A new Election Reform Advisory Board approved Monday, Sept. 24, by the Shelby County Commission is to report its recommendations by the end of March to the Shelby County Election Commission.
And the Election Commission is under no obligation to act or even accept the recommendations, although election commissioners Steve Stamson and Norma Lester are also on the committee of 12.
The board was proposed a year ago but no appointments were made by the commission until the aftermath of the Aug. 2 elections.
Problems that began during early voting are now under state investigation. Two lawsuits challenging the certified results in two races are pending in Shelby County Chancery Court. Last week the Election Commission acknowledged it had suspended and put on probation local elections administrator Richard Holden for those problems.
The reform board is chaired by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Basar and includes Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn.
The group also includes Sukhara Abdul Yahweh, a frequent speaker at commission sessions at the end of the meetings when citizens can comment on any topic not on the agenda.
Yahweh thanked the commission for approving his appointment and then talked about the need to go back to using paper ballots in place of touch-screen voting machines he argues are “a deficient technology.”
And he said the machines amounted to a combination of “using psychology and technology” to discourage voting.
None of the election problems under investigation in the August elections involve the voting machines themselves. They involve the delay in the Election Commission changing voter data to reflect redistricting lines and annexations.
In other action, commissioners approved a change in the lease for FedExForum to the new proposed Grizzlies ownership group headed by Robert J. Pera.
But the 9-4 vote came after commissioners criticized Pera’s representatives for not providing basic financial statements about Pera or his group.
The commission action replaces Hoops LP, the Memphis Grizzlies ownership group of Michael Heisley, with RJP Group LLC, Pera’s ownership group, on the forum lease.
Pera’s representative, David Carlock, told commissioners the price reported by multiple media outlets for the team is “accurate.” But he said he was “not at liberty” to disclose investment amounts. He also said published lists of local investors are accurate but that final agreements for their participation have not been signed. He specifically named J.R. “Pitt” Hyde and Staley Cates as the top two local investors in a group that represents about a third of the ownership.
“This train left the tracks 10 or 15 years ago,” said commissioner Sidney Chism as he pushed for a vote on the lease change, which changes no terms of the contract other than who leases the building from city and county governments. “Where is the gamble? Where is the roll of the dice?”
Commissioner Wyatt Bunker agreed saying the list of investors ranges from “the extremely wealthy to the ridiculously wealthy.”
“I’m not concerned,” Bunker added.
“It doesn’t matter how rich somebody is,” commissioner James Harvey countered. “If these guys were so rich, they wouldn’t be asking us to sign off on something.”
Commissioner Walter Bailey also pressed for specific details of the finances of the NBA franchise.
“We’ve got the power to say if you don’t agree, we won’t approve the swap,” he said. “I’d like to know.”
Carlock talked with commissioners one at a time during a meeting delay to remedy computer problems. But the discussions among commissioners who were apparently trying to sway a vote or two to different sides of the skirmish generated the most heat. It spilled over into the public debate.
“I’m not going to vote yes just because some attorney tells me,” commissioner Terry Roland said, before telling an unnamed commissioner, “And don’t ever call me ignorant again.”
The Memphis City Council approved the same lease change last week.