VOL. 123 | NO. 95 | Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Charter Changes Stalled in Commission
By Bill Dries
FRUSTRATION MOUNTING: The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, including member J.W. Gibson II, conferred during a long and frustrating day Monday. Even technical amendments to two sets of county charter changes were voted down. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES
The movement of two sets of proposed Shelby County charter amendments ground to a halt Monday over the issue of term limits.
For the second time in as many weeks, members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners will meet in special session today to consider their next step. The commission is under a June 6 deadline to give final approval so the amendments can go to voters Aug. 7 in a countywide referendum.
The changes center on the positions of trustee, sheriff, register, assessor and clerk. The existence of those five offices was called into question by a 2006 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling. The amendments would remedy the charter problem.
But no charter amendments – even technical amendments to correct punctuation and eliminate duplication – were approved at Monday’s meeting. Five commissioners voted against most of the amendments.
The five – Sidney Chism, Joe Ford, Henri Brooks, Deidre Malone and James Harvey – favor a limit of three consecutive four-year terms for the five countywide offices at the heart of the charter amendments. They also want to change the current limit of two consecutive four-year terms on county commissioners and the county mayor to three consecutive four-year terms. The new term limits would not apply to anyone now on the commission or to Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who all would remain limited to two consecutive terms in office.
Chism, the most vocal proponent of a three-term limit repeatedly has revisited the proposal and watched with mounting frustration as it has fallen short of the nine votes needed to pass. It fell one vote short again Monday.
Chism also is frustrated that the seven-vote Democratic majority on the commission agreed at the outset to the nine-vote supermajority rule for such amendments. Chism is philosophically opposed to any term limits but has called the three-term limit a compromise on his part.
“Now we’re in a dilemma because a minority is really trying to control the majority up here. You don’t need to keep going to sleep on this issue. If someone wanted a compromise, they had one,” Chism said.
Commissioner Deidre Malone favors term limits but wants a three-term limit instead of two terms.
“For me it was more about trying to seriously get some compromise and to also make a point too,” she said. “You can’t move without us, one way or the other.”
Malone also accused some un-named commissioners of “not keeping their word” during earlier two-part votes on term limits amendments.
“If we want term limits, then why not three terms instead of two and give the people a choice? You’ve got some people who are not going to move, don’t want to move. We’ll see what happens (today),” Malone said. “You have some commissioners who will tell you they are going to vote on something and when it’s bifurcated, they won’t. They’ve shown it.”
‘Making a point’
Commissioner Mike Carpenter proposed a three-term limit Monday for the five countywide offices at the center of the charter changes while leaving the two-term limit in place for future county mayors and county commissioners. It went down in defeat like the other amendments.
“It was about making a point about which party’s in charge,” Carpenter, a Republican, said of the block voting. “If it were about getting three four-year terms, we had several ways of getting that done today and they were all rejected. I really think it’s more about making a point.”
But Chism and Malone each indicated that their tactics were also a message to fellow Democrats on the commission. Democratic Commissioner J.W. Gibson II consistently has opposed a three-term limit saying it goes against a two-term limit county voters approved in a 1994 referendum.
Democratic Commissioner Steve Mulroy has voted with the five-member block at times in the last month and not at others.
“Let’s just have a little down-home political conversation here,” Commission chairman David Lillard began after the voting block surfaced. “I’m seeing that we have five commissioners who are consistently voting no. … I want to say I’ve always been for term limits … but I’m looking at the tally sheet and we’ve got five commissioners who are opposed to at least having term limits that we have now.”
Lillard, at one point later, appealed to commissioners to abandon term limits altogether if that’s what it took to ensure passage of the other amendments, which include making the five countywide positions involved offices under the charter instead of the Tennessee Constitution.
The amendments also include a new method for filling a vacancy in the county mayor’s office and provisions for recalling county elected officials.