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VOL. 122 | NO. 233 | Friday, December 7, 2007

Charter Commission to Put Term Limits Before Voters

By Bill Dries

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NEW MOORINGS: Memphis Charter Commission members Sylvia Cox, Myron Lowery, Willie Brooks and Janis Fullilove ponder ideas for city charter changes at Wednesday's meeting of the group. -- Photo By Bill Dries

The Memphis Charter Commission will recommend term limits be included in charter changes to be submitted to city voters.

The commission made the decision Wednesday without deciding specifics other than the term limits would not apply to the city court clerk's office or the three city court judge positions. The specifics are to be fleshed out as the commission looks at term limit provisions in other cities.

Commission member George Brown, a retired Circuit Court judge who has also served on the Memphis school board, said judicial offices should not be included because they are intended to be full-time jobs.

"That individual has made a career change. It's not part-time as being on the (City) Council. I think you have to look at the court clerk's position and the judicial positions differently than the legislative positions." Brown said. "I would urge us not to encroach on those two. If you do, I'll guarantee you the quality of the judiciary is going to take a precipitous drop."

Janis Fullilove said she assumed a term limits proposal would be part of the recommendations because it was a dominant topic at public hearings and was a frequent topic during the campaigns for seats on the Charter Commission. Fullilove made the motion Wednesday to take a concrete step toward putting it to voters.

The group is also considering the idea of two charter change referenda.

One in August would be limited to so-called housekeeping measures designed to eliminate outdated wording in the charter. The second in November would be a vote on the proposals that would change city government as it currently exists.

Another Idea For Voting:

The Charter Commission also heard a proposal from Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Steve Mulroy for Instant Runoff Voting.
Mulroy, a former voting rights litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, pitched the idea of elections in which a voter not only picks his choice from the list of candidates but can pick several and give them rankings of preference - as many or as few included in the rankings as the voter desires.
If no candidate in the race gets a majority of the votes cast, the candidate with the lowest vote total would be eliminated. That candidate's ballots would be counted to tally the second place votes for the other candidates, and those votes would be added to the totals of those still in the race. The process would continue until one had a majority of votes.
The city's runoff provision was declared unconstitutional in city-wide and City Council super district races in a 1991 federal court decision. U.S. Dist. Judge Jerome Turner ruled that the runoff provision in the 1967 city charter was designed with the intent of preventing black candidates from winning races at a time when white citizens were a majority of the city's voters. The run-off provision remains in place for City Council and City School Board district races.

There is still some question as to whether the bifurcated votes would be legal. The commission will seek a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General's office on the idea suggested by Melissa Ashburn, a Knoxville legal consultant for the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS).

"Perhaps those housekeeping changes, which are necessary to make this document make sense - maybe they won't get defeated for political reasons," Ashburn said. "Say if there's a group that really doesn't want term limits and just goes out and campaigns against everything you want to accomplish - we have it in two separate elections. That might prevent that from happening."

Meanwhile, City Council member Carol Chumney made a pitch for changing the charter's provisions for filling a vacancy in the mayor's office.

Chumney finished second in October in the city mayor's race won by incumbent Willie Herenton. She admitted rumors Herenton might resign during his fifth term of office prompted her to come forward.

Chumney, who is not on the Charter Commission, is proposing eliminating any provision for the appointment of an interim mayor until the next general election. She advocated holding a special election within six months of a mayor leaving office. She would also eliminate charter provisions that allow the city's chief administrative officer to serve as interim mayor.

"I think there should be a special election within 60 days at a minimum whenever a mayor resigns," Chumney said. "I think it would be good public policy. It would avoid backroom deals."

Chumney specifically cited the 1982 resignation of Mayor Wyeth Chandler. CAO Wallace Madewell and Council chairman J.O. Patterson Jr. served in his absence. City leaders moved ahead with plans for the council to appoint his successor. But other citizens contested that in court, resulting in the 1982 special election won by Dick Hackett.

In other discussion, Ricky Wilkins, the body's attorney, suggested the group consider a charter change that would allow for more than the censure of city officials who are indicted or otherwise accused of crimes.

Wilkins made the suggestion to deal in part with what he termed "subjective standards" in the code of ethics recently approved by the City Council for most city officials - elected and appointed.

The code that took effect in July and was mandated by state law also includes what gifts city officials can and cannot take.

"You are prohibited from receiving that consideration in the performance of any of your official duties or receiving those gifts if it might be interpreted as an attempt to influence your official acts," Wilkins said. "The question of what might reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to influence official action is, if you will, a nice phrase. But it is subject to varying interpretations."

Brown referred to such a charter change as making "brighter lines" separating right from wrong for government leaders.

"We need to weigh the rights of the body politic vis-a-vis the rights of the individual serving in the position," he said. "I take the position that we have to figure out a way that our city can function."

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