VOL. 126 | NO. 244 | Thursday, December 15, 2011
Commissioners Fail to Approve Redistricting Plan
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Commissioners will try again Monday, Dec. 19, to give final approval to a new set of district lines for the 13-member body.
At a special meeting Wednesday, Dec. 14, a new set of district lines that would keep but tweak the current five-district setup won approval on the second of three readings. But it did not appear to have the two-thirds majority – or nine votes – needed to pass next week.
However, during a day of shifting positions on the commission, the county attorney’s office is rethinking whether Tennessee law requires nine votes to approve the plan on its final reading.
Because the plan was amended on second reading, there are effectively two third readings of the plan.
The commission met in special session because it is working under a legal deadline of approving a redistricting plan by the end of the year or risk giving citizens some grounds for challenging the plan in Shelby County Chancery Court.
Commissioner Justin Ford pushed the set of four multi-member districts, represented by three commissioners each, plus a fifth single-member district.
Meanwhile, commissioner Walter Bailey, who had favored another version of multi-member districts with two representatives each for six districts, became a backer of the idea of 13 single-member districts over tweaking the current multi-member districts.
“It is old and archaic and borders somewhat on being undemocratic. It was born out of a desire to protect incumbents,” Bailey said. “And the reason I know is I was chairman of the committee.”
Bailey has been committee chairman for every redistricting plan the commission has undergone since the Baker v. Carr U.S. Supreme Court decision in the late 1960s, which mandated the once-a-decade process.
“I don’t need to hear that government is archaic,” Ford said in response to Bailey. “You’re right, it does need changing. But you benefited from it and now all of a sudden no one else can benefit from it.”
Commissioner Heidi Shafer also was critical of Bailey for slamming the plan as “incumbency protection.” She noted that Bailey began his tenure on the commission when she was in kindergarten.
Ford also denied that a candidate running in a larger district has to raise more money to reach more voters, citing himself as the proof.
Ford won election to the county commission in 2010, running for the seat his father, Joe Ford, vacated when he decided to run for Shelby County mayor.
Commission chairman Sidney Chism referred to the advantage the younger Ford had because of his father’s position and the Ford name.
“Some of us were able to win because of relationships and ties to others that got us over the hump with a little bit of money,” Chism said.
Chism had previously backed multi-member districts, cautioning that the commission shouldn’t make it too easy for political challengers on incumbents at election time.
The vote also represented a split among the three Republican commissioners who represent most of Shelby County outside Memphis, including all six of the suburban municipalities.
Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Chris Thomas support the multi-member districts. Commissioner Terry Roland does not.
Roland, a convert to the single-member-district plan, said he favors it because it ups suburban representation by a fourth commissioner.
Thomas argued that the set of 13 single-member districts would upset the current 7-6 Democratic majority on the commission and give Democrats an eighth seat at the expense of Republicans
“Yes, it does give four. But it also cuts down from six Republicans to, at best, five,” Thomas said. “My thing is trying to find what is going to best represent the county for the long term. … If we ever get down to nine city and four county … we’re in trouble.”
At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, assistant county attorney Dedrick Brittenum said he was still researching state law and the vote total needed to approve a redistricting plan on third and final reading.