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December 24, 2008

Last call for Metro Council

Democrats choose candidate for president, ruffle Republican feathers at final council meeting of 2008

Averting a political showdown (and quite possibly a humiliating defeat), Metro Council President Jim King halted his bid to retain the presidency last week, opening the door for fellow Democrat David Tandy to take over the leadership position early next year — granted the Democratic majority votes pro forma for him.

“Just because I can’t get the caucus vote doesn’t mean I should stop anyone else from getting it,” King, D-10, said at the start of the Democratic caucus meeting last Thursday. “I have no interest in dividing our caucus. It’s incumbent upon me to step aside.”

Although it is customary for Metro Council presidents to yield the one-year leadership post by not running two years in a row, King had voiced an interest in seeking a second term, saying several colleagues encouraged him to do so. Had King gone forward with his bid and managed to retain the position, he would have become the first council member to serve consecutive terms as president.

In recent weeks, however, it became increasingly clear most Democrats were leaning toward endorsing Tandy, D-4, whose district includes much of downtown.

“I do not take it personal or as a referendum on my performance,” King said, adding this little comic gem suggesting he will again run for council president, or perhaps something bigger: “As Arnold said, ‘I’ll be back.’”

Metro Council Democrats voted by secret ballot Thursday to endorse Tandy, who will face Republican James Peden, R-23, in a floor vote on Jan. 8. With a robust 16-10 Democratic majority next year, Tandy is the clear favorite to win the presidency, assuming four or more Democrats don’t inexplicably defect when it comes time to vote. (It is worth noting that on two occasions in the council’s brief history, disunity among Democrats has led a Republican to unexpectedly seize the presidency.)

And while King graciously took himself out of the running, the councilman’s camp is quick to point out he did not forgo a fight because he was afraid of losing (even though King more or less admitted in the caucus meeting he could not garner the necessary support).

“Councilman King had enough votes to be able to stop anyone else from getting the presidency or getting the endorsement in the caucus,” says Rob Holtzmann, King’s legislative aide. “But instead of being divisive and allowing us to go to the floor without a candidate, he thought it in the best interest of the Democratic caucus to go ahead and support David and get some new blood in there. He’s happy David got the endorsement.”

Although Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12, would not divulge details about the official tally, sources say the Democratic caucus vote ended up as follows: 12 nods for Tandy, one for Madonna Flood, D-24, and one abstention, Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, who has previously voiced opposition to the endorsement process; there also was one vote scribbled so poorly it was illegible.

Of his overwhelming victory, Tandy says he is honored and humbled. If he nabs the presidency next month as expected, the councilman plans to promote civil discourse on the council through bipartisanship, something former president Blackwell tried — and failed — to do two years ago.

“My ultimate belief in public service is that through continuous discussion and listening to people on all sides of an issue, we can get to a place where everyone’s needs are being met,” Tandy says, reiterating his plan to reach out to both sides of the aisle. “Out of that comes the best solutions, because no particular party holds all the answers.”

In one of their last orders of business in 2008, Democrats stymied a proposed ethics ordinance, sparking outrage among Republicans. After reviewing the bill during their caucus meeting last week, some Democrats still were baffled, with a few claiming they were unaware the ordinance was even on the agenda that night.

As a result of their confusion, Democrats successfully pushed to table the ordinance until early next year, a move that exasperated Republicans who expected the measure to sail through council.

“We’ve got this thing covered. It’s been around for the past eight months and has been a cooperative effort,” says Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7, who sponsored the ethics ordinance. Calling the Democrats’ actions “a sad statement,” he says, “People need to start doing their job and reading these ordinances.”

Further chastising his Democratic colleagues, Fleming says he was blindsided when Tandy, who co-sponsored the ordinance, informed him the issue would be postponed until the Jan. 8 council meeting.

“We didn’t expect it to have any problems and people just kind of created some,” says Steve Haag, Republican caucus director. “This has been in the works for months and out of nowhere we hear concerns from people who had no questions up until that point.”

But Tandy justified the decision to hold off on a vote, saying, “The task we’re undertaking is writing an ethics ordinance for two distinct branches of government, and sometimes that’s difficult to do.”

Fleming introduced the 35-page proposal earlier this year to broaden the scope of who is covered under Metro ethics rules to include all policy makers, legislative aides and political advisers. The ordinance also would require a super-majority vote of 18 council members to approve all mayoral appointments to the ethics commission, and establish a 60-day timeline to investigate complaints.

Interestingly, Councilman Bob Henderson, D-14, raised concerns last week about whether legislative aides should be subject to ethics violations, suggesting the wording in the ordinance could leave council members open to false accusations of political wrongdoing.

In 2004, Henderson was named in a complaint to the ethics commission during the course of a whistleblower case involving the councilman, his legislative aide, Larry Mattingly, and the Metropolitan Sewer District. After letting the complaint languish for four years, the ethics commission ultimately dismissed the matter.