County Commission Still Weighing New Districts

By Bill Dries

Shelby County commissioners appeared on their way to setting a new group of district lines by Christmas that would create two more districts but keep the body at 13 members. That changed at the commission’s Monday, Dec. 5, meeting.

The Shelby County Commission meets again Friday, Dec. 9, in special session to vote on a redistricting plan. Commissioner Walter Bailey, left, wants to stick with a seven-district plan, but Commissioner Heidi Shafer, right, drew enough votes for her five-district plan to put in jeopardy the nine-vote majority needed to approve Bailey’s plan on final reading. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

That’s when Commissioner Heidi Shafer proposed more tweaking of the existing district lines that would maintain a 13-member, five-district commission, but her amendment failed.

The seven-district plan that was approved did so with only seven votes, and to pass on third and final reading it needs a nine-vote, or two-thirds, majority.

Commissioner Justin Ford could be a critical vote in the next round. He abstained on Shafer’s amendment as well as on the main motion that was approved.

Shelby County attorney Kelly Rayne also reminded the commission that it must approve a plan by Dec. 15 or risk someone filing a lawsuit in Shelby County Chancery Court over the missed legal deadline.

That’s why the commission will meet in special session Friday, Dec. 9, at 8 a.m.

The plan that made it through the second of three readings Monday creates six districts represented by two commissioners each, plus a fifth single-member district.

But Shafer had problems with the way the districts were drawn to either be all city or all county outside the city districts.

She warned of “getting Balkanized into a position of just city or just county.”

“All those times when it’s city versus county and county versus city are only going to be institutionalized,” she said. “And it’s going to be almost a brick wall being built between the city and the county.”

The tightening of the district lines to be one or the other was the suggestion of Commissioner Mike Ritz, who said if there were to be a mixed district it should be one that is equally split between the city and the county.

“We’re going to have districts that overlap city and county boundaries,” he said. “I would want to see the districts evenly created with respect to population.”

Commissioner Terry Roland has always favored the seven-district plan because it would give the county-only area an additional vote on the commission.

“I don’t think these people moved out of Memphis to be still represented by somebody inside of Memphis,” Roland said.

Some commissioners were concerned about the possibility of a legal challenge if they can’t give final approval to any plan by Christmas. Others said they doubted such a legal challenge would remain if the commission went a week or two past the deadline.

“It’s not like the courts are going to automatically have jurisdiction,” said Commissioner Steve Mulroy, an attorney and University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law professor. “It’s not as dire as you think.”

Mulroy is the most vocal advocate of a third option – 13 single-member districts.

But Commissioner Walter Bailey, also an attorney, said he was concerned that if a lawsuit were filed, a judge might not dismiss it if the commission approves a plan just past the deadline. That would make the courts – not the commission – the decision-makers on new district lines.

If the seven-district proposal that passed on second reading Monday is amended at Friday’s meeting to the five-district proposal Shafer advocates, the vote would not be the final vote. An ordinance amended on third and final reading must undergo another vote before it becomes final.

Some commissioners are talking of another special meeting possibly during committee sessions Wednesday, Dec. 14.

The commission agreed to an amendment by Ritz that if any commissioner resigns before the new elections in 2014, the commission will appoint someone to the vacancy who lives within the existing set of district lines.