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VOL. 123 | NO. 163 | Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Charter Vote Hits Logjam

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners did it the hard way this week on the second of three readings of a new set of proposed charter amendments.

Ultimately, the commission approved the charter amendments Monday for the Nov. 4 ballot. This measure would establish five countywide offices as positions in the county charter instead of the Tennessee Constitution and a separate amendment would limit those holding the five offices to no more than two consecutive terms in office.

It took an hour to get to the matching 10-3 votes on the second reading. The hour was taken up with voting on amendments that would have increased the term limits to three consecutive terms and put competing referenda on the ballot for two- and three-term limits. There was also a proposal to attach a two-term limit to the main amendment and have another amendment with a three-term limit stating that if it passed, it would override any vote approving the two-term limit. There was also a failed move to reverse the placing of the term limit options.

The wake of Aug. 7

Voters in the Aug. 7 elections voted down a charter amendment that redefined the offices of sheriff, county clerk, register, trustee and assessor and attached a three-term limit to those offices and expanded the three-term limit to future county commissioners and mayors.

“Being a simple country boy,” began Commissioner J.W. Gibson toward the end of the parade of amendments, “we’re trying to create some type of convoluted ordinance. All you’re going to do is confuse the issue some more. Do you really need to have three strikes you’re out to be convinced that the citizens don’t want (a) three (term limit)?”

But commissioners continue to differ on what the failure of the August ballot item meant.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who pushed the return of a term limit attached to the same amendment defining the offices, said voters were confused earlier this month.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re ignoring the will of the voters,” he said.

Commissioner Mike Carpenter argued a ballot item with term limits and nothing else was a simple way to determine what voters want.

“All we’re doing is putting it on the ballot for voters to decide this issue. … It’s pretty simple. November is a 65-70 percent turnout election. So, we will have a true representation of the overwhelming majority of voters in that election.”

Inner debates

Meanwhile, Democratic commissioners continued to have their own debate about whether term limits are shackling the local party’s recent election advances. Democratic candidates took all three countywide nonjudicial offices on the August ballot and have been the seven-member majority on the commission since 2006.

“I understand, it’s a power game,” said Commissioner Sidney Chism. “Never before, never before in the history of this commission has the majority given away power to the minority – never.”

Some Republicans differed on that point.

Democratic commissioner Henri Brooks said the numbers are still too close and Democratic unity still wavers depending on the issue.

“We don’t have the power,” she said. “We think we have the power. We don’t have the numbers. If we had higher, we would yield absolutely nothing. When I came on board, I was of that mindset – ‘We have the numbers. We have the power. I will yield absolutely nothing.’ … What happened?”

Final reading ahead

Third and final reading of the proposed county charter amendments is scheduled for a special commission meeting Aug. 27 at 10 a.m.

The commission has until Sept. 5 to submit the proposed amendment to the Shelby County Election Commission for the November ballot.

In other action Monday, commissioners voted down a contract of up to $3.7 million for Aramark Correctional Services LLC to manage food services at the Shelby County Corrections Center. Some commissioners said the estimated $600,000 in savings wasn’t worth the staff of 29 union workers losing their jobs or being shifted to lower-paying jobs.

“I’m not convinced this is the way we should go,” said Commissioner James Harvey.

The contract vote has been delayed several times and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. vented some frustration at the delays.

“Somebody’s got to make a call,” Wharton said before the 5-7 vote. “Let’s just lay this on the line right here. Is there a way to cut jobs without bringing about misery, hurt, pain, suffering? There is no way and let’s not delude ourselves and the employees. I say to you that we are casting more hurt on those employees by holding this dangling here. We keep hanging that hope out there.”

Wharton also reminded the commission that the mayor’s office runs the department of corrections and that the commission wanted his administration to cut overall county spending.

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