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VOL. 123 | NO. 62 | Friday, March 28, 2008

County Charter Haggling Yields Term Limits

By Bill Dries

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TIME FOR HEADACHE MEDS: The Shelby County Board of Commissioners completed preliminary work Wednesday on proposed county charter amendments. Commissioner Mike Ritz takes in one of the many proposals. -- Photo By Bill Dries

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners has completed preliminary work on a rewrite of the County Charter.

At a three-hour Wednesday session, commissioners took back an earlier proposal setting a three-term limit for those holding the five countywide offices that are the focus of the charter changes - sheriff, register, trustee, assessor and county clerk.

The commission voted instead to impose a two-term limit on those office holders to match the two-term limit voters approved in 1994 for positions on the commission and for county mayor.
A move to raise the limit for commissioners and the mayor to three terms in office failed.

Down to business

The charter changes that have won approval face one more vote in committee before going to the full commission for three readings starting April 14. The vote will be conducted with the entire board meeting as a committee of the whole.

All of the term limit options discussed Wednesday restarted a lingering debate among the commissioners about term limits and government by referendum.

"I support three terms," said Commissioner Joe Ford, a veteran of both the commission and the Memphis City Council. "It takes that amount of time to come on this body and get things done."

Commissioner J.W. Gibson said changing term limits for the commission and mayor might not go over well with voters in 2008. The two-term limits approved 14
years ago kicked in with the 2006 county elections in which two term-limited commissioners took the requirement to court and lost.

All five of the countywide offices being discussed are now established under terms of the Tennessee Constitution. But a recent Tennessee Supreme Court ruling in a Knox County case held the five positions didn't have to be elected because of the way the Knox County charter is written.

The Shelby County charter is written the same way. The offices are now elected, but the office holders have the power to contest any attempts to cut personnel budgets in court. That power is eliminated in the charter changes that are expected to go to Shelby County voters in an Aug. 7 referendum.

Power plays

Commissioners also voted down a proposal by commission chairman David Lillard to give budget line-item veto powers to the county mayor.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy ultimately abstained on the question after raising concerns about losing the ability to swap votes on budget priorities.

"You've got sort of deals that take place," he said. "If that happens, then you've got the line-item veto and the mayor can sort of undo that. It's a real shift in power from the legislative to the executive."

Commissioner Sidney Chism said the veto power was needed to do "what is right for our citizens rather than our personal desire to make sure we look good on this commission."

"We need some checks and balances," Chism said. "I think we ought to move toward trying to get a handle on
this budget. Every time we move away from it, we make excuses for having to raise taxes."

Commissioner Mike Ritz agreed and, like Chism, cited bleak economic and local government budget forecasts for the fiscal year that begins in July.

"I don't think we're giving (the mayor) anything. I think what we're doing is making sure Shelby County (government) has the best chance to run this place like a business," he said.

The line-item veto failed on a 5-6 vote with Mulroy passing.

Commissioners approved provisions for how county government would operate in the event of a disaster or other states of emergency, including a line of succession. And proposed recall procedures for county commissioners and the county mayor got the green light as well.

Tentative Shelby County Charter Changes:

  • Assessor, register, sheriff, trustee and county clerk would remain elected offices with the same duties.
  • Those holding the five offices would have a limit of two four-year terms, the same as county commissioners and the county mayor. An appointment to fill part of a term does not count toward the term limit.
  • The election of the assessor would move to the same election cycle as the other four and the County Commission and mayor starting in 2014. The assessor is on the ballot this year for a full four-year term. But in 2012, it would be for a one-time-only, two-year term.
  • The five offices no longer would be positions established in the Tennessee Constitution. They instead would be offices defined by the county charter. This would limit the autonomy the offices currently have.
  • Only the sheriff would retain the ability to appeal decisions by the county administration not to fund or fill jobs in their department’s budget requests.
  • And it no longer would be a court appeal but an arbitration process.


  • The board of commissioners, meeting as a committee of the whole, will have one more series of votes on the proposals after a review by the county attorney’s office. Then the charter changes will go to the full commission as either one ordinance or numerous ordinances for three readings starting April 14. The tentative plan is to put the items on the Aug. 7 ballot for a countywide vote.
  • A petition drive is under way by other citizens to put an item on the Aug. 7 ballot that would keep all five offices – sheriff, county clerk, register, assessor and trustee – as elected positions whose duties remain set by the Tennessee Constitution. Monday is the deadline to submit the 91,772 signatures required to put the item on the ballot.

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