County Redistricting Goes to Court

By Bill Dries

Three Shelby County commissioners – one Democrat and two Republicans – filed suit against the full commission Tuesday, Jan. 3, over the body's stalled deliberations on a redistricting plan.


Commissioners Walter Bailey, Mike Ritz and Terry Roland are seeking a Chancery Court injunction that would bar any future elections of county commissioners using the existing district lines because those lines no longer meet federal "one person-one vote" standards for proportional representation.

The next regularly scheduled county commission elections are in 2014.

Roland, Ritz and Bailey want a court order beyond that, either requiring the commission as a body to "proceed expeditiously with redistricting ... or, in the alternative, for the court itself to establish the constitutional districts."

Redistricting is a once-a-decade redrawing of district lines to take into account population shifts and changes as reflected in the U.S. census, which also occurs once a decade.

Meanwhile, commissioners get together Wednesday, Jan. 4, for the first time in 2012. It’s also the first time since the week before Christmas, when they were unable to break a deadlock over a redistricting plan.

The deadlock is not on the agenda for any of the committee sessions. But there is some evidence commissioners were talking among themselves over the holidays about some way to get a nine-vote, two-thirds majority for some plan that would set new district lines for the elected body.

The deadline was the end of 2011. Because the commission is past that deadline, a lawsuit in Chancery Court was a possibility.

At its last meeting of 2011, several options were on the table but none had nine votes.

There was a set of 13 single-member districts covering all of Shelby County as well as a plan that made some adjustments to the commission’s current structure of four districts represented by three commissioners each and one single-member district.

The plan that tweaked existing district lines was pushed hard by Commissioner Justin Ford, who mustered seven votes but couldn’t convert two commissioners from the single-member district school of thought.

Since then Ford has floated a plan that would isolate one of the suburban Republican commissioners, Terry Roland of Millington, into a district that goes south from North Shelby County into the Downtown and North Memphis area – heavily Democratic areas.

Roland dismisses it, saying it’s not a “serious plan.”

“They’re not going to cut me out,” Roland said. “I own houses all across North Shelby County. All I’ll do is move into one in Millington. They are not going to get rid of me.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Brent Taylor, among the seven votes for the Ford plan, has been circulating a “what if” proposal that brings up the possibility of a $200,000 “suburban economic development aid package” for communities outside Memphis. It is tied to keeping Ford’s tweaking and retention of the current five-district set up.

In a holiday email to Taylor, Roland labeled the idea “inappropriate.”

“I strongly denounce the proposition because it is highly illegal and I do not want anything to do with it,” he wrote.

Taylor replied that he was “merely attempting to put some ideas on the table to see if we could create any movement.”

Roland is one of three Republican commissioners representing a district that takes in almost all of the county area outside the city of Memphis. It takes in all or parts of each of the six suburban municipalities.

But Roland has parted company with Heidi Shafer and Chris Thomas on redistricting. They favor Ford’s plan, arguing that single-member districts will mean the seven-vote Democratic majority on the commission will increase at the expense of what is now a six-vote GOP minority.

Roland argues either single-member districts or his first preference – a seven-district commission with six districts represented by two commissioners each – will mean more suburban representation. He also disputes that either of those options would eat into the Republican vote count on the body.

“The blue blood Republicans in East Memphis are going to lose a commissioner to us out in the county,” Roland said. “We’ll still have six Republican commissioners. What difference does it make if it comes from out there unless you are trying to control the party?”