Thanksgiving offers us an opportunity to appreciate our blessings, and in particular our loved ones and the people who make a difference in our lives. Our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, these are the souls who bring joy and richness to our days – and it’s our duty to love them while we can.
This season, I’m also reflecting on the impact of my six colleagues who we know have begun their last year on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. I’d like to say a word of thanks for their service.
While I support term limits for public office, I acknowledge the tradeoffs. When these leaders depart, we will lose a combined 44 ½ years of experience. All have left their mark on Shelby County government.
The media and political analysts can discuss their votes and the resolutions and initiatives they advanced. That’s the what – a topic I’ll leave to the professionals. Nor can I focus on the why, something perhaps only they know or the voter may divine. But what I can speak to with confidence is the how. These past years I’ve enjoyed a close view of the ways they operate.
Mark Billingsley is the longest tenured commissioner, having been appointed to fill a vacancy prior to winning his first full term. That longevity gives him a sense of how things ought to work. Combine that with an occasionally blunt approach and you see how Mark provides a reality check, killing groupthink and runaway idealism, and keeping us from making expensive mistakes. Mark’s gravitas anchored the board when the pandemic hit. Serving as Chairman through the first half of 2020, he challenged us to step up and face the crisis with resolve.
Our current Chairman, Willie F. Brooks, Jr., is a quiet leader and one of the least vocal members of the board. But we can always count on him to speak up and with authority when it comes to his area of expertise – human resources, a broad category covering a wide range of issues. That’s an invaluable asset for a board that oversees a government with more than 5,000 employees. When Chairman Brooks challenges members of the mayor’s administration, it is always with a cheerful demeanor and a constructive attitude.
Meanwhile, Tami Sawyer is one of our most outspoken commissioners. Nobody has to guess where she stands on the issues of the day. She speaks up both in meetings and online, providing constituents with her insight and perspective in real time. We now expect political leaders to engage at all hours of the day, and she is a prime example. But because Tami continues to chase her dreams, she has decided not to seek a second term. County government won’t be the same without her distinct blend of advocacy and urgency.
Commissioner Reginald Milton is an enigma of the best kind. He listens more than he speaks, but he always has something interesting to say. He carries himself with a great sense of calm, but his temper can flare when he’s frustrated. He has a reliably progressive voice, but he has developed an independent streak. Because he’s not the most extroverted of the bunch, you might have to sit beside him to know that his proud Memphis Grizzles cap sits atop an absolutely hilarious mind.
If you’re hearing boisterous laughter, more often than not it’s emanating from the desk of Eddie S. Jones, Jr.,the conversationalist. Commissioner Jones is a lighthearted leader, but he’s definitely no pushover. He has a better recall of facts and figures than anyone, and he will draw from them regularly to hold executive leaders accountable, regardless of which party holds the office. Eddie jealously defends the powers of the county’s legislative arm, and he has little patience for anything other than a straight answer.
Our first chairman this term was Van D. Turner, Jr., who somehow balances public service with his duties as head of the local NAACP, partner in a law firm, and father of three. A true Memphian, he keeps his cool in environments known for their heat, but you never want to be on the opposite side of any dispute. Van’s extemporaneous remarks can rip your position to shreds, and Heaven help you if he’s fully prepared. Best of all, he’s confident enough in his own arguments to hear out yours.
Next year voters in all 13 districts will decide whether any of us return, and who will join or replace us. We can be thankful for that, too – a system that empowers citizens to select their representatives anew every few years. Serving them is an honor, and all of us are grateful to have had that opportunity. So, thank you.