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Schools Standoff: Waiting On Opinions

A very important legal opinion could arrive from Nashville before the end of the year. And it is likely to be central to the entire standoff between Shelby County’s two public school systems.

Shelby County Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini is awaiting a legal opinion from the state election coordinator’s office on several points beyond the question of who would vote in a February referendum on an MCS charter surrender.

The other points include when does the 45-60 day period to hold the special election begin, is there a point at which the MCS board could take back its call for the special election and what is the point of no return for cranking up the machinery of holding an election.

Giannini said the opinion will probably also run through the Tennessee Attorney General’s office for review before it comes to Memphis. But he expects there might be an opinion by the end of this week.

We’ll be working through the holiday weekend on that and other points in what is already shaping up as the top political story of 2011. It’s never too soon for retrospectives in social media. Just in case, we are working on ways to purge this post or at least assign another reporter’s name to it if this all fizzles.

Mayors Wharton and Luttrell will be at Myron Lowery’s annual prayer breakfast on New Year’s day. We’ll have an ear out for any further word from that front.

Lowery’s prayer breakfast became a must cover holiday stop in the 1990s when then Mayor Willie Herenton used it as the point at which to lay out his agenda for the coming year. So far, not much evidence that Luttrell or Wharton share Herenton’s zeal for starting the new year with a heaping helping of controversy.

But our informal survey of several politicos shows that the schools standoff has remained a topic of conversation during what is normally a down time on the calendar for local politics.

Hats off to Cody and Luther

The Wall Street Journal’s rock and pop music critic thinks the Robert Plant concert he caught in Memphis in July was one of the five best concerts of 2010.

He attributed that to the opening act – Cody and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars.

Here’s his blurb about the show:

“Duo LuCo, Memphis, TN, July 15: I traveled south to see Robert Plant kick off his “Band of Joy” tour and was delighted by the opening act, Cody and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars. It was classic power duo muscle and finesse – a sound Dex Romweber, the White Stripes and the Black Keys rode to success – with a little sliver of Southern rock in the mix. Luther sang and played big Gibson guitars and Cody bashed the drum kit, filling the empty bottom with his kick drum while his cymbals splashed. I had no idea there was to be an opener for Mr. Plant and arrived at the venue early because I couldn’t get into the Rendezvous for barbecue. Never was I so glad to miss a meal.”

Memphis’ Ex-Public Records Coordinator Files Lawsuit Against City

Attorney Carol Chumney, a former Memphis City Councilwoman, has filed a 20-page federal lawsuit on behalf of the city’s former public records coordinator who was fired earlier this year after requesting payroll and other records relating to her supervisor and other employees in the city attorney’s office.

The lawsuit claims Bridgett Handy-Clay was wrongfully dismissed for “refusing to remain silent” about and reporting allegations of nepotism and abuse of city policies among city employees and officials. The suit names as defendants the city of Memphis, Mayor AC Wharton Jr., city attorney Herman Morris and senior legal administrator Cathy Porter.

Among other claims in the suit, Handy-Clay is said to have “reasonable cause to believe that (Morris) was also abusing city leave and pay policies.”

One line that jumps out of the suit – again, coming from the city’s former public records coordinator – reads: “There was an entrenched ‘culture’ at City Hall to disclose only the bare minimum needed to comply with any given public records request and conceal as much as possible from the public.”

Handy-Clay was appointed as the city’s public records coordinator in July 2007 by former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. Later that year, Herenton won re-election as mayor, beating Chumney and Morris.

In a press conference earlier this year, the city’s chief administrative officer George Little said Handy-Clay’s firing had nothing to do with those issues. Rather, he said it was an evaluation of her performance, among other things.

The Schools Front: Timing & Calendars

Lots going on right up to Christmas on the schools front:

First, there will be a special meeting of the Memphis City Schools board this evening (Thursday) at 6 p.m. We will be tweeting what happens and have a web story up shortly after.

The board will approve the minutes of Monday’s meeting where they voted to surrender the charter and send the matter to Memphis voters in a referendum early in the new year.

With the minutes approved and the written resolution already delivered to them by the school board, the Shelby County Election Commission will meet Jan. 5 to set the election date.

The Shelby County school board meets the next day, Jan. 6, to consider its first response as a board to the MCS charter surrender.

The 45-60 day window to hold an election puts the referendum squarely in February — between Feb. 7 and Feb. 25 by our calculations – with early voting beginning in mid-January. The early voting period could be underway as voters in state House district 98 go to the polls to decided the primary contests for the seat on the Jan. 20 election day.

For election officials that means the early voting period for the state house primaries could end close to, overlap or dovetail with the beginning of citywide early voting in the referendum.

For the record, early voting in the district 98 contest starts Tues. Jan. 4 and runs through Sat. Jan. 15. There will be three early voting sites including election commission headquarters downtown.

Another consideration is how all of this electoral activity matches up with the legislative calendar in Nashville. The Tennessee legislature opens its session Jan. 11. Bill Haslam takes office as governor on Jan. 15.

The legislature then takes either a two week or three week recess. There is some indication new House speaker Beth Harwell might favor a three week break. That puts the legislature at the week of Feb. 7 for the real beginning of the session and business.

The deadline to file bills hasn’t been set yet

Sharon Webb’s Exit

Sharon Webb ended an four year political odyssey this week. The Memphis city school board member ended her service with what is arguably the most important school board vote in decades, certainly the most important of her tenure.

For Webb, this began in obscurity when Webb, unknown in politics, defeated the Memphis city school board’s then longest serving incumbent Carl Johnson in 2006.

Webb’s chief political advantage was that she wasn’t Johnson. She didn’t believe in campaigning for office because she said her political victory or defeat was in God’s hands.

She came on the school board at a time when the dynamics of the elected body were changing as well. School board members remained solid political practitioners but they weren’t nearly as high profile as they had been from the era of the 1970s to the mid 1990s.Then school board races and campaigns commanded public attention in the odd year city election cycle with the Memphis Mayor’s race and races for the Memphis City Council.

School board members were now serving staggered terms and their elections had been moved to even numbered years, down the ballot from a lot of more high profile county, state and federal races.

Then Webb got more ambitious and ran for the Memphis Charter Commission that year and won a spot on the body that reviewed and put on the ballot changes to the city charter.

Anyone who is two for two in retail politics has obtained some degree of ambition, even if they didn’t start out with any beyond seeing what would happen.

She decided to go for three and joined the record setting field of 25 contenders in the 2009 special election for Memphis Mayor.

This time she campaigned despite her earlier declaration about the futility of campaigning. Her profile still wasn’t very high. But she did accept an invitation to appear on one of the television cattle calls for a very large unwieldy tier of candidates. And she managed to separate herself from the pack which is precisely where the rapid political decline began.

Webb never claimed to know all or even most of the fine print or ins and outs of school board policy and public policy. Her questions and comments always reflected that on the school board and the charter commission. She wanted an explanation that would help her in making a decision. Her demeanor was sunny and completely without malice. Her religious beliefs were deeply held. She never attempted to impose them.

During the televised forum, Webb was asked to come up with two examples of actions she would take as mayor. She didn’t and the clip got a lot of replays. Webb took a lot of criticism. Eight years into her political odyssey, a lot of voters had discovered Sharon Webb.

Up until this point you could have inserted any analogy to “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and it probably would have worked. Now, it was just an old movie playing at a time for politics without a learning curve.

Webb drew six challengers when it came time for re-election in 2010. Webb returned to the practice of not campaigning. She finished third.

In the charter surrender discussion, Webb was resolutely for the move and made her point with the same basic questions that marked her tenure.

“Why did everybody get upset?” she asked of the furor that followed the proposal of the surrender. “Help me understand because I’m the weakest link on the board,” Webb added possibly with just a hint of sarcasm.

She asked if the school board had won two court orders requiring the city to pay the school system $57 million. It had. And had the school system collected that to date? No. She invoked two Bible stories in making her case for a charter surrender – Solomon and Jonah – to make the point that faced with a possible loss of more money in tax revenue she believed the board had one option.

What happened after that would be a matter of faith – civic as well as religious.

Unlike other board members who questioned whether Shelby County school leaders would neglect the educational needs of city school students if the two systems merged, Webb never questioned that if a merger is the decision, Shelby County school system educators would do their best for whoever’s children were in their classrooms.

Dansette

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