Motion Hearing Expected in Consolidation Case

By Bill Dries

The case of the metro consolidation charter vote count from November begins to move Thursday in Memphis federal court. And what happens might affect the coming March 8 referendum on school consolidation.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Anderson will hold a motion hearing on the lawsuit seeking to change the way votes were counted in the Nov. 2 referendum on the consolidation charter.

Eight citizens filed suit in October against the state of Tennessee and the Shelby County Election Commission as early voting began on the charter proposal.

They want the state law requiring dual majorities – separate votes in the city of Memphis and in the county outside Memphis – to be abolished as unconstitutional.

The suit also seeks to have the votes from the November referendum counted in a single countywide tally.

Even with a single countywide vote count, the charter proposal would fail. The proposal passed by a narrow margin in the city of Memphis and it failed by a large margin in the county outside Memphis. State law required it to win the approval of voters in both referenda.

Based on the unofficial countywide vote count, the state Attorney General’s office is seeking the dismissal of the lawsuit claiming the constitutional question is a moot point.

The March 8 referendum on school consolidation is a citywide vote. But some opponents of the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter have said they want a dual majorities pair of referenda similar to the metro charter election.

A bill proposed by state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville would require a single countywide vote on any consolidation plan that might emerge from a longer process for coming up with the plan that is also part of his legislation.

The Attorney General’s office has issued several legal opinions over the years, including one this month, backing a citywide vote on the MCS charter surrender.

But the AG’s office has responded to the metro charter lawsuit by saying in the case of state laws on the consolidation of local governments there is no one person-one vote standard. The standard only applies to elections involving district representation and not referenda, according to responses to the lawsuit filed by state Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter. The argument is based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving the town of Lockport, N.Y.