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Newly released letters reveal early pandemic problems

Published: Mar. 17, 2022 at 10:32 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The man challenging Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris in the upcoming primary election says Harris showed a “lack of leadership” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ken Moody’s campaign released letters on Thursday, March 17, that they claim show Mayor Harris was more worried about his reputation than the health and well-being of his constituents.

The letters were written in July of 2020 by Shelby County Attorney Marlinee Iverson and Jennifer Sink, the Chief Legal Officer for the City of Memphis. They provide more details about the strained relationship between city and county governments in the early days of the pandemic.

Iverson’s letter to Sink said “the passage of City Ordinance 5751, 6.02 and acts pursuant to it are not authorized by law, create confusion and interfere with lawful operations in the Shelby County Health Department’s current pandemic response.”

Iverson went on to say: “Shelby County Government demands that city employees, agents and contractors cease and desist all actions.”

The Memphis City Council passed a mask ordinance on June 16, 2020. The Shelby County Health Department’s countywide mask mandate didn’t start until July 3. Sink replied “I am frankly, perplexed by your client’s response to the City Council’s mask mandate. The ordinance has undoubtedly resulted in a substantial increase in the number of people wearing masks.”

Sink went on to say: “Mayor Strickland and his administration have done everything in their power to support the health department. For the County to now threaten a lawsuit against the City because county officials perceive their authority is being undermined is disappointing, to say the least.”

She added that the City loaned SCHD 54 City employees to help with contact tracing and Memphis Police officers to assist in enforcing SCHD directives. Mayor Strickland also issued the first Stay at Home order in March 2020, “and aggressively enforced it, to the benefit of everyone in Shelby County,” Sink wrote.

Moody, a City employee who was on the COVID-19 Joint Task force during the first part of the pandemic, said “these actions show the current County Mayor is more concerned about his ego and the perception of who would get credit for helping our citizens fight a deadly pandemic rather than accept assistance. That’s not leadership.”

The response Mayor Harris’ team provided to Action News 5 said, “These attempts to politicize the pandemic are sad and won’t work to undermine our record of regularly posting the lowest number of COVID cases per capita in the state, and maintaining the most aggressive COVID response in the region.”

Seven months after that exchange between Iverson and Sink, Dr. Alisa Haushalter, the head of the Shelby County Health Department, resigned and the City of Memphis took control of the COVID-19 vaccination program after state leaders accused the county of mismanagement.

Ken Moody and Lee Harris face off in the democratic primary for Shelby County Mayor on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

View Moody’s full statement and the letters from Iverson and Sink below.

Moody’s Statement:

Letters from Marlinee Iverson and Jennifer Sink:

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