VOL. 124 | NO. 202 | Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Commission to Appeal Second Juvenile Court Judgeship
By Bill Dries
DELAY TACTIC: Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks managed to delay turning over 140 parcels of tax delinquent land to developer Harold Buehler this week, among other major actions the body dealt with. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY
The battle over more than one Juvenile Court judge is on its way to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Shelby County Commissioners voted this week to appeal an earlier ruling by the Tennessee Appeals Court to the high court. The Supreme Court could choose to hear the case or deny the request for an appeal, which would leave the appeals court ruling in place.
The three-judge panel ruled that the part of a 1967 private act approved by the Tennessee Legislature authorizing the commission to appoint a second Juvenile Court judge is unconstitutional. The decision reversed a ruling in 2007 by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong.
The private act consolidated what were then two juvenile courts – one for Memphis and the other for Shelby County. The part of the act that dealt with the second judgeship went unused until 2007, when the commission voted to fill the position.
Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. had been elected head of the court months earlier, succeeding Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner, who served for more than 40 years.
Person immediately filed suit in Chancery Court contesting the commission’s action.
Whoever lost the appeal was expected to take the case to the state Supreme Court.
There was no discussion at Monday’s commission meeting.
The vote was 8-2 with Commissioner Wyatt Bunker and Chairwoman Joyce Avery voting no. Commissioners Henri Brooks and George Flinn abstained. Commissioner Mike Ritz was absent.
Punted – again
Meanwhile, a controversial resolution to turn over 140 lots of tax-delinquent property to developer Harold Buehler was delayed for a second time.
Buehler is proposing to build 125 rental houses on the parcels using millions of dollars in federal stimulus money to finance the construction across North Memphis.
Buehler’s proposal has come under fire from some community leaders critical of the design of hundreds of similar homes Buehler has built over the past 20 years in low-income areas. Some commissioners opposed the transfer earlier this month because Buehler owes more than $1 million in taxes on other land he’s developed.
Buehler came to Monday’s meeting with plenty of supporters, including some contractors who might benefit from the house construction. Tenants of other properties also said Buehler is filling a need in those communities, while he presented a petition showing the names of several hundred North Memphis residents.
But a group of 15 residents from North Memphis wearing red were just as adamant that they are opposed to the homes because they are rentals and because some of Buehler’s older homes feature no rear doors or windows and very small rooms.
Brooks, also wearing red, was the most outspoken commissioner. “We are creating death traps,” she said.
She also questioned whether adequate public notice had been given under Tennessee law.
Shelby County attorney Brian Kuhn said there was no notice of the properties to be turned over to Buehler for $50 each in a newspaper of “general circulation,” which is the state standard in most cases. He and Buehler said such a notice has never been required for the title transfers under the Shelby County Homestead Program.
“Apparently, we never complied,” Kuhn said, emphasizing he would need to do more legal research. “We skipped a step, possibly. … How fatal is that? It’s a chain of title issue. … I cannot advise you to go forward under those circumstances.”
Commissioner Steve Mulroy was the most vocal opponent of a delay.
“We’ve debated this to death,” he said, citing e-mails he had received that were better than two to one in favor of the Buehler homes. “The issue is technical,” he said referring to the public notice.
Brooks said she was “extremely concerned about the rhetoric I’m hearing” against deferral.
“All of this has been about their quality of life,” Brooks said, contrasting the opposition to that of Grays Creek-area residents who last year sought a delay and won the eventual defeat of a proposal to build a Walmart in that part of Cordova. “This body … has given this applicant so much latitude. I’ve never seen that before. … How can you marginalize an issue that deals with quality of life?”
Kuhn planned to consult the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, among others, on the matter and on a Nov. 4 deadline to show ownership of the parcels. The next commission meeting is Oct. 26.
Buehler said there could be a problem getting the ownership paperwork in order on all of the parcels if there were a delay. Avery said she would try to call a special commission meeting sometime next week to vote on the matter or at least here Kuhn’s legal opinion about the matter of legal notice.
In other action, the commission approved all 10 of Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s nominees to a metro charter commission, including Commissioner J.W. Gibson.
Some commissioners voiced concern last week that Gibson is angling to be appointed interim mayor should Wharton win this week’s election for Memphis mayor.
Commissioner Joe Ford is also vying for the interim appointment to serve out the year left in Wharton’s term. Gibson said if he wins the nod for county mayor, he will give up the charter commission seat. The commission’s task will be to draw up a plan to consolidate Memphis and Shelby County governments.
The County Commission voted separately on each of the appointees. Ford was recorded as present but not voting on all 10. Gibson was approved with the votes of eight of the 12 commissioners present. Ritz was absent. Mulroy abstained. Commissioners Bunker and Sidney Chism voted no.