Commission’s Redistricting Battle Moves to Court Decision

By Bill Dries

There will be no fourth try at a redistricting plan by the Shelby County Commission. The issue will be decided by Shelby County Chancellor Arnold Goldin probably sometime in mid-May.

County commissioners dropped a fourth attempt at setting new district lines for the body Monday, March 26, after conferring with their attorneys in a closed session about the next step in the Chancery Court decision to come.

Goldin will get briefs from the different sides in the dispute by mid-April and is expected to rule on them without a hearing.

Several attorneys for the commission and county government have also said the central issue likely will be whether a set of 13 single-member districts with seven majority black districts is required to have a seven-vote majority to pass with a nine-vote, two-thirds majority. The plan got seven votes on third and final reading earlier this month.

The two-thirds majority is required by the Shelby County Charter, but the Tennessee Constitution requires only a simple majority.

Commissioners also voted Monday to request the county administration have an attorney involved in the lawsuit to specifically defend the charter provision.

Attorney Ron Krelstein has said he believes the charter provision is unconstitutional and that he will not defend it.

The controversy turned the issue of a new set of district lines into a question about changes in the county charter that could affect other issues.

Commissioner Brent Taylor said he was willing to change his vote against the plan that got seven votes to prevent a court decision on the majority question provided he could find one other “no” vote to give the plan nine votes. He couldn’t.

“None of them are here,” Taylor said as some of the other commissioners caucused in a back room during the public meeting.

Commission chairman Sidney Chism said their absence was an indication that none would be changing their votes.

In other action, the commission delayed indefinitely any further action on an animal welfare ordinance.

The ordinance setting standards for animal care and provisions for reporting suspected animal abuse was amended in committee last week again delaying a final vote by the full commission until April.

But the commission voted instead to freeze any action on the ordinance on Monday’s second reading and put it on hold indefinitely.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the sponsor of the measure, urged the body to let his ordinance get to an up-or-down vote on third reading in April.

“All the work that we’ve done should not be thrown away,” Mulroy said, adding that he amended the ordinance to try to placate opponents of the measure. “Vote on the merits, not on saving time.”

Mulroy said he also intended to rally supporters of the measure on third reading at the April meeting.

But several commissioners said the previous delays and amendments to the ordinance weren’t fair to opponents who have been showing up to speak against the measure for six months.

The opponents contend the ordinance amounts to unwarranted government intrusion and duplicates existing state laws. They also fear neighbors might report instances of abuse for animals owners who don’t conform to an unrealistic set of care standards but do not abuse their animals.

“It borders on dog idolatry and blasphemy,” said Lee Cochran, one of the more outspoken opponents who in the past has linked the ordinance to government conspiracies.

“This is neither dog idolatry nor blasphemy,” Mulroy replied. “This is a simple animal welfare ordinance.”

“It has been impossible to get an up-or-down vote because of the amendments,” countered Taylor. “That is fundamentally unfair.”

Commissioner Mike Ritz said even with the amendments, the votes aren’t there on the commission to pass it in any form.

“Is this the Mulroy dead dog bill or the dead Mulroy dog bill?” Ritz quipped.