MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Just days ahead of an approval vote, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris is doubling down on his pick for health director.
Over the past few days, he’s been sharing video of people vouching for the character of Dr. Michelle Taylor, who’s now facing some headwinds now that a memo has surfaced revealing that an interview panel did not recommend either of the top two candidates for the job.
The mayor told commissioners on Wednesday that the panel had chosen Taylor as “the strongest candidate.”
According to a memo released to media, an interview panel never endorsed Taylor, and did not recommend her for the job.
The panel said Taylor was articulate, well-credentialed and a Memphis native, and noted that she was favored as a finalist. However, the group was concerned about her “lack of leadership acumen” and the fact that she had not managed an organization the size of Shelby County Health Department.
Commissioner Mark Billingsley released a statement criticizing Mayor Harris, saying he “did not reflect the recommendation from the interview panel.”
Billingsley says Harris misrepresented the opinion of his advisors.
“What he shared at the committee meeting was not what I felt to be accurate,” Billingsley said. “He shared this was the consensus candidate basically, and I felt a little misled after reading the report from his advisory board.”
Billingsley says his concern is not about any candidate but transparency in a process during a time the health department works to rebuild trust in our community.
“This is one of the most important jobs in Shelby County right now,” Billingsley said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We need to be sure we have a leader who can best lead 700 employees and a $102-million budget in the health department.”
Commissioner Van Turner, who was part of the selection process, said he spoke to Mayor Harris about that recommendation.
“He moved forward with not necessarily putting her with the physician role but in the top role with a strong administrative support,” Turner said.
Turner says Taylor’s five degrees, extensive experience and connection to Memphis are the reasons he supports her nomination.
“This lady is overqualified. This job pays barely $100,000. This lady is overqualified for this position, and we are questioning her qualifications,” he said.
He goes on to describe this a distracting political ploy.
“I don’t think that playing with the lives of individuals in this community should a political football tossed around when we have hospitals at capacity. People are dying,” Turner said.
Thursday, the county’s Black Caucus threw its weight behind Taylor, saying “the leak of an internal HR memo was highly unprofessional, and purposely released to call into question the leadership of Mayor Harris.”
The group says Taylor is caught in the middle of a political play, and it calls the racial undertones “reprehensible.”
“Dr. Taylor managed medical teams for the United States Office of the Air National Guard Surgeon General. Her experience as a manager of teams and her intelligence is without question,” stated a press release from the Black Caucus.
Commissioners are expected to vote on Taylor’s nomination Monday.
“This is a critical time for us,” Billingsley said. “We cannot have any other faults in Shelby County as it relates to the pandemic.”
The previous health department director Dr. Alisa Haushalter, resigned earlier this year after problems with the county’s distribution of COVID vaccines came to light.