an even BIGGER, and unjustified tax cut.

If you left Monday’s Shelby County Commission meeting with that taste in your mouth, there’s a good reason…that’s exactly what happened.

Bad Taste in your mouth

In setting the County’s tax rate Monday, the Shelby County Commission gave a 5-cent tax cut to everyone outside of Memphis, and a 1-cent tax cut to people inside Memphis.

How’d they do that? They got rid of a 4-cent rural school bond passed years ago for the construction of Arlington High school.

The bond was only paid by residents in the former Shelby County School District because they got a school out of the deal. Tennessee’s ‘rural school bond’ law, allows a County to issue bonds, set to be paid by a specific group of people for a school, without matching funds for the other schools in that county. So for years, folks outside Memphis have been paying this additional 4-cents for the bond that paid for the construction of Arlington High.

Well, now that the old Shelby County Schools are no more, and only Arlington and Lakeland are using the Arlington High School, folks out in the ‘burbs don’t wanna pay that extra 4-cents for a school that’s not part of their district. And for Arlington and Lakeland to raise enough money to pay the four something million bucks of debt service would have meant raising their County tax rate something ridiculous, and that just doesn’t play in an election year.

So instead Mayor Luttrell,led by Harvey Kennedy talked some hapless County Commissioners into turning their backs on their constituents, to vote for a bigger tax cut for folks they don’t represent.

Fun times huh?

Turncoats

Do they really represent Memphians?

Do they really represent Memphians?

In all, four of the seven votes for this tax ordinance came from folks whose districts primarily represent the City of Memphis.

They are: Heidi Shafer, Steve Basar, James Harvey, and Justin Ford…who you may remember also has a residency question, that apparently no one is interested in pursuing at this point (maybe I’ll file a complaint with the District Attorney General).

These four think its just fine for Memphis to carry the load for the ‘burbs…which is what voting for this tax rate did…while getting nothing in return but more tax incentives for sprawl and the continued hollowing out of the city core.

Apparently, in Memphis, that’s the way we ‘represent’ Memphis. Way to be, folks.

But to add insult to injury, these four didn’t vote for adding in the matching funds that would have come with new construction to the newly constituted Shelby County Schools. Nope. They just ignored that completely, even as the School district has tens of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance for their buildings.

Way to put education first guys.

Playing the Game

Dance with those who brung ya

Dance with those who brung ya

But as bad as these four are, Mayor Luttrell’s assertion that they just want to “normalize” the tax rate is a slap in the face to Memphis.

Of course, Luttrell’s electoral base isn’t really in Memphis, as the map to the right shows. In fact, its out east and north…the burbs.

So what Mayor Luttrell has done is he’s bought Millington, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, Germantown and Collierville a tax cut at the expense of Memphis.

That’s what I call taking care of your own.

What’s more, this goes against some of Mayor Luttrell’s own policies. His website talks about smart growth, but in fact, “normalizing” the tax rate…which really means taking people off the hook who were happy to pay a little bit more before, does nothing to encourage ‘smart growth’. If anything, it encourages sprawl.

But Mayor Luttrell isn’t really interested in the kind of redevelopment and revitalization of the inner core of the city that most ‘smart growth’ advocates long for. His administration hemmed and hawed at a plan to make tax dead properties productive again.

This was something that passed unanimously on the Memphis City Council, but on the County side, anything that benefits Memphis, even if it also benefits the County coffers, is looked upon with scorn.

That’s really ‘smart’ if you ask me. /sarcasm

Conclusion

Its a month before an election, and it would be silly not to expect election year politics to enter into issues like the budget and the tax rate. But I don’t think anyone expected that Mayor Luttrell, a guy who went out of his way to court Memphis moderates in 2010, would do something so brazenly against their interests.

Sure, most of his administration he’s been able to rest on his ‘nice guy’ persona…and there’s no doubt, every time I’ve had the opportunity to meet the guy, he seems genuinely nice. But ‘nice guy’ doesn’t equal ‘working in your best interest’.

That’s the primary problem I have with this policy, it helps one group literally at the expense of another.

That hardly seems like something a ‘nice guy’ would do, but it’s definitely something a guy who’s well versed in hard nosed pandering to your base would do.

Jul 06 2014

Defining the Residency Process

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County, shenanigans
County Commissioner Henri Brooks filing her petition for Juvenile Court Clerk - via her Facebook Page

County Commissioner Henri Brooks filing her petition for Juvenile Court Clerk – via her Facebook Page

On Monday, the effort to determine if County Commissioner Henri Brooks does indeed live in her district will come before the County Commission again.

This time will be different, as the Commission will have to begin the process anew in the wake of a completely expected and predictable ruling by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong.

Reports of the ruling (which can be found here, here, here, and here) say Chancellor Armstrong gave Brooks the injunctive relief she was looking for (effectively stopping the current effort to declare her seat vacant), and call for the Commission to set up some kind of trier of fact (either the Commission itself, a designee, or a court) to: 1. Determine where Brooks actually lives, and then 2. Determine if the seat is, in fact, vacant…before going on to seek to fill the vacancy.

One of the problems of this whole affair is that the Commission relied on Administration policy to determine residency, believing that Commissioners should be treated as normal employees hired through the HR process.

But this is not the case. HR only handles paperwork for the purposes of payroll and other basic employee issues, not the hiring process. That duty falls to the voters, which is one reason this administrative investigation didn’t pass muster.

The other, of course is that the investigation didn’t actually determine where Brooks lived, which is problematic.

A third problem is that the investigation was treated as fait accompli instead of something that should be seen as the plaintiffs evidence, up for cross examination, and contestable by countering defense evidence…which would also be crossable by the County Attorney, some other plaintiff attorney, or even the Commission. Then, with the Commission acting as a tribunal…as set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. ยง 8-48-106, they could rule one way or another based on the facts presented.

Making the Rules Stick

One thing that we’ve learned from this affair, is the Commission (and likely all other elected officers) cannot fall under common employee standards or rules as set forth in County HR policy. The Commission has the power to set its own rules for dealing with issues relating to qualifications of its members…not the administration or any other administrative function.

This is a simple separation of powers issue.

So, the Commission must adopt a process by which these issues are to be dealt with, and pass it by a majority to avoid these complications in the future.

This could be done by amending the Permanent Rules of Order (which I could not find online by the way), or ordinance (either three readings or by vote of the electorate).

Regardless of how its done, standards must be put in place detailing due process (evidentiary rules, burden of proof, and the appropriate venue (who will be the trier of fact…either the Commission, or some external body designated by the Commission)).

Ultimately, the Commission itself would have to act on the recommendation of any external organ, which the Commission regularly does anyway.

The long and the short of it is, this isn’t complicated. This is the way legislative branches of local governments work anyway. It should be the way they work for the purposes of residency or even other membership qualifications as well.

And even though this process may be set up by ordinance or an amendment to the Permanent rules, it would still be up for Judicial Review, because that’s how things work in the good ole U.S. of A.

Starting Over

So the Commission will have to start this whole thing over on Monday. By the time they actually act on it, the issue will likely be moot.

The last Commission meeting before the next term is August 18th. Any action after that point would have no tangible effect other than making a show of it, and any action before that point will probably end up back in court unless the aforementioned rules are in place.

Also, Commissioner Brooks will be able to vote any rules going forward, because regardless of how you feel about her, people are still innocent until proven guilty in this country (though you’d be hard pressed to know that’s the case far too often), meaning Brooks could seek to gum up the works or amend the standards in such a way that is beneficial to her if she wanted to.

In any case, the incoming Commission, which will take office in early September, should seek to quickly address this issue and make rules for itself that would establish an internal administrative and final judgement process to clarify the boundaries of the issue. This would hamper frivolous charges from being brought based on personal or political vendetta, and make it simple for people to understand what was kosher and what wasn’t.

This process may already be set forth in the Permanent Rules, but if it is, and the Commission followed it up to this point, it doesn’t pass muster in the eyes of the Court.

Conclusion

Residency may seem like a simple issue, but as with so many things that revolve around the legislative branch of any division of government, it can get complicated quickly.

This is because legislators are loathe to make rules for themselves, and often set up easy outs in the rules, which makes them about as rock solid as swiss cheese.

Of course, we all expect people to be honest and forthright…especially if they are serving in public office. We’re not surprised when it doesn’t happen, or we perceive that it hasn’t happened.

Ultimately, until the rules for dealing with residency questions are defined for elective office the issue will continue to end up in court. Hopefully, the proposal Commissioner Ritz presents on Monday will set up a process that both meets the needs of the Commission for dealing with questions of residency qualifications for elective office, and addresses the due process concerns already ruled on by the court.

That’s the only way to get to an end game in this controversy…and even still, it may be that the Commission has enough bigger fish to fry that the issue rolls over to the next term.

Jul 03 2014

Stupid, stupid, stupid

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County, shenanigans

Please just stop talking

Please just stop talking

One of the things about working the 3rd shift, is that you’re often greeted with tomorrow’s news today…or at least the news most people didn’t see before they decided to disconnect from the constant influx of news items, large and small, that we’ve come to accept.

So it was with both surprise and resignation that I saw reports around midnight Tuesday (going into Wednesday) of Judge Joe Brown’s ridiculous statements about DA Amy Weirich’s sexual orientation. The video, by the time I started looking for it, had been removed, but everything lives forever on the internet. Fox 13 has snippets of the video up now (Memphis Flyer has the whole ugly affair).

Wednesday afternoon, Bryan Carson, Chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party Executive Committee released a statement distancing the party from Brown’s out of line comments.

Poor Excuses

Brown has blamed “mavericks” who are helping his campaign. He should ask them to stop helping. They’re not.

Prejudice isn't monochrome

Prejudice isn’t monochrome

But Brown’s excuse doesn’t take away the fact that he said these things, as if sexual orientation was some kind of disqualification for office. His excuses fall flat. His justification that he has “gay friends” sounds strikingly similar to claims by white people who have a “black friend” but still tell racist jokes.

Back in March I stuck my neck out for Brown and now I wish I hadn’t. I’m not willing to say what happened in Juvenile Court that day was a stunt…but rather, it seems to be the behavior of a man who exercises no self control, who speaks before he thinks, and who either hasn’t found or doesn’t possess a line between his famous television persona and who he is as a person/candidate.

Its unfortunate.

There are real issues to contrast against Weirich’s administration that have not only gone unsaid, but have been completely lost in the cult of personality that is the only thing the Brown campaign has going for it.

From police coercion in confessions,and filming of officers with cellphones, the Rape Kit debacle,a nd her anti-immigrant stance on U-Visas (h/t Brad Watkins)…to the unacceptable number of Juvenile cases that end up in adult court, or her unwillingness to publish a freakin’ annual report to inform the public about the doings of her office.

There are lots of reasons to want to look for an alternative in the DA department. But Brown just can’t get past himself to actually do it…and that means another cycle of defeat for the folks who put their faith and trust in him, and eight more years of the aforementioned bad policies from the Shelby County District Attorney’s office…which will have devastating effects on people from all walks of life, but mostly poor minorities.

The Pre-Post-Mortem

But lets not kid ourselves, Brown’s shenanigans in the wake of months of campaigning in absentia are just the beginning of the disappointments for this election cycle.

I started writing my post-mortem for this cycle a couple of weeks ago. It sounds premature, but considering the lack-luster effort brought by too many candidates on the Democratic slate (Brown included), and the Party’s inability to raise funds, I don’t see this ending well for candidates from my party.

There have been some exceptions. Deidre Malone’s campaign for Mayor has been active and effective. I’m not counting her out. She’s a smart lady, and a fighter.

Cheyenne Johnson has kept her campaign discipline this cycle as well. I think she has a good chance to win re-election.

On the Commission side, many candidates are running unopposed. Most of those that have opposition are in relatively safe districts. But District 13 is different. Its a split district on a good day. Candidate Dr. Jain has mounted an impressive effort. He’s a smart guy that the County Commission will need in the upcoming term.

I only hope that these smart candidates don’t get dragged down by the distractions that others on the slate have created. Guilt by association is a real thing in politics.

And the distractions have been far too many. Between Brown’s foibles, Henri Brooks’ shenanigans, and candidates running on name recognition alone rather than putting together a bona fide county campaign, its looking like its going to be a tough year for Democrats countywide.

Just after the County primary elections, I made a prediction about turnout placing it in the 130,000 range. What I didn’t say is that at 130k voters, Democrats are in a footrace in countywide elections. Its more likely most of them will lose. If you’ve heard me speak about turnout in Shelby County, you already knew this.

I didn’t explicitly say that in May because I wasn’t as sure as I am now. Based on what I’d observed in the primary, and the results…the 5000 Democrats who didn’t vote for Joe Brown, the 10,000 that didn’t vote for Bennie Cobb, the 12,000 that either didn’t participate, or didn’t vote for Henri Brooks…those are indicators that should have caused unease with Democratic leaders. I don’t see that a single Tums was consumed in the wake of those results…and no one asked me what I thought so… yeah.

Time to Triage

Democrats may make up 68% of the voting public in November, but only 20% of those Democrats show up in August. That makes every countywide race a serious contest.

At this point, Democrats need to be realistic, and focus their donations and volunteering efforts on the people who are actually trying to win.

Deidre and Cheyenne are the top prospects on the Countywide ballot.

For the Commission, Jain is the only candidate in a split district that could take a seat from the GOP, but Reginald Milton, in Dist. 10 has a 3-way race that could split in unpredictable ways. Both have been working hard in the community.

I’m not sure who a second tier might be at this time. So few have raised any money, its hard to tell who’s viable. Most of the Clerk campaigns seem to believe the (D) next to their name will help them coast to victory, which is both wrong and a big part of the problem.

Running for office is hard. If anyone knows it, I do. If I decide to run again, there are scores of things I will do differently.

I hope some of the candidates not mentioned take note, and get their organizations up and running in a hurry. Because theres no letter in the alphabet you can put next to your name that will get you instantly elected.

You have to show up, not show out, and prove to the public why you’re the best choice for the job.

Jul 01 2014

Torches and Pitchforks

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County

Put your 'jump to conclusions mats' away

Put your ‘jump to conclusions mats’ away

Considering all the shit I’ve taken from people armed with verbal torches and pitchforks since writing this post Saturday, its nice to see that a sitting judge at least tentatively agrees with the notion that you have to prove ‘where’ someone lives, not where they don’t to vacate a seat.

Don’t worry, I’m not lacing up the tennies, or prepping the inhaler to help me make a victory lap…and I’m certainly not gloating. But I had no idea the public…and the media for that matter had such a tenuous grasp of the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ (which applies in both civil and criminal law, though the burden of proof is different).

Armstrong also brings up something that I eluded to Saturday…that the final say on questions such as residency should not fall to the opinion/investigation of the County Attorney…but to some other body.

It makes perfect sense that a sitting judge might not want to give the power to issue judgement of an elected official to an appointee of the Executive Branch…separation of powers being what it is and all.

Of course, all of this could get turned on its head Thursday. But the day the opinion of an investigator or someone other than a judge, or jury of your peers is equivalent to actual judgement, is the day that our legal system falls apart.

Jun 28 2014

Giving Process its Due

Posted by Steve Ross in corruption, lies, media, Policy, Shelby County, shenanigans

Shelby County Commission

Shelby County Commission

The crazy clown car show that has become the Shelby County Commission rolls on…but at least it may hold off until after the fourth.

Of course, the troubles are well known. Now at least two members of the Commission are under scrutiny for not living in their districts: Henri Brooks and Justin Ford.

Oh to be a fly on the wall at MLGW this week. I suspect they got a lot of $175 deposits from area politicians who have made a home outside of the area they represent.

But my purpose is not to throw out allegations, or anything of the sort (I’m not nearly the attention whore that some are…ala Thaddeus Matthews), but rather to mock the maker of the original accusation, the target of the accusation, the so called “conclusive” investigation, and the County Commission for making a mockery of itself.

Terry Roland Loves Checkers

Its too bad for Terry Roland, we live in a chess world. The guy plays checkers pretty well. I’m sure he has all the strategies to get that last checker cornered in such a way that he can go in for the kill.

But Roland hasn’t been as successful in the real world of politics where chess reigns. Sure, he’s garnered a lot of media attention, but most of it, in the end is just the fruitless flailing of a guy who quite frankly is more about attention than effectiveness.

Terry set off this chain of events, and in one way I’m glad, because this has been known a problem for some time, though not necessarily in this instance (that remains to be seen). But in another way, like checkers vs. chess, he forgot that the queen can “move” anywhere on the “board”, and the absence of a queen in one place doesn’t mean the queen isn’t still on the board.

Marcy Ingram and Mishandled Investigation

In the letter to Commission Chairman James Harvey, Ingram provides evidence that Brooks does not live at the location listed on her disclosures, and offers one eyewitness account that she frequently visits her daughter and grandchildren in Cordova (which is what grandparents do, by the way) and may have established MLGW service at that Cordova address (which is also something a parent might do if their child is in financial distress).

Unfortunately, Ingram does not establish anything other than the fact that Brooks does not live at the address on Crump, which is problematic. There are literally thousands of other addresses in District 2 that Brooks could live at. Merely proving she no longer lives at one of them does not prove she doesn’t live at another.

In fact, the lack of evidence establishing that Brooks lives outside District 2 (rather than just not at the Crump address) means that Ingram’s conclusion that Brooks lives outside the district is a huge leap in logic, not to mention other things.

In essence, Ingram sets up a “guilty until proven innocent” scenario in her letter…a flaw that Brooks was ready to exploit.

Defining Residency

I wasn’t at the County Commission meeting on Wednesday, but coverage from the event show Brooks sitting next to Walter Bailey looking like the cat that ate the canary. And despite her counsel getting the address wrong, Brooks did exactly what you would expect her to do in the face of a faulty report by the County Attorney…she offered up another address in District 2 as her residence.

The media guffawed at the new assertion, while failing…as I did initially, to note that Ingram’s report only established where Brooks does not live…rather than affirmative proof that she DOES indeed live outside the district.

Because Ingram never affirmatively proved where Brooks lives, she also hasn’t proved that Brooks doesn’t live in District 2.

Henri Brooks the too willing martyr

All of this could have been avoided if Henri Brooks had only provided the address on Mississippi to the County Attorney. But Brooks seems to relish being in the limelight this way.

Indeed she’s built her career on “standing up for her constituents” by launching invective at both friend and foe, while seeking to highlight an issue. Its unfortunate that she chooses this tactic, because it has made her one of the most disliked and ineffective members of the County Commission during her time in office.

Brooks doesn’t seem to understand that in order to be effective, you can’t shit on everyone around you and then claim moral superiority in the same breath. Her unwillingness to cooperate with the County Attorney’s investigation is just one example of the arrogance she demonstrates on a regular basis to the detriment of both her self, “her constituents”, and the County Commission as a body.

Indeed, she did set off an unnecessary shit show as Memphis Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden put it.

Yes, I still hold that she should prove her residency and end this foolishness.

But this is classic Brooks being Brooks as this CA profile put it. I’m not sure why anyone would expect anything different.

Doing Due Process

Now that there’s another Commissioner whose residency is in question, the County Commission should put in place a process by which they may remove a member who has violated the residency requirement set forth in both State Law and the County Charter.

I tend to agree with this editorial at the CA, the lack of a defined process, and the legal tests that must be met to “prove” someone to be in violation of the law, means that future efforts to enforce the residency requirement will indeed be met with both resistance, and dragged out to the point that they are moot (which is what will most likely happen in the Brooks case).

Residency questions should fall to a body outside the County Commission itself, to remove the appearance of playing politics. Perhaps the County Ethics Committee should be the one to investigate such claims, or the District Attorney (though neither necessarily mean the claims themselves, nor the investigations would be devoid of politics at its worst).

Regardless, there needs to be a real process in place rather than what is happening now, which is a half-assed attempt at best.

Failing to do something of this sort almost ensures another “shit show” such as this one…which is something the public shouldn’t have to endure again.

Conclusion

Lets give credit where credit is due…this whole misadventure getting to this point (and the future if the Ford question comes up) is the direct result of an elected official believing they don’t have a duty prove they meet the qualifications of service.

This belief is founded on something more akin to divine right rather than representative democracy, and has no place in our government on any level.

Scrutiny is the check that should help give us faith in our government. This may have been lost somewhat in an era of scrutiny for sport, which has dominated the past several years, but that doesn’t make elected officials any more immune from answering to the public, even when the question is stupid or politically motivated.

It speaks volumes about the individuals who believe they don’t have a duty to answer to such scrutiny. It says they don’t understand the fundamental nature of their relationship with the public.

It says a lot about a person who would rather allow a fight to escalate unnecessarily than choose to bat it down before it matures into a crisis. This kind of self-absorbed lack of care is all too present in our current political climate…at all levels of government.

But while Brooks’ character flaws (both real and perceived) may make it easy to dismiss her, dislike her, or hold any number of ill wishes on her political future…the simple fact remains that this process is as flawed as the witch trial in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail…which is at least as bad for our republic as Brooks’ irrational behavior, and many other completely preventable incidents she’s been a party to.

You don’t have to like her. You don’t have to support her. But until the County Attorney can prove where she lives and that her address is actually outside of District 2, the conclusion that she’s in violation of any State or County statute is not based on the fact that she doesn’t live in her district…only evidence that she doesn’t live where she previously said she does.

While the standard offered by Ingram may seem on its face to prove something, it doesn’t rise to the standard of proving a violation. Until the County Attorney can provide hard evidence that proves guilt (by proving where Brooks lives and that it is outside the district) rather than lack of innocence (which what Ingram has proved thus far), this whole charade is nothing more than a distraction initiated as a political ploy, continued by a hasty determination, fueled by a bullheaded and self-absorbed elected official, and fanned by an all too compliant and complacent media.