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VOL. 132 | NO. 208 | Thursday, October 19, 2017

City Lays Out Numerous Paths to Statue Removal

By Bill Dries

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City officials laid out numerous paths forward in the Confederate monuments controversy Tuesday, Oct. 17, that include closing Health Sciences Park entirely or building a memorial to lynching victims in the park plaza where a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest is now the centerpiece.

The Memphis City Council has approved a plan with several paths to remove Nathan Bedford Forrest’s monument from Health Sciences Park. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland went to the Tennessee Historical Commission this month for a hearing, asking for a waiver on a state law so the city can remove the Forrest statue.

The commission did not hear or act on the city’s request to remove the statue, but granted a waiver hearing before an administrative law judge in November.

The Memphis City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday, Oct. 17, giving Strickland’s administration until Nov. 21 to deliver a plan for the removal of Forrest’s statue.

The ordinance approved on third and final reading lays out numerous paths to achieve that goal. The memorial to lynching victims would come into play if the city cannot find a way to remove and relocate the statue.

“One of the other options for us is to speak volumes about how blacks were lynched,” said council attorney Allan Wade. “If we cannot come to a permanent solution for removal then you have an alternative path to repurpose that whole plaza to minimize his impact.”

The other paths include starting a process with the Tennessee Historical Commission to remove the statue of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis from Memphis Park and closing Health Sciences Park where the Forrest statue has stood for more than 100 years.

Council member Patrice Robinson proposed closing Health Sciences Park during council committee sessions Tuesday.

“I’d like to see the park closed for the safety of our community,” she said. “The council opened it. We need to close it. I just need to know the process.”

Wade said the city would also pursue mediation with those opposed to removing the statues and consider offers from those interested in buying them for relocation. That would happen even as the city keeps all of its legal options open, including potential litigation at several levels.

Wade expressed hope that the city would prevail with the administration and council acting together in a process Wade described as “Confederate hell.”

“If not, then I think we are going to be presenting something powerful to minimize and repurpose that whole area,” he said.

The council also has Wade drafting a referendum ordinance to repeal the city’s move to ranked-choice voting in the 2019 city elections, which was authorized under an earlier city charter amendment. The first of three readings on the ordinance comes at the first council meeting in November.

Council member Edmund Ford Jr. also wants Wade to offer options for eliminating the runoff provision in races for the seven single-member council districts. Those are the only races that have runoff provisions in all of Shelby County politics.

“It looks at the legal points of the 1991 decision by (Federal) Judge Jerome Turner, which eliminated runoffs in particular races,” Ford said of Turner’s ruling, which eliminated citywide or at-large council seats and did away with the runoff requirement in the Memphis mayor’s race when no candidate got a simple majority of the votes cast.

Turner’s ruling left in place runoffs in the single-member council districts, leaving it up to the city council what to replace the at-large seats with. The council established two super districts – each taking in a half of the city – with three council members elected to each super district with no runoff provision.

“Many of my council members asked about that because they did not want their single-member districts singled out, especially when that group of individuals could be susceptible to a process that is different from everybody else,” Ford said.

Former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy argued the council should not scrap the ranked-choice voting charter amendment without at least trying it. RCV is also referred to as instant-runoff voting.

“If the city council succeeds in repealing instant-runoff voting they will essentially be diluting minority voting strength,” said Mulroy, a former civil rights attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and currently a University of Memphis law professor. “People asked for it. Try it once. The city council is trying to stop it. I think, respectfully, they don’t full apprehend how instant runoff voting works.”

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