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VOL. 123 | NO. 13 | Friday, January 18, 2008

Drive is on to Keep Sheriff, Others Elected Positions

By Bill Dries

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Let the search for signatures begin.

The Shelby County Election Commission has approved the wording of a new petition drive to keep the job of sheriff and four other countywide positions elected posts.

Germantown activist John Lunt got the approval this week from the commission to begin gathering signatures on a petition to put the proposition on the August countywide ballot.

A 2007 decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court leaves open the possibility that the offices of sheriff, assessor, register, county clerk and trustee could be converted to appointed positions or abolished in Shelby County. Because of the ruling, a county task force has been discussing the idea of merging the Sheriff's office and the Memphis Police Department.

The ruling is unique to the home rule county charters adopted by Shelby County as well as Knox County. The court ruled in a case involving the Knox County charter. All five offices are "constitutional offices" - established in the Tennessee Constitution.

Lunt's referendum would seek "to retain the five constitutional officers that we've always had and to make certain that the people of Shelby County can continue to vote for them rather than have them appointed," he said.

But before it is allowed on the ballot, Lunt and Joshua Sox, also involved in the drive, must gather the signatures of at least 91,772 Shelby County registered voters by the end of March, said Election Commission administrator James Johnson.

"I can assure you of one thing, I would not get involved in it if I knew we wouldn't do it. We're going to do it by substantially more than that," Lunt said.

It is the third such petition drive by Lunt. His 2005 petition drive led to the creation of the Memphis Charter Commission. Lunt was also among those involved in an unsuccessful recall petition drive that same year aimed at Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. That campaign fell short of the necessary signatures.

In other action this week, the Election Commission is backing some proposed changes in the Memphis charter that could include doing away with runoffs for district City Council and Memphis school board seats if no candidate gets a majority of the votes.

Election Commission chairman Myra Stiles took the suggestion to the Memphis Charter Commission this week.

All city elections under the 1967 Memphis charter that established the current mayor-council form of government required a runoff if no candidate got a majority of the votes. Runoffs in city-wide elections were abolished in a watershed 1991 federal court ruling by the late U.S. District Judge Jerome Turner.

Turner ruled the runoff provision's intent was to prevent black candidates from gaining political power and diluted black voting strength. But Turner, in keeping the court's intervention minimal, didn't abolish district race runoffs because there was no request by plaintiffs in the lawsuit to go that far.

Election Commissioner Shep Wilbun, a district council member at the time of the ruling, said Wednesday there should either be a runoff provision in every contest or none in any of the races. He favors doing away with the runoff entirely but made the recommendation an either/or premise.

"I just think we can have runoffs in all races or we can have runoffs in no races. That, to me, is the position that I sort of favor," Wilbun said. "It seems really cost prohibitive to have runoffs in district races because that's where you are going to have the smallest turnout."

Election Commissioner O.C. Pleasant argued it shouldn't be an either/or situation.

"I'm opposed to runoffs, period. Consider me in the minority," he said.

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