A trio of Memphis City Council members weighing possible changes to the council’s way of conducting business has more questions at the outset than answers about what kind of conduct is allowed and what shouldn’t be on the elected body.
The ad hoc committee, formed at the request of council chairman Edmund Ford Jr., met Monday, Oct. 21, after Ford expressed concerns last week about unnamed council members ordering division directors around.
The concern emerged the same day that council member Janis Fullilove and Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president Jerry Collins clashed in the MLGW committee chaired by Fullilove.
But Ford also said he wanted the committee to take a broader look at other council habits that have become a regular feature of the council’s twice-a-month committee sessions and meetings.
They include council members not being present for votes but trying to get the roll call record amended later to show them as voting a certain way on the matter. Such changes after the gavel falls on a vote could make a council decision vulnerable to legal challenge.
“If you don’t clearly understand and know your role then you can step into other people’s areas.”
Chairwoman, council ad hoc committee
“There are a lot of loopholes,” said council member Wanda Halbert, who is chairwoman of the ad hoc group and a long-time critic of what she sees as uneven enforcement of some council rules.
Council member Bill Boyd acknowledged complaining about “unfounded accusations” made in committee sessions by an unnamed council member. He referred specifically to Fullilove’s accusation about a Smart Meter at the home of a judge, which Collins said last week was “patently false.”
Boyd also referred to council member Joe Brown repeatedly saying in committee discussions that some actions of the Wharton administration amount to “corruption.”
Boyd wants other council members to specifically challenge such general accusations.
“If there is an accusation and they cannot offer any evidence, they should be challenged by the chair,” Boyd said.
“We can establish a rule that if any allegation is made … that facts will be required,” she said. “We’re all adults. This is not a playground.”
Boyd also objected to Fullilove recognizing several citizens during the MLGW committee session, including one who made a point of order during the meeting that Fullilove recognized.
“We’ve got four or five people who have become ex officio members of a committee,” he said.
“We’re kind of allowing the discretion of a chair to become too broad,” Halbert said.
Halbert contrasted preparation for serving on the council to annual training she was required to have when she served on the Memphis City Schools board.
“That really helped me as a legislator to learn what my role is,” Halbert said before contrasting her school board experience with her council experience. “If you don’t clearly understand and know your role then you can step into other people’s areas. And depending on who you are or how many votes you have with you, that stepping may be called out. It’s our responsibility to govern ourselves.”
Council member Myron Lowery said whatever is changed or put in writing that isn’t already in writing has to be broad and has to be flexible.
“Nothing takes the place of treating everyone with dignity and respect,” Lowery said. “And moving a meeting along varies. I don’t know how we can make a broad statement … that members of the audience cannot speak during committee. There are times when it is appropriate because we’re seeking additional information. Committee is where we hash things out.”
But for Halbert how things get hashed out can be a legitimate issue. She questions whether the administration crosses the same line that the group is now exploring from the council side.
“We’ve even got to address how we expect or how we want the administration to work with this council,” she said. “You don’t tell us one thing and secure votes in a meeting and then you turn around and do something completely different.”
Lowery said drafting council rules that touch on what the administration does could become even more complicated.
“It’s going to be more difficult to put into writing the solutions of some of the things you are talking about,” he told Halbert.