Thursday, January 04, 2007

Turning Down The Volume And Turning Up The Quality Of Debate

Almost lost in Shelby County Board of Commissioner Henri Brooks’ latest rant was a sound idea by her fellow commissioner Mike Carpenter -- to bring in experts with national credentials to conduct an in-depth, internal analysis of operations at Juvenile Court.

In fact, it made such imminently good sense that it probably has no chance of passage in the politically and racially-charged atmosphere that now exists in county’s legislative body. The Democratic majority seems to have adopted a “win at any costs” attitude, tossing out the fundamental principal of legislative work – compromise is the grease that makes the government machinery work.

Instead, the majority seems determined – and to have the votes - to approve the creation of a second Juvenile Court judge seemingly earmarked for former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman. While we admire Ms. Coleman and have been critics of the existing system, we believe the judgeship is unneeded and a waste of money.

Information Rather Than Opinions

That said, we think the opinions of the independent, objective experts from the highly-respected National Center for State Courts – while not directly dealing with the second judgeship - would contribute to a better understanding of the juvenile justice system and give us better information for weighing the relative merits of the argument for another judgeship.

While it would be helpful if the outside analysis could consider whether a second judge makes sense, we think Commissioner Carpenter is on the right track, because his proposal would address long-standing concerns about the court’s operations, its processes, its patronage, and more to the point, its impact on the lives of thousands of Memphis children.

In our minds, the study by the National Center for State Courts would come much closer to dealing with the problems of Juvenile Court than creating a second judge would.

Hard Times

In truth, it probably will never come to this because of the hardening positions on the county board of commissioners, fueled by Commissioner Brooks’ tendency to play the race card as if it’s the only card in her rhetorical deck.

Clearly, she is a principled, passionate person (and we defend strongly her right to refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance), but her antics were much more amusing when they were taking place 210 miles away in the Tennessee Legislature, where she was one of many doing whatever it took to get some attention.

But now, she’s here, one of 13, and her tendency to engage in over-the-top diatribes creates ripples that do more than damage consensus on the board of commissioners. More to the point, it damages county government in underming the full debate that is needed on these issues and the honest opinions of staff members who now tiptoe around her as if Vesuvius could erupt at any moment.

Results Or Rhetoric

It makes for exciting political theater. It doesn’t particularly make for good policy.

In Nashville, her words frequently marginalized her and reduced her effectiveness for her constituents. As a county commissioner, her megaphone has become much bigger and her volume much louder, but hopefully, she’ll adjust to the change in venue and recognize that over the years, the board of commissioners – while never perfect – have a tradition that emphasizes building bridges as opposed to the no holds barred conduct that characterizes the state’s capitol.

We are reminded of the days with Commissioner Vasco Smith – civil rights giant with a gift for persuasion – would vocally and forcefully object to a resolution before him, and more likely than not, he would shape a different decision that respected a broader point of view. Back then, he and another civil rights pioneer, Jesse Turner, flexed great power on the board of commissioners by holding back on rhetoric that could enflame the debate and harden sides, and they found that actually the threat of that rhetoric often was more powerful than the rhetoric itself in creating better decisions.

Legislative Bridges

It’s a wisdom lost in the contentious political environment today, but the lessons from Commissioners Smith and Turner shouldn’t be lost, because in the end, they forged relationships that crossed political and partisan lines – particularly with Charles Perkins, commissioner for a suburban constituency – and created an atmosphere where change could be encouraged and progress fueled.

Sadly, those days seem long ago. Once, in the midst of a particularly heated debate, Commissioner Smith leaned forward dramatically in his seat. Every one expected him to deliver one of his patented, though never personal, arguments. Firmly, he spoke into the microphone: “Before we do anything else, we need to lower our voices.”

That’s especially good advice for the board of commissioners these days.


Anonymous said...

Was anyone expecting anything different from Brooks? She's always been mean as a snake.

Anonymous said...

ANY civic leader who would refuse to stand to honor her country does not deserve to be here, much less to be a civic leader. The race card IS her only card. And it's a tired, old, pitiful excuse of a card at that.