So, here’s our question for the county board of commissioners: Why would anyone send you a gift unless they are trying to influence your position or gain your political favor?
Were any of these gift-givers sending you presents before you took the oaths of office as county legislators? If they weren’t, then you’re simply receiving gratuities for your public service, and it’s hard to put it any other way but this: It’s wrong.
Even those University of Memphis tickets don’t come without invisible strings attached. If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it’s equally true for elected officials that there’s no such thing as a free gift. There’s always an anticipated return. That’s why from the givers side, it’s never a gift; it’s an investment.
The dictionary says a gift is something to show favor to someone. If the favor being shown to an elected official results from their public office, it is a favor that should be aimed more correctly at the people who make it possible – taxpayers.
The dictionary also gives this definition: “anything given to persuade or induce.” That’s the definition for bribe. It seems like a fine line.
OK, we don’t want to get too fulminate too much about all this. Here’s the thing. Almost to a person, the members of the county board of commissioners are good people, likeable and well-intentioned. But something mysterious happens when ordinary people sit in the chairs in the Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chambers for a few months.
In that setting, they are treated with deference, they are served by cowered county workers, they are exalted by attorneys seeking favorable votes and they look down from their regal positions at the supplicants coming before them. It’s easy enough to get jaded and to believer you are innately gifted to be in that job.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Quickly forgotten is that those same people who love you today will love whoever takes your place tomorrow. It’s not about you. It’s about currying favor with power.
As former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett said: The question you have to ask yourself regularly is, are they a friend to me or are they a friend to the office. Normally, it’s the latter, and you forget that at your own peril. Ask any former elected official and that person will tell you: the phone instantly stops ringing and the gifts stop coming on the day you don’t have your elected title in front of your name.
That’s why we are disappointed that once again the Democratic majority on the county board of commissioners chosen to exert its political muscle in pursuit of such a dubious goal – to open up gift-giving to themselves and to allow them to accept gifts of unlimited value as long as every commissioner gets one. As one cynical observer in the county building put it, “Apparently, it’s not bribery if everyone’s on the take.”
Before they voted to amend the ethics rules – a law whose ink hadn’t even dried yet – limits on the commissioners’ gifts were hardly draconian. They could only accept gifts that cost less than $200.
The Franklin Example
As commissioners tinker with the rules, we think of the lesson of Atlanta. There, reeling from indictments and convictions of more than a dozen city contractors, senior city officials and even the mayor himself, the new mayor, Shirley Franklin, grasped the importance of public perception and credibility. She pushed through new ethics rules, and when the City Council amended it last year, she vetoed it.
What did the Atlanta City Council want? To allow its members to accept gifts worth less than $75. Mayor Franklin refused, and today, Atlanta officials are still forbidden from accepting any gift and gratuities. As she put it, there’s no gifts necessary for just doing their jobs.
That’s why the Democratic commissioners’ action here is just so deflating. At a time when public confidence in government is hard-pressed to sink any lower, the Democratic majority seems willing to sell themselves awfully cheap – for a few tickets to football games and special events around town.
In their vote, they display an ignorance of the most critical test of effective political leadership – the ability to recognize the symbolic impact of a position or a vote. In this atmosphere of public distrust and sinking confidence in the belief that decisions are really being made on their merits, the county commissioners could have made a proud stand for good government.
No Free Lunch
Instead, they sold out the public confidence for a few tickets to University of Memphis sports events. And if you think that the university is just acting on its noble sense of largesse, it’s worth remembering that the flow of tickets to commissioners and county executives started at the time that the flow of money from county government to the university began.
At a time when the university needs all the money it can muster and that the athletic department budget needs transfusions to pay the tab for the perennially lackluster football team, it would be understandable that University President Shirley Raines would simply tell commissioners that she loves them, but the university is coping with tough financial considerations and all free tickets have been eliminated.
Anyone who values the importance of the university should welcome the chance to support it on his own dime. Anyone who doesn’t shouldn’t care about the tickets anyway.
Here’s the thing: Many of these tickets – if not most of them – aren’t used by the commissioners anyway. They are used as political favors for loyal supporters, constituents or just needy people in the district. In other words, they are indeed used for political purposes, and they are traded between commissioners as part of the complex set of rituals for such things.
It reminds us of the county commissioner who once threatened the annual funding for The Pyramid until he received tickets to every event in it. His reasoning: “I own the building, and I should be able to get in anytime I want.” Suggestions that citizens of Memphis and Shelby County actually owned the building were summarily dismissed.
In fairness to the commissioner, his irritation was heightened by the fact that the University of Memphis gave former Tennessee Senator John Ford control over a private box at its games and all the tickets in it. Of course, the city and county mayors also had their own boxes and their own tickets, so that too created friction.
Before it was over, the problem required determined negotiation, and commissioners won the right to use tickets in the county mayor’s box, and calamity was averted.
In other words, tickets seem to matter. It’s a demonstration of prestige and power. The fact that both belong more rightfully to the citizens paying for the buildings or funding the grants to local organizations gets lost in the allure of the office.
However, the impact of this poor decision may not be limited to the legislative body. It may also turn back the clock in the county departments. For example, there was a time when developers sent hams to building inspectors in the Memphis and Shelby County Construction Code Enforcement. The intent was clearly to curry favor with the people handling their permits and inspecting their buildings.
A reading of the amendment to the ethics code suggests that this ham-handed practice can be renewed – as long as the developer sends the pork to every one in codes enforcement. It would erode the culture of professionalism in the department that has been a priority for the Wharton Administration in recent years.
If there’s any cold comfort to be taken from all this, it is the amendment introduced by Commissioner Mike Carpenter and passed by the county legislative body. It requires public disclosure of gifts quarterly, so hopefully, citizens for the first time will have an inventory of the presents being sent to their commissioners. Best of all, the list will eventually come to rest in the County Register’s Office, which has a track record for putting his records online for public inspection. In fact, it is for that reason that Tom Leatherwood’s office was chosen in the first place.
However, there’s a catch. It appears that the reporting applies only to a “prohibited source,” companies or people that have contracts or business with Shelby County Government or are seeking contracts or business. So, not all gifts are covered. And then, the disclosure is required by the gift giver rather than the commissioners. However, in light of the majority’s lack of interest in setting the ethical standards for local government, at least it’s a start. (It’d be good for the code of ethics to forbid the commissioners from asking for tickets.)
New Ethics Focus
Meanwhile, one glimmer of hope is worth mentioning. The first members of the county’s ethics committee are scheduled to be approved by the board of commissioners on November 5. Nominated by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton – and sponsored on the commissioners’ agenda by Commissioner Mike Ritz – prospective members of the board are retired judges Arthur Bennett, Joseph Dailey, Terry Lafferty, and William Jenkins; lawyers Mary Beard and Don Strother; ethics professors Beverly Pray and Peter Gathje; Latino Memphis executive director Pablo Davis; and citizen members Jackie Sharp, Karen Williams and Naomi Dyson.
But if the commissioners don’t understand the importance placed on these issues by their voters, there’s always another way to make your voice heard.
Shelby County commissioners are preparing to update the county charter to deal with the purgatory that several fulltime election officials themselves in, including sheriff. There positions were not specifically established, and in keeping with a Knox County judge’s ruling, some action must be taken to resolve this question.
While the commissioners, from all appearances, want to confine changes to the charter to this single issue, this could be the time for the serious top-down look at the county charter that’s needed. At any rate, it’s at least the opportunity for the public to lobby for another amendment – one that establishes strong ethics policies.
The commissioners will be having five public hearings on the charter changes regarding the elected officials in the next five months. That’s five chances for the public to also make its case about the importance of ethical standards.