The Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ squabbles with Mayor Mark Luttrell are continuing and while recent proposals may look like political theater, they are much more.

The changes in county policies and procedures now being pursued by the commissioners fly in the face of the founding principles embraced in the restructure of Shelby County Government that took effect in 1976.

That was when the public voted overwhelmingly to restructure county government in order to create the county mayor’s position, but more to the point, the restructure act created a strong mayor form of government.  It’s that strong mayor concept that is now under attack as a result of the board of commissioners’ actions to rein in Mayor Luttrell’s contracting authority and to hire its own attorney who would be independent from the mayor-appointed county attorney.

When the public voted at referendum to reorganize county government, it was to eliminate the blurring of lines between the two branches.  The purpose was to correct the governance problem caused by the lack of a clear line between the county legislative body – then called the Quarterly Court – and the county’s three-headed administrative branch – then called commissioners.  As a result, the members of the Quarterly Court (called squires) were regularly involving themselves in all kinds of functions that more typically were the responsibilities of the executive branch.

Ending The Confusion

The aim of the restructured county government was to resolve this confusion once and for all, and to this end, the county mayor’s position was formed.  The irony is that the organizational chart for Shelby County Government was intentionally made to be almost a mirror image of the City of Memphis, which many people hoped would lead to the logical conclusion that both governments should be consolidated.

That was not to be, and instead, Shelby County was left with the first mayor of its kind in Tennessee.  (Although 99% of all cities and counties in the U.S. are not consolidated, the creation of a mayor’s office gave birth to the myth that consolidation was a fact of life for most cities and counties our size.)

In most counties at that time, the head of the executive branch was called county executives or judges.   However, so many county executives in Tennessee were envious of the Shelby County mayor’s title that the title of the heads of county governments across the state was changed to be mayor, so today, there are 95 of them.

The Bright Line

The new, improved Shelby County Government began with such promise on a clear, unseasonably warm New Year’s Day in 1976 when Shelby County’s first mayor, Roy Nixon, took the oath of office and sent the clear message that he was intent on creating a “strong mayor” form of government that would be on equal footing with the mayor of Memphis.

In the 18 years that followed that swearing in, Mr. Nixon and his successor, Bill Morris, delivered on the vision for a better county government and did it so prominently that it prompted a rivalry between Memphis and Shelby County Governments and the men who were elected to their mayors’ offices.

Those first mayors of Shelby County – Mr. Nixon and Bill Morris – were intent on ensuring that they delivered a strong mayor for county government.  They set out to create “a bright line” between the administrative and legislative branches, pushing back on encroachments of their authority, refusing to allow legislators to blur the lines like they had in the past, staking out their powers with assertiveness and determination, and establishing firm control of county departments under their jurisdiction.

Crossing The Line

In the six years before Mark Luttrell took office, that line had become blurred again as county legislators had been allowed to elbow their way into daily operations.  Before those six years, county mayors Nixon and Morris were assiduous in protecting their contractual authority: the mayor negotiating contracts and submitting them for approval to the board of commissioners; however, the commissioners only had the authority to either approve or disapprove the contract.  In the years leading up to the Luttrell Administration, the legislative body had more and more gotten crossed the line, making changes in the bodies of contracts themselves (and setting policies heretofore the province of the administration).

In addition to limiting the contracting ability of the mayor, county commissioners are now talking about hiring their own attorney rather than using the county attorney’s office like every other department of Shelby County Government.  One commissioner complained that her proposals were being ruled out of bounds legally by the county attorney’s office and that she needed a lawyer who would pursue her ideas.

It was strange logic since it would seem that whatever the law is for the administration would be the same law for the legislative branch.  Appointment of an attorney who independently represents the board of commissioners conjures up images of dueling legal opinions from lawyers for the administration and lawyers for the board of commissioners – not to mention the extra cost to taxpayers if conflicts have to be mediated in court.

Apparently, the chief complaint against the county attorney is that he is appointed by the mayor, not withstanding the fact that the county attorney must also be approved by the board of commissioners.

Strange Days

In other words, these are strange days in Shelby County Government, where its legislative body was only a decade ago pointed to as a model for decorum and effectiveness.  It’s now deteriorating so much that Memphis City Council is held in higher esteem (and it’s traditionally had the lowest approval rating in our community).

These days, that august county body’s reputation is demeaned by constant personality conflicts and political tugs of war, punctuated by outbursts of over-the-top comments, walk-outs from a meeting, complaints that information is being withheld (although they have the power to convene any process to ferret out the facts), and stinging insults directed at Mayor Luttrell, head of the Republican Party in Shelby County, by members of his own party.

All in all, it creates a discouraging mixture of ego, angst, and antagonism that shows no signs of waning.  What’s lost in the tone of this debate is that from the public’s point of view, nobody really wins.  In an environment like the one created by the board of commissioners, in the end, everyone’s negatives go up.

At this point, the ball is on the board of commissioner’s court, and whether Shelby County Government lives up to its founding vision of a strong mayor now depends on whether the board of commissioners takes a respectful view of their own government’s history.


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