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VOL. 124 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 9, 2009

Election Commission to Consider Mayoral Deadline

By Bill Dries

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QUIET MOMENT: City Council member Harold Collins, left, and city attorney Elbert Jefferson confer during a long Tuesday at City Hall dominated by what happens next as Mayor Willie Herenton exits. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The Shelby County Election Commission today is setting the stage for the next step in the coming special election for Memphis mayor.

The commission will meet at 4:30 p.m. to consider setting a deadline for candidates to file and a date for the election itself sometime in late October. In setting the dates, the commission would abide by terms of the Memphis Charter. The charter calls for a special election three months after a vacancy in the mayor’s office if there is no regularly scheduled election within six months of the date the office becomes vacant.

This week, the Memphis City Council approved a resolution declaring the mayor’s office vacant as of July 31. The meeting minutes are due for approval in two weeks.

“As far as we’re concerned, the council voted to create a vacancy,” Election Commission Chairman Bill Giannini told The Daily News immediately after the council’s vote. “It’s official. The (Tennessee) code doesn’t say approval of the minutes. The code says a vote by the council and submission of a letter to us recognizing that. That’s happened.”

Giannini planned to consult with attorneys to prepare for today’s meeting.

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Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights groups is consulting with its attorney about possibly filing a lawsuit in Chancery Court to contest the council decision.

“This is unethical,” said state Rep. G.A. Hardaway after the 7-6 council vote.

Hardaway, along with leaders of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Operation PUSH/Rainbow Coalition, are consulting attorney Jay Bailey.

The group earlier had called on Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton to again delay his resignation until Feb. 20 to settle what they claim are “unresolved issues of separation of executive powers from legislative powers.” Hardaway was referring to the charter provision that makes the City Council chairman the mayor pro tempore for up to 180 days after the mayor’s resignation.

Council Chairman Myron Lowery will serve three months as mayor pro tempore with Herenton’s exit from City Hall on July 30. Lowery already had appointed a transition team before Herenton moved his original resignation date from July 10 to the end of July.

Lowery, who also intends to run in the special election, was also among the seven council members who voted for the resolution declaring the vacancy.

“Personal ambition is getting in the way,” Hardaway told The Daily News, declining to say whose personal ambition was involved.

Three other possible contenders for mayor in the October election also voted on the resolution after a sometimes emotional debate that began during committee sessions Tuesday morning. There was initial confusion during the committee sessions when city Human Resources Director Lorene Essex told the council that Herenton had rescinded the July 30 departure date too in a letter in which he wrote that he was rescinding all earlier correspondence on the subject.

“You don’t have a body here, so you can’t have a funeral,” said council member Joe Brown.

Council member Jim Strickland proposed the resolution saying the council didn’t need an ironclad letter that is the most current.

City attorney Elbert Jefferson later clarified that Herenton was sticking by the July 30 date. But before he did, reporters trying to resolve the matter by the City Hall elevators found themselves face to face with Herenton himself for a few seconds when the elevator he was riding stopped on the fifth floor on his way to the top floor. Herenton, apparently oblivious to the new tempest, said he didn’t have time to talk and the doors closed.

Decisions

Council attorney Allan Wade told council members that they needed a more definitive declaration from Herenton about his departure. Without such a written declaration, Wade argued Herenton could say in a possible lawsuit that the July 30 departure was not his intent. Wade also said Herenton’s final written communication on the topic of his resignation revoked all previous letters on the subject including the one this week that reset his resignation for July 30.

“What we need from him is unequivocal clarification. ‘I am going to retire on July 30.’ Not ‘I intend to’ – or ‘I may.’ Not ‘I will,’ but ‘I am,’” Wade said.

Council member Janis Fullilove argued there shouldn’t be a problem even if Herenton wants to abandon the July 30 date and push back his departure even further.

“I think it’s personal against Mayor Herenton,” Fullilove said. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem is the mayor himself and his word as leader of this city. He’s told us now four different times,” Council member Bill Boyd replied, referring to Herenton’s first announced resignation in March 2008. “Anything we can do to encourage him to live up to this July 30 date is what we should do. … Everyone knows what the problem is.”

“The mayor was elected for four years,” Fullilove countered. “Everybody changes their mind, Mr. Boyd.”

Voting for the resolution were Lowery, Boyd, Shea Flinn, Reid Hedgepeth, Bill Morrison, Strickland and Kemp Conrad. Strickland and Conrad are considering running for mayor.

Voting against the resolution were Fullilove, Brown, Wanda Halbert, Harold Collins, Edmund Ford Jr. and Barbara Swearengen Ware. Halbert is considering a bid for mayor in the special election.

After the vote, Halbert continued to question whether Lowery had a conflict of interest. Wade said Lowery didn’t. She also called on citizens to sue the city over the action.

Collins urged council members to “be adults.”

“It’s done. We made a decision as a team,” he said. “What we have to do as a body is remain focused. … We made a decision. Let’s live by the decision.”

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