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VOL. 124 | NO. 200 | Monday, October 12, 2009

Commission to Revisit Charter Appointments Today

By Bill Dries

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LIGHTNING ROD: Shelby County Commissioner J.W. Gibson is among 10 possible appointees to the metro charter commission. But some of his colleagues aren’t too happy about it. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

Approving mayoral appointments to boards and commissions is usually the quickest part of the Shelby County Commission’s agenda. It’s normally a routine vote.

That won’t be the case today.

The commission will meet this afternoon starting at 1:30 p.m. at the County Administration Building Downtown. A full agenda for the meeting is available at The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

Included on the agenda are county Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s 10 appointees to the metro charter commission.

The charter commission, which will include five appointees by the Memphis mayor to be confirmed by the City Council, will draft a charter proposal to consolidate Memphis and Shelby County governments. The charter draft would go to voters in a November 2010 pair of referenda. The proposal must win in each of the separate votes – one inside Memphis, one in the parts of the county outside the city – for consolidation to happen.

Several of Wharton’s choices are controversial, none more than County Commissioner J.W. Gibson.

Underlying motives

The choice of Gibson drew fire in last week’s committee sessions from fellow County Commissioner Sidney Chism.

Chism vowed, “I’ll have the votes Monday” to stop Gibson’s appointment.

Chism and others are opposed to Gibson’s nomination because Gibson, as well as fellow Commissioner Joe Ford, are trying to round up the votes on the body to become interim county mayor should Wharton win Thursday’s election for Memphis mayor.

“I don’t want to see anybody espousing to reach a higher position,” said Chism, who is among those favoring Ford for the interim mayoral appointment.

Gibson abstained from voting on any of the appointments, including his own. He also said if he’s approved for the charter commission and later is chosen to be interim mayor, he will give up his seat on the charter commission.

“Emphatically, I say to you again I do not look to serve in both positions,” Gibson told commissioners.

“This commission seems to feel very strongly that you are going to be our next mayor,” he said to Wharton. “The first step before us is in dealing with this charter commission and then we see what happens following that.”

If Gibson were selected for the charter commission and then resigned, the remaining charter commissioners would fill the vacancy without any vote by the County Commission or City Council.

Examining potential biases

Commissioner Mike Ritz abstained during the committee vote on Gibson because he said he doesn’t believe any elected officials should serve on the charter commission. That includes Millington Mayor Richard Hodges and former Collierville Mayor Linda Kerley, whose nominations also cleared the committee Wednesday.

Commissioners are expected to take 10 separate votes today instead of voting on all of Wharton’s nominees at once.

Hodges last week was quizzed by several commissioners about his earlier statements expressing opposition to consolidation. He and the five other suburban mayors in Shelby County are the most vocal opponents of the concept.

Their towns and cities would remain intact under a consolidation proposal. But there would be changes in some services the six municipalities currently receive from Shelby County government. Not including Millington, the other suburban entities include Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown and Lakeland.

“I’ve said if this is going to be a packed deck … I don’t want no part of it,” Hodges said, recalling his conversations with Wharton. “(Wharton) said, ‘Can you make an open-minded decision?’”

Hodges said he can. “You get what you get,” he told commissioners.

Attorney Chris Patterson works at the Germantown law firm Wiseman Bray PLLC, co-founded by Lang Wiseman, chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party and brother of Arlington Mayor Russell Wiseman.

“I don’t think that would influence my decision-making in any way,” Patterson told commissioners. “I’ve known them my whole life. Russell doesn’t carry a lot of influence over Lang. … They happen to see eye to eye on most things.”

Another nominee, Castalia Baptist Church Pastor Randolph Meade Walker, said the county is too polarized.

“I do believe that a major impediment to our progress is that as a metropolitan area we spend too much time beating up each other,” he said.

Rest of the slate

County Commissioner Mike Carpenter cautioned against a consolidation litmus test at the outset of the process.

“I don’t think we ought to make assumptions about what city or county voters want,” he said. “Keep your powder dry and see what the charter commission comes up with.”

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said he was “impressed” by the slate.

“I’m not naïve enough not to believe that this is heavily weighted with people in favor of consolidation,” he said. “That being said, my only concern is with Commissioner Gibson.”

The other appointees winning a committee recommendation Wednesday were:

  • Lou Etta Burkins, project engineer for FedEx Express.
  • Julie Ellis, senior counsel at Butler Snow PLLC and a former counsel to the city of Jacksonville, Fla.
  • Andre Fowlkes, Memphis Small Business Chamber executive director and son of Criminal Court Judge and former County Chief Administrative Officer John Fowlkes.
  • Billy Orgel, president of Tower Ventures who is an active contributor to local political campaigns.
  • Rufus Washington, retired Marine and president of Southeast Shelby County Coalition.

Memphis City Council members voted last month to go along with the creation of a charter commission. But the council included an amendment that forbids the council from voting on the mayor’s charter commission selections before its Oct. 20 meeting.

That means whoever wins Thursday’s election will send a list of five names to the council as one of his or her first acts. Should Wharton win the special election, he has said he would find a way not to make the other five appointments.

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