Tuesday, August 02, 2005

County Funding for State Prosecutor Raises Questions

Frustrations about the Shelby County budget are leading some county commissioners to do something they haven’t done in years – question the amount of county money being spent for a state office – the district attorney general.

Some county department heads have complained for years about the increases in the budget for the attorney general’s office at a time when their budgets were being cut. But recent realization that the amount of money appropriated to the District Attorney General’s office from Shelby County now exceeds the amount from the State of Tennessee -- $5.6 million to $5.5 million – has given new life to the complaints.

Ironically, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners took steps 25 years ago to make sure that no county funds were being spent in the prosecutor’s office by now. It passed a resolution sponsored by Budget Chairman Jesse Turner – civil rights activist, banker and gentleman – that would eventually eliminate the funding that county government provides. But with the advent of partisan elections came partisan issues like being tough on crime, and the resolution was amended, producing increases in the attorney general’s budget that outstripped education, the jail and almost anything else county government funds.

Although the prosecutor’s office is a state agency, past suggestions about scaling back funding by county government have produced whispers heavy on “soft on crime” language, and although the budget is unlikely to change, there are new complaints by some commissioners about the amount of money being spent on public relations, opinion polls, telephone polls, focus groups, a website and a blizzard of news releases claiming credit for almost everything short of the arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptman in the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Attorney General Bill Gibbons’ replies that the costs of most of these high profile programs are funded with federal grants, so they don’t cost county taxpayers anything (or at least not through county taxes). But no one disputes that no prosecutor’s office in history has given as much attention to publicity to bolster his political profile.

Complaints about headline hunting by other elected officials are nothing new, but some evidence of the growing sensitivity can be seen in the declining number of joint press conferences being held with other law enforcement agencies. Gripes, warranted or not, frequently circulate about purported leaks to the media, and the poor morale of the office is the worst-kept secret in the Justice Center.

Whether all of the complaints are justified or not, there is the consensus among political insiders that the attorney general is a lightning rod for criticism in recent years, and his perceived political weakness is spurring on Democrats searching for a strong candidate to oppose him.

Perhaps, to address these criticisms, the prosecutor’s office might want to take a page from the play book of the best Shelby County Attorney General who ever held the office, Phil M. Canale. He was respected by every law officer for never overreaching for credit, he was revered by his staff for his personal character and his nonpolitical management and he was respected by the news media for his candor and his self-deprecation.

Once asked by a green reporter about his conviction rate, General Canale smiled patiently and said: “Son, my job isn’t about the number of convictions. My job isn’t about getting my name in the paper. My job is the pursuit of justice, and when you worry about publicity or politics, you’ve just taken your eye off the ball.”

Now, those are words worth etching on the wall of the Justice Center.

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