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VOL. 127 | NO. 13 | Friday, January 20, 2012

Commission Looks at Power Realignment

By Bill Dries

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For three months, a split among the six Republicans on the 13-member Shelby County Commission has been more evident than the split among the seven Democratic commissioners.

As the commission started over this week on the redistricting process that highlighted the Republican rift, however, the split has evolved into a realignment of political power on the body.

That realignment is likely even if the seven votes that appeared to be there this week for an ouster of commission Chairman Sidney Chism at some point in the future aren’t there when the attempt at a new chairman is made.

That’s because the sparks from the planned realignment have made it nearly impossible for the old alliance to return.

At Wednesday’s committee session Republican Commissioner Wyatt Bunker proposed a change in rules to allow removal of the chairman by a majority vote. Chism targeted the Democratic members voting with Republicans to set up an ouster move possibly as early as the Monday, Jan. 23, meeting.

“If you allow this to happen,” Chism told them, “it will happen to you every day of the week.”

“They haven’t come after me,” Democratic Commissioner Henri Brooks replied. “The Democrats have come after me. … I have been overlooked.”

She also complained of a long running “lack of decorum” on the body, which has a Democratic majority.

“It is unbearable to try to be a statesperson in a barroom,” Brooks added.

Bunker admits he and others in the coalition that has seven votes for their redistricting plan that leaves the multi-member structure intact are spending “political capital” and taking a risk for changes beyond resolving the redistricting gridlock.

But he and fellow Republican commissioners Heidi Shafer and Chris Thomas were already a minority voting block on the commission. When fellow Republican Terry Roland was with them, they were four votes often against eight to nine votes in the final vote tallies.

Democratic Commissioner Justin Ford, who is part of the seven-vote block to simply tweak existing district lines and leave the commission with five districts – four of them multi-member districts of three commissioners each – said this week the commission needed to “clean house.”

“There will be a new day in county government. There will be new leadership. This isn’t personal,” he said of the ouster move. “We’ve wasted too much time. Now, we must clean house.”

Ford emerged politically with the redistricting deadlock for the first time since taking office in September 2010. Before that he had not had a lot to say publicly.

Less than a year ago, the relationship between Ford and Chism was much different.

In April, Ford and James Harvey voted with Shafer, Thomas, Bunker and Roland to defeat funding from the commission contingency fund to pay the commission’s outside legal counsel in the school consolidation case.

Chism took another commissioner’s seat between the two and said, “This is something we need to do for the people that sent you here. For those commissioners that have got other aspirations to go somewhere else into a better job … it is in his or her best interest to make sure that he does what is right for people in Memphis and Shelby County.”

Ford then moved for reconsideration and he and Harvey voted for the resolution and it passed.

During the renewed redistricting deliberations, Bunker made a point of asking Brooks if there were any changes she wanted made in the plan that goes to second reading next week.

Brooks wants parts of Orange Mound and the McLemore Avenue area of South Memphis included in District 2, the wide-ranging commission district she represents. Those areas are now in District 3, represented by Chism, Ford and Harvey.

Brooks, who like Chism is term limited and won’t be running for re-election in 2014, wants a higher percentage of African-American voters in a district already majority black but which has seen a drop in overall population in predominantly black North Memphis as the Uptown and Downtown areas have grown in population since the 2000 U.S. Census.

The same Uptown and Downtown areas were split between two Memphis City Council districts in that body’s recent redistricting to account for the 2010 U.S. Census.

MORTGAGES 80 320 1,066
BUILDING PERMITS 120 590 2,248