A vote worth watching

Published 12:12 pm Saturday, July 11, 2009

Franklin City Councilmen Benny Burgess and Barry Cheatham rode into office in the summer of 2008 with a huge voter mandate but a big problem: They possessed but two votes on a seven-member board.

To fulfill their campaign pledge of a more transparent, more taxpayer-friendly and more fiscally responsible city government, they needed two more votes. They got three in Raystine Johnson, Mary Hilliard and Rosa Lawrence. The unlikely alliance of two fiscally conservative newcomers and the council’s long-ostracized black minority overwhelmed old-guard holdovers Jim Councill and Mark Fetherolf and put city government on a new course.

The results have been significant. For two fiscal years running, the retooled City Council has kept property taxes in check and restrained the rapid spending growth of the past decade. City Council meetings have become more citizen-friendly. Staff members have been held more accountable. And the city has taken some baby steps toward improving its poor image in the business community.

For all of that progress, significant work remains. If Burgess and Cheatham are to be successful in carrying out their mandate of a smaller, more efficient city government, they will continue to need allies over the next few years.

Will the alliance that has served the citizenry so effectively for the past year remain intact? Or will it — as fragile political coalitions tend to do — fracture and leave Burgess and Cheatham politically weakened in their crusade for reform?

We may find out Monday night, when the City Council is expected to cast one of its most watched and anticipated votes in recent memory — or at least since March, when a racially divided council reappointed David Benton to the city school board’s at-large seat by a 4-3 vote.

Benton is back up for appointment, and the stakes are much higher than a few months ago. The March appointment was for three months. This one is for three years.

Politics, often to the chagrin of ordinary citizens who’d prefer more principled decision-making, is a game of give-and-take, of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” I’m not talking about something as overt as a quid pro quo. That would be illegal, and this City Council — honorable people all — is way above it.

The fact, however, is that getting things done in the political arena and advancing one’s agenda requires compromise. Legislator A supports Legislator B on one matter in hopes that Legislator B might reciprocate one day on an issue important to Legislator A.

If Johnson, Hilliard and Lawrence don’t expect reciprocation for their unflinching support of the two council newcomers over the past year, they might at least expect that Burgess and Cheatham won’t kick them in the shin.

That would be the metaphorical equivalent of another 4-3 vote for Benton, who — fair or not, and for reasons largely beyond his control — has become a divisive figure. It long predates the silly and relatively unimportant dustup over his use of “chicken dinners” and “ghetto” clothing in a school board interview last spring. The hard feelings go back a year earlier, when the council’s old guard broke with a tradition of interviewing school board nominees at one meeting and making the appointment at the next meeting. Instead, the council majority shoved a Benton appointment down the throats of the council minority without warning immediately after finishing the interviews – a move that would later prove illegal because the council had not advertised its intention to make the appointment.

There’s also a strong belief among some on the council that 10 years is long enough for one person to serve on the school board – that there are many other qualified people in a city of 8,000 and that it’s time for a change after years of declining academic quality in the city’s public schools.

Yet, Benton still enjoys strong support in many segments of the community. He has been a tireless supporter of public education, sends his own children to Franklin Public Schools and has been a sincere, dedicated public servant during his time on the school board.

A poll of Burgess’ and Cheatham’s constituents likely would reveal narrow support for Benton’s reappointment. But is it the right thing for the city? And will their ability to lead and effect needed change be compromised?

Those are the tough questions they face Monday night — and the reason most of us aren’t cut out for life in the political arena.