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VOL. 123 | NO. 158 | Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rejected Charter Ordinance Puts County in ‘Critical’ Situation

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Board of Commissioners can’t agree on what voters were saying last week when they voted down one of two proposed sets of amendments to the County Charter – charter ordinance No. 360.

Were they rejecting the idea of any term limits? Was it a vote against the idea of expanding term limits for the commission and the mayor’s office? Were voters misinformed or perplexed?

All of those theories were floated this week as the commission started the process of putting a new charter amendment to voters on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The commission today resumes the meeting it began Monday to pass the charter proposal on the first of three readings. A special meeting Monday was suspended when it became apparent there weren’t nine votes to pass a referendum item that left out any proposal to change existing term limits or expand them to other offices.

The pending proposal to be considered today would recognize five offices – trustee, sheriff, county clerk, register and assessor – as elected positions under terms of the charter with no power by any of the five to file salary petitions in court to appeal county budget decisions. That proposal would remedy a legal flaw in the charter noted in a 2007 Tennessee Supreme Court decision.

Potential ‘world of hurt’

Shelby County Commission chairman David Lillard said the need for a legal remedy is at a “crucial crossroads,” and without passage someone could challenge the legal status of the assessor or the trustee to collect taxes.

“We can’t afford one quarter of 1 percent drop in our revenue in this county or we’re going to be in a world of hurt. It’s going to affect everybody,” Lillard said. “This is an ordinance that doesn’t change term limits. It’s basically a stripped-down version. … We are at the last moment of the last moment for this matter.”

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. pleaded with commissioners Monday to put the legal fix to voters again as a separate item from term limits.

“It is imperative, it is critical, that we bring some resolution to this issue and that we do so in the November election cycle,” Wharton said. “This is a very serious situation that we are facing that could quite frankly bring to a halt the actual function of county government, particularly in our major financial matters.”

The commission voted down what would have been two separate referenda items: one to impose a limit of two consecutive terms on the five offices, the second to impose a limit of three consecutive terms on the five offices.

“Basically what we said is we are afraid to let the people decide this in a high-turnout election,” said Commissioner Mike Carpenter after the two votes. “What’s good for the goose, folks, is good for the gander. If we have term limits, then they certainly with all the power they have … ought to have some limit on terms.”

There were enough commissioners who favored some kind of term limits on the five countywide offices to keep the legal fix from getting the nine votes it needed to pass on first reading.

Carpenter acknowledged that the 537-vote margin by which the charter amendment failed Aug. 7 is not a “mandate” for term limits. But he interpreted the results as being a call for some kind of term limits.

Commissioner Henri Brooks said the rejection by voters indicates they don’t want term limits of any kind on the five offices and want the existing two-term limit on commissioners and the mayor to remain in place.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy said the narrow defeat of the lead charter ordinance was because of “misinformation” to voters.

“It’s quite possible to say a properly informed voting public … would have voted for it and we wouldn’t be having this conversation now,” Mulroy said. “Everyone’s going to claim that the reason for the defeat is “x,” that will coincidentally coincide with their own particular axe they have to grind. … Rather than looking at chicken entrails and reading tea leaves and trying to figure out what was the reason … we ought to just think about what makes sense and what is fair and what would be good policy.”

Finding the poison pill

Commissioner Sidney Chism focused on voters in precincts of his district who voted 65 percent to 80 percent in favor of the amendments including the three-term limits.

“I understand that the ball game has changed to the degree that Democrats can get elected all over this county. And now you want to take it away and hold term limits of some sort to maintain control of the power,” said Chism of the election in which Democratic candidates took all three countywide races on the Aug. 7 ballot – assessor, trustee and General Sessions Court clerk. “I don’t need nobody telling me what the constituents voted for because the numbers are there. … They voted for three terms. They meant what they said. They meant exactly that.”

Republican Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said the rejection of Ordinance 360 didn’t fall along partisan political lines since turnout in the Democratic primaries was twice that in the GOP primaries. The general election charter question failed by 537 votes. The companion charter question passed by a 2-1 margin.

“The poison pill in this, I think we all know, was term limits. I think people want two (consecutive) four-year terms,” Bunker said. “Until we do what the voters want, I think we’re going to find ourselves back in the board room election after election.”

Most commissioners seemed to agree that the idea of expanding term limits for future commissioners and future mayors from two consecutive terms to three terms, a part of the failed ballot item, will not be a part of any November ballot question.

The commission is under a tight timeline.

The deadline to have the charter question approved on three readings and to the Shelby County Election Commission is Sept. 5.

Several commissioners will be attending the national political conventions over the next several weeks.

Lillard has scheduled a second reading vote for Monday’s regular commission meeting and a third and final vote at a special commission meeting the next day. By state law, there must be one week between the first reading of an ordinance and the third reading.

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