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VOL. 123 | NO. 28 | Monday, February 11, 2008

Term Limits, Fullilove Outburst Highlight Charter Commission

By Bill Dries

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EMOTIONAL MEETING: “You guys are upsetting me,” Memphis Charter Commission member Janis Fullilove said at one point last week as she voiced emotional opposition to the idea of term limits for City Council members and the mayor. -- Photo By Bill Dries

It's not unusual for politics to involve emotions. But Thursday's meeting of the Memphis Charter Commission tested the limits of both. It also tested the state's open meetings law as city Attorney Elbert Jefferson sought for the second consecutive meeting to talk privately with the seven-member commission about legal issues.

Both the emotion displayed by Charter Commission member Janis Fullilove and the Sunshine Law dustup came as the group works to complete its recommendations for changes in the City Charter and with City Council approval send them to the Shelby County Election Commission by June 6. That's the earlier of two deadlines to put the proposed changes on the Aug. 7 ballot. In order to put the proposed changes on the Nov. 4 ballot, the Election Commission must have them no later than Sept. 5.

The Charter Commission is awaiting a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General's office about the possibility of two charter referenda - one for the August ballot on technical corrections to outdated wording and other similar changes and a second for the November ballot on items, such as term limits, that would change the structure of Memphis city government.

Emotional exchange

Term limits and ethics were the top two concerns citizens expressed during a series of public forums the Charter Commission held starting in 2007.

And it was a discussion of term limits Thursday about which Fullilove became emotional and tearful.

Fullilove, who is also a City Council member, left the meeting early for another engagement after denouncing the idea as a scheme by power brokers to keep more black citizens from winning and holding elected office. At one point, Fullilove was sobbing so hard that she had trouble speaking.

"This will be maybe the third, fourth, fifth or sixth time we've had the discussion," Charter Commissioner George Brown said with some impatience at the outset.

The commission, including Fullilove, voted in December to put some kind of item involving term limits to Memphis voters. Fullilove made the motion. But at that time, the commission had not decided which offices they would propose limiting the terms of and how long the term limits would be.

Brown proposed Thursday a limit of two four-year terms for all 13 City Council positions and the mayor. He and several other commissioners said though they favored putting term limits on the ballot they might not necessarily favor the idea. Most of the discussion was between Fullilove and Brown.

"No, I'm talking, judge," Fullilove said at one point to Brown, who is a retired Shelby County Circuit Court judge.

"Well I'm going to talk whether you let me or not," Brown said as Charter Commission chairman Myron Lowery continually ruled him out of order.

"The press is here. I'm suggesting that whatever comments we make, we not make them personal," Brown said over Lowery and Fullilove.

"My comments were not personal," Fullilove said after Lowery restored order. "Everything that we've heard in this city has been directed ... toward Mayor (Willie) Herenton - everything. And we are going to change our charter based on one person. That is incredulous to me. I cannot believe that we are going to sit up here because of one individual, because people - a cross section of the city - want to sit up and target one individual."

As Brown began to speak again, Fullilove turned her head and began weeping.

"The present mayor is not going to serve two more terms anyway. He's not going to be affected by it one way or the other," Brown said.

Racial topic?

Fullilove said she's heard from many constituents who oppose term limits because they believe term limits are "about people who are trying to come in and control our city because of its black leadership."

" I'm going to say it. Too many black people are in leadership and they want to take back control of the city," she said.

At that point, she began sobbing.

"I was taught as a child that you forgive people," Fullilove continued. "And I remember Jesus was at the cross and said, 'Forgive them father. They know not what they do.' And I know the individuals who brought about this entire change of the charter - they know not what they do. Their intention was not for the betterment of Memphis. It was solely about trying to take control."

"I feel your passion," Brown replied.

"Do you really, judge?" Fullilove asked.

"Yes," Brown said. "I've been blacker longer than you have because I'm older than you are. At the end of the day ... we are charged with doing the citizens' business without passion, without emotion."

Six of the seven charter commissioners are black.

Emotions ran high again as Brown next broached the subject of staggered terms for council members, an item the Charter Commission is to vote on at its Feb. 21 meeting. Fullilove at one point called that idea "a load of crock."

"You guys are upsetting me," she said as she wiped away more tears.

After the meeting, Lowery and others said they were surprised by the emotional display on an issue the commission has discussed since its inception.

Let the sun in

Meanwhile, Jefferson's attempt to close the meeting for an attorney-client conference prompted objections from reporters with The Daily News and The Commercial Appeal. Meetings of the group are covered by the state's open meetings law. It permits private attorney-client meetings under some circumstances.

Jefferson told reporters it did not involve pending litigation. Jefferson said he wanted to speak privately with the Charter Commission because of "something said today" at the commission meeting. Jefferson said he believed what he heard put the commission "at risk for a lawsuit."

He refused to say more and when reporters continued to object to closing the meeting, Jefferson instead met with the Charter Commission members individually. Members polled after the one-on-one talks would not disclose what was discussed.

The commission's Jan. 17 meeting also ended with a private attorney-client session with no explanation at that time about the topic.

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