The City/County/State Annexation Stand-off for Dummies

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City Councilman Jim Strickland and Mayor Wharton mull over crisis at Thursday night fundraiser.
  • JB
  • City Councilman Jim Strickland and Mayor Wharton mull over crisis at Thursday night fundraiser.

The current version of the latest Memphis blow-up — one which all the involved principals appear to be accepting, perhaps for the sake of a momentary armistice — is that a local, almost casual impulse was the source of two radioactive bills regarding urban annexation in Shelby County.

The bills — one removing a key area from Memphis’ annexation reserve and another requiring a positive vote on the part of any community about to be annexed — were sponsored in the House by GOP members Curry Todd and Ron Lollar and in the Senate by no less than Majority Leader Mark Norris. All are legislators from suburban Shelby County.

It should be noted that Norris-Todd is the popular name for Public Chapter One of 2011, the bill governing the ongoing merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, and that Lollar was an unacknowledged co-author, along with Norris and Todd, of that legislation.

Supposedly the residents of tiny Fisherville, an unincorporated bedroom suburb on the rim of Memphis and squarely in the city’s annexation reserve, began agitating for legislation to protect them from potential absorption — some day, some way — by Memphis. And Todd and Lollar, innocently helpful in the latest telling, prevailed on the Majority Leader to — in Norris’ words — “sign the check,” and the bills got entered last week on the legislature’s filing deadline.

Whatever Messrs. Todd, Lollar, and Norris expected, it was probably not the rapid, almost instantaneous reaction they got from a unified Memphis city government, irrespective of Council members’ prior attitudes toward further annexations by the city. Perhaps a majority were opposed to pursuing any more such, and there is no evidence whatsoever that annexation of Fisherville or the larger Gray’s Creek unincorporated area was being contemplated by anyone in the Administration or on the Council.

Various Council members did, however, see the purpose of the new annexation bills to be that of bolstering the suburban municipal school districts now in the process of being birthed by enabling the availability for them down the line of a new population base and new sales tax and property tax revenues — all of which would be subtracted from Memphis’ own Christmas future.

Addressing an emergency meeting of the Council’s personnel, intergovernmental, and annexation committee Tuesday night, Mayor A C Wharton noted that the new legislation had been proposed “without even the courtesy of conversation with the bill sponsors and without regard to the standing annexation agreement signed by all Shelby County mayors in 1998.” This was a compact between all of Shelby County’s municipalities resolving the previous year’s infamous “Toy Town” controversy over a bill (subsequently found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court) that would have allowed virtually unlimited incorporation of communities of any size whatsoever.

Upon learning of the legislation Monday, Wharton and Council chairman Bill Morrison had issued a joint statement, which recalled the City’s fight with the suburbs and state government in 2011 over school merger and said in part, “…This is a continued all-out assault on Memphis and its right to govern itself. We are calling upon all of our local leaders — whether they be leaders in politics, business, or the philanthropic arena — and the residents of Memphis to let their state representatives know that this will not stand.”

On Tuesday, the Mayor and Council agreed on a dual strategy of contesting the legislation in court (primarily on the basis that it was unauthorized private legislation) and of countering it with immediate steps to annex the Gray’s Creek/Fisherville area to Memphis. A resolution to begin the first of three required readings was set for Tuesday, with a resolve to fast-track readings two and three if need be.

Norris, who acknowledged that he was surprised by the swift City reaction, began to back-pedal from his own involvement with the annexation legislation and, after conversations with Harold Collins, chairman of the Council’s personnel, intergovernmental, and annexation committee and presumably with Wharton, apparently prevailed on Todd and Lollar to allow the bills to be “held on desk” while an Attorney General’s opinion on the bills’ legal status was requested.

This morphed into a general stand-down , during which Norris himself expressed doubt about the annexation bills’ constitutionality and the Fisherville thesis was surfaced, after which all parties — Wharton, the Council, and the legislators — appear to have consented to an indefinite cease-fire in place. (Council chairman Morrison said Thursday night, however, that he intended to speed the annexation process through at least the second reading, “just in case.”)

In any case, even in clearly distancing himself from the volatile and misfiring annexation bills, Norris made clear to the Flyer that he would hold fast to his de facto 30-day ultimatum to process legislation on the status of the school infrastructure sought at little or no cost by emergent suburban municipal school districts in Shelby County.

Norris had said that, in the absence of any general agreement between governmental and school authorities in on the status of the school buildings, he would introduce appropriate legislation to resolve the issue.

Simultaneously came an unexpected move from David Pickler, the former Shelby County Schools board chairman whose stated resolve in late 2010 to seek special-school-district status for his system is cited by many as the catalyst for the Memphis City Schools board’s fateful decision to surrender the MCS charter, thus forcing merger.

For the last several months, Pickler has been a member of both the Uniform School Board now governing SCS and MCS preparatory to their 2013 merger and the Transition Planning Committee created by Norris-Todd to advise in the merger process. During that time his public statements have been highly generalized and largely confined to the idea that everybody should work together to make the merger work.

In an interview with the Flyer this past week, however, Pickler abandoned that position, calling for the TPC to reconfigure its purpose around the idea of multiple school districts — including charter schools and the state’s Achievement School District as well as the municipal schools now clearly in the process of formation.

Accordingly Pickler called for the TPC to be addressed by Jim Mitchell, a former Shelby County school superintendent who is now a consultant advising the sub urban municipalities on setting up their school systems. (A TPC committee met Thursday afternoon and suggested the proposal be dealt with at next week’s full meeting of the Committee. Shelb y County Mayor Mark Luttrell embroidered on the idea with an open invitation to all suburban mayors to address the full TPC.)

Citing Norris’ determination on the school-building issue, Pickler said, ““The Transition Planning Committee has to take under consideration this new initiative by Sen. Norris. If we ignore it, Sen. Norris seems to have a plan to implement.”

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