Sometimes, it’s the petty corruptions accepted as part of the every day workings of government that are the most amazing.
We thought of that yesterday in light of the way that one assistant county attorney surfaced in a variety of ways that sabotaged the prospects for a payroll tax and the commissioner who proposed it.
First, you have to understand that unlike their Memphis City Council counterparts, county commissioners don’t have their own lawyers who look out solely for their interests. Rather, commissioners are told that assistant county attorneys (all of whom serve at the “will and pleasure” of the county mayor, not the commissioners) represent them as well as the mayor’s administration.
It probably didn’t help that the commissioner in question had criticized the size of the retainers paid to assistant county attorneys regardless of how much or how little work they did.
So, here was Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham. To have his best chance at making his arguments about the fairness of a tax on income, he needed the help of a legal advisor in the county attorney’s office. He didn’t get it.
It’s not that we didn’t expect the outcome. As we wrote previously, it seemed more than passing strange that when Willingham asked a fundamental question that would be critical for the future of his tax reform proposal, the question wasn’t sent to a constitutional scholar whose impartiality was beyond question. Instead, his request for a legal opinion was farmed out to an assistant county attorney who happens to be a Republican Party leader in the “anybody but Willingham” wing of the party.
As a result, it was no surprise at all when the assistant county attorney wrote the expected legal opinion shooting a hole in Willingham’s main campaign platform, which was aimed at taxing the 88,000 non-residents of Shelby County who work here. His plan proposes to end the wheel tax, reduce the county property tax rate by 25 percent, end the local option sales tax, produce an overall reduction in the amount of taxes paid by most taxpayers and forbid any increases in any taxes for 10 years and only then by referendum.
The importance of the payroll tax issue in the upcoming election had already been foreshadowed in a telephone poll almost masquerading as a push poll, asking voters loaded questions such as, would they support Willingham if they knew he was trying to raise their taxes, etc.
Although Willingham has labored for two years to get the fair hearing that his proposal seemed to deserve, most political forces lined up against him. The political hierarchy of his own political party painted him as a kook, despite his days as an appointee in President Richard Nixon’s Administration and his dozen patents, and in truth, his tendency to see conspiracies made him a frequent, and easy, target.
Remember the old Alexander Haig joke that ended with the punchline: “Even paranoics sometimes have reason to be paranoid.” Well, it seems that even conspiratorially-minded people have reason to see conspiracies sometimes.
So, first, the legal opinion on Willingham’s seminal campaign issue was assigned to an assistant county attorney with a well-known political hostility to him. Second, the legal opinion has the power to rip his main issue out of his hands. Third, the damning legal opinion was delivered the day before the qualifying day for candidates.
But there’s more.
The same day that Willingham received the legal opinion fatally wounding his “Tax Fairness Proposal,” the county building received a number of newly printed brochures from Willingham’s opponent in the upcoming commissioner’s race. There, listed prominently among his opponent’s supporters was the name of that very same assistant county attorney.
Over the years, the appointments of assistant county attorneys, assistant public defenders and assistant divorce referees – yes, there are dozens and dozens of them – have been plum political appointees, and unsurprisingly, they are filled with men and women with uncommon political instincts. Perhaps it’s time to select these people solely on their legal acumen, rather than on their contributions and connections.
A good start in that direction would be to enact policies that prevent these public lawyers from endorsing any county elected officials or any candidates for county office. At a time when government is trying to remove the impressions of insider influences and special rules for special people, this would be a good place to start.