Term Limit Debate Turns Emotional

By Bill Dries

Memphis City Council and Memphis Charter Commission member Janis Fullilove left her colleagues on the Charter Commission puzzled Thursday afternoon following an emotional attack on the idea of term limits.

Fullilove left the meeting for another engagement after denouncing the idea as a scheme by power brokers to keep more black citizens from winning 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,” fellow Charter Commission member George Brown said as the discussion of term limits started in a low-key way. The commission, including Fullilove, voted in December to put some kind of item involving term limits to Memphis voters in a city-wide referendum. 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 a limit of two terms for all 13 City Council positions and the city mayor. Any item approved by the Charter Commission is to go on the ballot for city voters to approve or reject with their votes. Several commissioners said they personally may not favor the idea of term limits but do favor putting term limits on the ballot.

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 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 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.”

The Charter Commission was elected by city voters following a petition drive by Germantown resident John Lunt and others calling for a charter review and the election of such a commission.

Charter Commissioners Willie Brooks, Sylvia Cox and Sharon Webb, as well as Brown, said they favored putting term limits to a city-wide referendum based on repeated comments favoring the limits at public hearings held by the Charter Commission starting last year.

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.

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.”

At that point, she began sobbing.

“I was taught as a child that you forgive people. 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,” Fullilove said.

“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 virtually since its inception.

“I have no idea (why). … Obviously she was extremely emotional,” Lowery said. “Quite frankly I am surprised.”

Fullilove left before an attempt by City Attorney Elbert Jefferson to close the meeting for an attorney-client conference. He would not say what the general topic was.

Meetings of the Charter Commission are public and covered by the state’s Open Meetings Law. The law permits private attorney-client meetings under some circumstances. Reporters from The Daily News and The Commercial Appeal objected to closing the meeting after Jefferson said it did not involve pending litigation or the threat of 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 ended with a private attorney-client session with no explanation at that time about the topic.

Webb ended Thursday’s meeting with a prayer after recommending that all future meetings begin with a prayer “so we can have peace in our meetings.”

Audio of meetings of the Charter Commission is usually available by the day after the meetings at www.cityofmemphis.org