Charter Commission Greenlights Staggered Terms

By Bill Dries

The Memphis Charter Commission has approved the idea of staggered terms for City Council members.

Thursday’s vote means the change from electing all 13 City Council members at one time will be on the ballot for city voters later this year.

But Charter Commissioners have still not settled on a specific mechanism for staggering the terms.

It could mean that some council members would serve shortened two-year terms on a one-time-only basis. Or Charter Commission chairman Myron Lowery suggested some council members could be elected to longer six-year terms on a one-time-only basis.

The commission is also considering moving the date for city elections to coincide with November general elections for other offices. That would avoid the expense of holding a set of city elections every two years instead of once every four years.

The cities of Arlington, Germantown, Bartlett and Collierville all have staggered terms for aldermen.

The meeting was much less emotional than the last City Hall session on Feb. 7, when Charter Commissioner Janis Fullilove launched an emotional and tearful appeal against any attempt to limit the terms of elected officials. The commission approved a ballot item limiting council members and the mayor to no more than two terms of office over her objections.

Fullilove was not present for Thursday’s meeting. She called Lowery in advance and said she was not feeling well.

Charter commissioners are also taking a second look at a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office on whether there could be two charter change referenda. One would be to vote on routine housekeeping changes to the City Charter. The other referenda would deal with substantive changes to city government like term limits and staggering terms. But Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. said in his legal opinion that voter approval of the housekeeping changes is not required. Charter Commission approval is enough.

Several Charter commissioners want a more specific answer on what constitutes minor changes and what constitutes a substantive change requiring voter approval.

The group’s next meeting is March 6. On the agenda for that meeting is a proposed charter change that would ban the sale of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division without voter approval. Another proposed charter change would ban City Council members from being voting members of quasi-governmental boards such as the Center City Commission. That proposal was voted down by the charter group on a 3-3 tie vote.