County Commission Weighs Referendum Lifting Term Limits

By Bill Dries

At the first Shelby County Commission meeting since the March primary elections, commissioners will consider a move to eliminate all term limits for elected county officials.


The issue could be put to county voters on the August ballot.

The commission meets Monday, March 7, at 3 p.m. at the Vasco Smith Administration Building.

The referendum ordinance proposed by commissioner Walter Bailey is up for the first of three readings. It must get nine votes on third reading in order win final approval.

Bailey wants to amend the county charter to eliminate the current limit of two consecutive terms for county commissioners, the county mayor as well as sheriff, county clerk, register, trustee and property assessor.

Bailey, in committee sessions last week, urged commissioners to let the public vote on the issue instead of voting on the ordinance based on their beliefs about term limits.

“It would initiate the process for voters to ultimately revisit the subject of term limits,” Bailey said. “Affording the public an opportunity to revisit this subject periodically, it strengthens democracy.”

Voters have decided three referendums on term limits for Shelby County elected officials in 22 years, with the last two referendums within months of each other in 2008.

A petition drive led by the group “Citizens Against New Taxes” put term limits for the mayor and commission on the ballot countywide in November 1994. It was approved by 81 percent of those voters. The two-term limit of eight consecutive years began for commissioners and the mayor who were elected in 1998.

Bailey and fellow commissioners Cleo Kirk and Julian Bolton filed suit in Chancery Court to contest the term limits, but lost the legal case. All three went off the commission in August 2006 because of the term limits.

“I’ve been in this business for a long time, too long to want to acknowledge,” Bailey said last week. “I’ve had some disruptions.”

Bailey ran for the commission four years later in 2010, after sitting out a term. He was elected again. He is currently serving his second consecutive term.

“It stifles, at least it discourages, those who might want to render themselves for public office,” Bailey said of term limits. “They would not want to subject themselves to a policy where they can only serve for a limited amount of time if they want to pursue it as a career.”

In the August 2008 elections, voters rejected a county charter amendment that would have attached a limit of three consecutive terms to the offices of sheriff, county clerk, register, trustee and property assessor. It would have also extended the existing limit of two consecutive terms on commissioners and the county mayor to three terms.

After that amendment failed, some commissioners argued that voters were saying they didn’t want to extend term limits. Other commissioners said the referendum was an indication that voters didn’t want any term limits.

The commission put a measure on the November 2008 ballot setting a limit of two consecutive terms for the five countywide offices as well as preserving the existing two-term limit for commissioners and the county mayor.

It was approved by voters with 79 percent voting yes.

The two-term limits on the five countywide offices other than county mayor began running with those elected in 2010.

Bailey’s referendum ordinance would go on an August ballot that features one countywide general election race – the race for General Sessions Court Clerk. The ballot also includes primaries for state and federal offices other than president.

The last term-limits referendum was on the ballot with a presidential general election, which is the most popular election cycle with Shelby County voters.

It’s also the only election cycle in Shelby County that consistently draws a turnout of more than half of the county’s voters.

The vote in committee last week was a 4-4 tie, meaning it goes to the full commission Monday with no recommendation.

Some commissioners are exploring possibly amending the referendum question so that the removal of term limits would apply to those elected in the 2018 county elections, not to those now office who are serving their second consecutive terms, so those officials would not be able to run again in 2018.

Several commissioners said they remain opposed to term limits and have already decided not to seek a third consecutive term even if term limits are lifted. But they added they would not necessarily oppose giving the public another say on the matter.

Under the commission’s rules, an ordinance advances to third reading even if it fails to get a simple majority of the commission on the first and second readings.

Commission chairman Terry Roland had proposed another countywide referendum to do away with the requirement that county employees, including teachers, must live in Shelby County.

But Roland withdrew the item last week after attempts to limit the residency waiver to teachers only.