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VOL. 123 | NO. 31 | Thursday, February 14, 2008

Despite Recent Drama, Charter Commission Faces Full Plate

By Bill Dries

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THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT: Memphis Charter Commission member George Brown questions whether City Council members should serve as voting members of city boards and commissions. It's one of several tweaks of the city's ethics ordinance the charter commission is discussing. -- Photo By Bill Dries

An emotional discussion on term limits received a lot of attention at this month's meeting of the Memphis Charter Commission.

But the group reviewing the city charter for possible changes to be submitted to voters doesn't lack for other items. And time is getting short for decisions and answers to questions that in many cases rely on legal opinions and interpretations.

The commission is awaiting a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General's office on the idea of putting two sets of proposed charter changes to city voters - one on the Aug. 7 ballot and the other on the Nov. 4 ballot. Commission attorney Ricky E. Wilkins said this month that the Attorney General's office is expediting the legal opinion but hasn't completed it yet.


Tweaks in order

The first set of changes would be fixing or replacing outdated language and other technical changes that would not alter the structure or operation of city government. The second set of changes would - the items the seven-member commission has heard a lot about from citizens at forums and also via www.memphischartercommission.org.

The double vote was recommended by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which is advising the commission.

Two votes would allow the charter to be updated in its language even if voters were to reject every proposal for changing city government such as term limits, staggered terms and additions to the city's ethics code.

Wilkins said again this month that he believes the ethics ordinance approved by the City Council just last year should be "tweaked." His specific concern is whether the city's ethics panel that would hear complaints and issue advisory opinions on ethics is independent enough of the officials it would police.

The ordinance sets out a selection process in which the city mayor receives a list of possible nominees from each of the council's seven district members. He picks from the list each council member submits and the selection then goes to the full council for confirmation.

"Is that an avenue that you feel comfortable with adopting?" Wilkins asked at the Feb. 7 meeting. "Or would you propose that it would be some other method with the idea being that you want people who are going to be independent of the political process who would simply call a spade a spade, if you will, in evaluating complaints against city officials?"

The group is to hear more from Wilkins on some possibilities at its next meeting Feb. 21.

Involving the bar?

Among the possibilities is seeking out retired judges or soliciting recommendations from groups such as the Memphis Bar Association, Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association and the League of Women Voters.

Shelby County government's ethics ordinance, passed last year and like the city's ordinance mandated by the Tennessee Legislature to be in place by the end of 2007, specifies that a certain number of members of its ethics panel must be retired jurists or attorneys.

Charter Commissioner George Brown, a retired Circuit Court judge, shared Wilkins' concern about who does the nominating but not who ultimately votes on the nominees.

"The flaw in that, as a citizen, is that the council people are picking the individuals," he said. "It is certainly appropriate that the council, at the end of the day, have to approve the names."

Charter Commissioner Sharon Webb put the potential problem in decidedly nonlegal terms, although she said picking a city ethics board should be like "picking a jury."

"A lot of people know each other in circles. And if you want something done fair, then it needs to be open to people who don't run in the circle," Webb said.

Brown also questioned whether City Council members should be voting members of other appointed boards and commissions.

Lowery, who is a City Council member, didn't see an ethical concern. He described the role of council members on bodies such as the Memphis in May International Festival board and the Center City Commission board as "liaisons" to keep the rest of the council informed.

"I don't think there's anything unethical about that," Lowery said.

But Charter Commission member Willie Brooks disagreed. He argued that if the council members are voting members of those boards, they aren't gathering information. They are helping to make decisions.

Some council members serve on boards of which they are voting members while others serve as nonvoting members of other panels.


Cloud hovering

Brown repeatedly has reminded the Charter Commission that its work is being done against the backdrop of public corruption investigations that have shaken the credibility of local politicians as a whole.

"What boards did Councilman (Rickey) Peete serve on in the last two years?" he asked, referring to the former City Council member now serving a four year and three month federal prison term for taking a bribe from a developer - his second federal prison sentence in 18 years for the same crime. Peete was a voting member of the Center City Commission board before his resignation in June. He also had served as chairman of the CCC.

"I'm thinking there are certain boards wherein the councilor's membership on them is more problematic than other boards," Brown said.

The Charter Commission unanimously voted to put such a restriction on its agenda for the Feb. 21 meeting along with other specific charter change proposals in an attempt to "streamline" the process of picking what goes on the ballot.

Brown has been particularly anxious about getting to a discussion of those issues with a group that has heard a lot from the public and hasn't always had a lot to say in terms of making decisions.

"Right now, I feel like personally that I'm operating in a fog. It's like meeting to meeting to meeting without knowing where the end is," Brown said. 'We don't just have to have all of these meetings just to have meetings."

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