The new Democratic majority on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is still showing growing pains, and based on yesterday’s performance, it clearly seems to be stuck in adolescence.
First, it questioned the impeccably run Porter-Leath – arguably the city’s best–run center for children and family services – and thumbed its nose at a plan to bring badly needed funds to Shelby County’s Head Start program.
Second, it then took an unprecedented step in removing a job in the budget of an independent elected official because they had questions about whether she was opposing their ill-conceived proposal for a second Juvenile Court judge.
City Council Reins
All in all, the commissioners offer convincing proof that following this year’s City Council elections, there will be no doubt about legislative body is the poorest.
It’s a dramatic commentary in how far the board of commissioners has fallen in only a handful of years. Once, the County Commission played Senate to the City Council’s House of Representatives, but those days feel long ago.
When Mayor AC Wharton recommended Porter Leath to provide Head Start to more than 1,000 young students, it was after detailed analysis by his administration. Surely the commissioners aren’t suggesting that Mayor Wharton isn’t clear-eyed in his focus for what is best for the Head Start students.
What About The Other Kids
In fact, the mayor’s chief motivation was his long-held concern that Head Start is only touching a small percentage of the students eligible for it. In Shelby County, this amounts to about 25,000 young people who are denied the Head Start experience, and the Porter Leath contract offered opportunities to expand the number of students in this universally loved program.
Instead of seeing Porter Leath’s pledge of $5 million in capital investments as major opportunity for the program, a majority of the commissioners saw it as a take over of the Head Start program. (We’re still unclear what sinister business motivation lies behind a plot to control these young African-American minds.)
At the peak of the rhetorical hurricane, one commissioner even suggested that because Porter Leath is headed by a white man – although there’s only one white Head Start teacher in the whole system – there isn’t enough cultural sensitivity in Porter Leath for these young students. All in all, it conjured up images of a Seung-Il Moon meeting as the black Head Start teachers are reprogrammed to a white view of the world.
Voting Down The First Amendment
If that wasn’t enough, in the same meeting, a majority of commissioners voted to remove a public affairs position from the budget of embattled Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person. Their motivation: a concern – apparently not backed up by any facts – that Judge Person created the job to fight the commissioners’ plan to create a second judge.
We’ve been told by people who were there at the time that Susan Thorp, who’s currently in the position, was approached during last year’s elections by Judge Person about opening up the court to the public and media and creating stronger community outreach programs.
Ironically, at the time, Ms. Thorp was supporting one of Judge Person’s opponents, Veronica Coleman, and after the election, they cemented their agreement, but in a dreadful coincidence in timing, she went to work at Juvenile Court at the time that the second judgeship proposal was being unfurled.
When we contacted Ms. Thorp, she emailed this reply:
“I don’t comment – and never have commented – on political issues between Juvenile Court and the County Commission. But I do want to emphasize that I am dismayed about the unfounded rumor that I was hired as the Court’s public affairs officer to ‘fight’ the commission. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Even if the facts were different and Judge Person had hired her to communicate his differences of opinion with the commissioners, it’s hard to imagine how they justify the elimination of the position.
The old-timers in county government can remember no precedence for such a vote, and most fear that it could have a chilling effect on the discussions before the commissioners. After all, the commissioners have now said that they may simply eliminate anybody who disagrees with them.
Leading the opposition for both of these issues was new Commissioner Sidney Chism, once predicted to be a moderating influence on the board of commissioners but sadly seems predisposed to be an increasing source of race-based accusations.
All in all, it left observers shaking their heads at the sorry state of decision-making at the board of commissioners and the quick death of the promise of a Democratic majority.