Shelby County Commissioners voted down a resolution Monday, July 30, to stop a subpoena by their attorneys in the municipal schools district federal court case.
The resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Terry Roland would have instructed the attorneys arguing the municipal school districts movement is based on an unconstitutional state law to withdraw their subpoena seeking the identities of readers who commented on stories on The Commercial Appeal website. The newspaper is opposing the request.
While the attorneys represent the commission as a whole, the commission members are sharply divided on the overall legal quest with a majority favoring the pending court action.
Commissioners on both sides of the issue have said they were surprised by word of the subpoena that was served on the newspaper last week.
“What we have, I think, is a law firm out of control,” Roland said. “Folks, this is dangerous. I think this is a witch hunt.”
Commissioner Steve Mulroy said the information would be kept private by the attorneys in the case under a court order and that it is an attempt to see whether the commenters on the newspapers web site followed up with letters to state legislators. And that could go to one of the commission’s court claims – that the intent of lawmakers was, in part, to racially segregate school populations with separate school districts.
Mulroy denied there is a possible chilling effect or other link to freedom of speech issues.
“There’s no real serious claim,” he said. “We’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Roland’s motion failed on a 5-8 vote. Roland then withdrew a second add-on resolution seeking to fire the Baker Donelson law firm as the commission’s counsel in the court case.
In other action, commissioner elected Republican Mike Ritz the new chairman of the body for a one-year term that begins Sept. 1. Democrat Melvin Burgess was chosen as chairman pro tempore for the same one-year term.
Ritz’s selection came on the seventh round of voting. The seven rounds Monday followed 21 rounds of voting two weeks ago in which no candidate got the seven votes necessary to claim the chairmanship.
It took 12 rounds for Burgess to get the majority necessary to become chairman pro tempore.
Ritz will succeed Sidney Chism as chairman. Burgess will succeed Wyatt Bunker as chairman pro tempore.
The commission meanwhile, delayed the selection of a new chief administrator to replace Steve Summerall, who recently retired. The chief administrator oversees the commission office and the day-to-day affairs of the office.
Commissioners are considering a change in the body’s rules which would allow the chief administrator instead of the commission to appoint the deputy administrator.
A final try by the commission to approve a redistricting plan on third and final reading fell three votes short of the nine-vote majority needed to approve it. The plan is the same one approved and ordered put in place last month by Chancellor Arnold Goldin. It changes the commission to a set of 13 single-member districts.
Some on the commission wanted what amounted to a ratification vote to prevent any future legal challenges of the county charter’s requirement of a nine-vote majority to pass an ordinance on third and final reading. The charter requirement conflicts with state law which requires only a seven-vote simple majority.
In his ruling on the point, Goldin specified that he was not ruling on anything but the redistricting plan.
The commission also approved on the second of three readings the new Unified Development Code after voting down an amendment proposed by Mulroy that would have tightened conditions on the administrative deviation process that is part of the new code.