The task was to select a new chairperson and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners could not get it down after numerous rounds of voting failed to produce the needed seven-vote majority.
The stalemate on Monday (July 17) came despite Democrats holding nine seats on the 13-member commission.
The commissioners will make another attempt to choose a new chair during a special meeting scheduled for Aug. 7. The chair pro tempore will also be voted on. The start date for the one-year positions is Sept. 1.
Repeatedly, Commissioner Miska Clay-Bibbs fell one vote short of the seven needed to become the next commission chair. She squared off against Republican Amber Mills, who netted four votes through nine rounds of balloting.
However, it was the members that abstained that doomed the votes to failure and highlighted a fissure running through the commission’s Democratic and Black caucuses.
All three members who held back – Edmund Ford Jr., Britney Thornton, and Erica Sugarmon – were critics of a meeting that yielded a $25 wheel-tax-increase compromise that eventually passed on June 28.
The voting pattern was temporarily broken on the sixth ballot, when Thornton was nominated for the chair. She netted the votes of fellow Black Caucus wheel tax foes Ford and Sugarmon, along with herself.
Proposed by Mayor Lee Harris in early June, the wheel tax increase is earmarked to cover the first five years of construction costs – $350 million – of a $1.6 billion rebuild of the Regional One Health hospital campus.
New high schools also will be built in Cordova and Frayser. The tax required nine votes to pass.
Yet, its passage wasn’t always guaranteed. With votes going nowhere, Harris called a bi-partisan meeting on June 11 to save the centerpiece of his second term.
The meeting was attended by Republican commissioners Mick Wright and David Bradford, along with Democratic counterparts Chair Mickell Lowery and Clay-Bibbs.
While a compromise reduced the tax increase from $50 to $25, several Democrats on the commission said “misinformation” was spread during the meeting.
Thornton criticized the gathering for making “decisions” for the larger Democratic majority.
The commission’s other Democrats – Shante Avant, Charlie Caswell, Henri Brooks, Mark Whaley, Chair Mickell Lowery – voted for Clay-Bibbs.
Prior to Monday’s votes, Clay-Bibbs, the current chair pro tempore, highlighted her ability to work within the Democratic membership’s majority to accomplish larger goals, while casting Mills as an opponent of their goals.
“The reality of it is, we have to work together versus further dividing us …We cannot move forward if we continue to think about dividing us first, in order to bridge the gap. We’ve got to bridge the gap. Not only for us as a body, more importantly, as a county,” said Clay-Bibbs.
Mills, for her part, also had her work cut out for her. As a member of the minority, she is seeking a return to a rotating system with Democrats and Republicans alternating the chair position.
“I firmly believe that embracing a rotating system between parties will enhance our governance and foster an environment of collaboration, inclusivity, and innovation,” Mills said.
“We used to have a gentleman’s agreement that rotated it, so we were a team. So that we were representing all of Shelby County and working together. It wasn’t Democrat versus Republican, urban versus suburban versus rural Shelby County. We were all working together.”
She also said a return to the past would help the commission also work with others, namely Republicans in the GOP-dominated Tennessee General Assembly, to achieve goals for the county.
“This will allow us to engage more effectively with the state. Because, however blue we say Shelby County is, the state is that much red.
“Us working together and going back to the rotating will advance the interests of Shelby County’s residents. We have a large ask, multiple large asks of the state. We’ve got to work together to get those resources,” said Mills.
Democrats have criticized the alter-chairmanships proposal as a squandering of their majority.
Voting for Mills were GOP commissioners David Bradford, Brandon Morrison, Mick Wright, and Mills.