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VOL. 133 | NO. 39 | Thursday, February 22, 2018

Election Methods, Murals Dominate City Council Session

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Council members doubled down Tuesday, Feb. 20, on calling for a cover-up of six murals near Lamar Avenue. And the council’s attorney said ranked-choice, or instant-runoff voting, isn’t needed in Memphis.

The two issues dominated a council day at City Hall that came with a short agenda.

The council passed a resolution by council chairman Berlin Boyd that declares six of the murals that are part of Paint Memphis’ annual public art program at Willett Street and Lamar “offensive to the community.”

“I don’t mean to harp on this race thing. But when it comes to voting rights, race is everything,” city council attorney Allan Wade, center, told the council during a Tuesday discussion of ranked-choice or instant-runoff voting. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

“This council does hereby deem the murals … to be objectionable and offensive and requests the administration take immediate action to remove or cover up the images,” reads the resolution approved on an 8-0 council vote with council members Worth Morgan and Martavius Jones abstaining.

Boyd put the resolution on the agenda following a presentation by Paint Memphis founder Karen Golightly that she said was to “educate” the council.

Council attorney Allan Wade defended the city’s use of a lobbyist in Nashville to push for a bill that would ban instant-runoff or ranked-choice voting statewide.

The council has already put a referendum on the November ballot that would repeal the city charter amendment calling for ranked-choice or instant run-off voting (IRV).

“We do not like legislation that is pre-emptive. It takes away our right to have local control,” Wade said. “But by the same token we understand that the General Assembly had concerns about IRV. … The problem is IRV takes many forms. And I think the consensus in the General Assembly is that they want some uniformity. Their uniformity is to just do away with it.”

Wade said the city might be willing to back uniform standards with a local opt-in for the use of the multiple choice voting system that eliminates runoffs and distributes second and third choice votes to the top contenders instead.

He also questioned how it would accomplish fair representation beyond the seven black city council members who serve on a 13-member body representing a city that is 67 percent African-American. “We have already achieved their No. 1 goal,” he said of the group FairVote, which is pushing for keeping ranked-choice or instant-runoff voting.

“I don’t mean to harp on this race thing. But when it comes to voting rights, race is everything,” Wade said of the drawing of district lines that is crucial to representation by race in Memphis and which is part of the legal consideration. “It’s all about race. In most other contexts in civil law, when you bring the race card out, you lose. I don’t use it. I don’t advocate my clients using it. But when it comes to this context, it means everything.”

Meanwhile, the council vote on the murals followed a second meeting between council members and Golightly.

“Today I want to educate you just a little bit,” the arts professor at Christian Brothers University began Tuesday. Council members began shaking their heads almost immediately and continued as Golightly said the mural images were not “satanic” as council member Joe Brown said last month. When she said some council descriptions of the murals last month matched the early criticism of Elvis Presley, Boyd interrupted and began by apologizing for city public works crews painting over other murals on Willett that were not targeted for removal.

“We’ve been respectful,” Boyd said. “But for you to come here and say we need to be educated – the community reached out to us with a concern. It’s our responsibility and job to represent those that need representing.”

Golightly says the council and the city could be sued by the artists. “The City Council may not know the federal law that protects these artists,” she said after the stormy encounter. “The artists have to give permission to have their works buffed.”

Boyd disagreed.

“You’re done. And I’m going to see how we can get out of the contract with you,” he told Golightly. “It’s supposed to be pulling the community together. And somehow we are idiots and need to be educated on art. … I find that to be offensive. I’m just relaying what my constituents are telling me.”

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