The County Commission’s Battle Royal over Redistricting (Cont’d)



The ongoing imbroglio on the Shelby County Commission regarding the matter of post-census redistricting will apparently have to be resolved by Chancellor Arnold Goldin next month when he meets with attorneys representing Shelby County government as a whole, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, three commissioners engaged in a suit against the county regarding the redistricting process.

If this originally pro forma confrontation seems unduly complicated, it could quickly become more so. Commissioner Mike Ritz, one of the three plaintiffs in the existing case, now indicates he intends to sponsor a resolution asking the Commission to appoint a lawyer to oppose the county’s current special attorney, Ron Krelstein, who was hired late last year by Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne.

Okay, breathe in deep and try to focus: Krelstein was hired by Rayne to represent both the executive branch of Shelby County government and the Commission itself against the three plaintiffs’ suit because Rayne herself could not easily do so.

Her responsibilities — to individual Commissioners, as well as to the Commission as a unit — would be hopelessly divided and she would be litigating to some degree against herself.

Now, if Ritz should follow through on his resolution, and if it should be approved, the lawyer hired thereafter to counter Krelstein would be technically representing the Commission against itself as well as, presumably, against the three plaintiffs, including Ritz, who, along with co-plaintiff Terry Roland, is already represented by another lawyer, Gerald Lawson, while the third plaintiff, Commissioner Walter Bailey is representing himself.

Even with a scorecard, it would next to impossible to identify all the players and to separate their roles and legal responsibilities from one another.

Ritz’s contemplated resolution is based on his resistance to Krelstein’s position, made public at Monday’s regular public meeting of the Commission, that state law trumps the Shelby County charter in determining how many votes are necessary for the passage of a redistricting plan on the third of three required readings.

Tennessee statute requires only a majority of the legislative body — 7, in the case of the Commission —on third and final passage. The county charter calls for a super-majority — 9, in the case of the 13-member Commission — to vote for a redistricting plan on its final reading.

Ritz argued strenuously at Monday’s meeting that Krelstein should not attempt to abandon the county charter, much less litigate against it.

If the legal situation itself resembles an impenetrable thicket, that merely reflects the ever-shifting and equally confusing alliances on the Commission regarding the redistricting issue.

The plan which Krelstein proposes to put forth on April 5 as deserving of Chancellor Goldin’s approval is one calling for 13 single-member districts and designated 2-J. When the three plaintiffs filed their suit at year’s end, they were attempting to end-run what at the time appeared a Commission majority in favor of 3-C, variously known as the “Continuity Plan,” because it continued the format of large three-member districts currently in play, and the “Ford Plan,” because freshman Commissioner Justin Ford, theretofore something of a wallflower, had loudly and ostentatiously grabbed that ball and run with it.

At the time they filed suit, the three plaintiffs favored either a plan based on two-member districts or one involving single-member districts. By this week, all three had settled on the single-member format. So had a clear super-majority of the Commission. Problem solved? Nope, the issue was, they couldn’t all agree on which version of a single-member format.

Bailey and Roland continued to favor 2-J, which had claimed 9 votes on its second reading two weeks ago. This plan envisioned 7 majority-black districts out of 13, a ratio more or less corresponding to demographic ratios within the county. But in the meantime, the famously Afro-centric Henri Brooks had attached herself to another single-member variant, 2-O, which calls for 8 majority-black districts, by comparison a somewhat disproportionate number.

Joining her on Monday were several others, including Commissioner James Harvey, formerly an advocate for 2-J, and — to most people’s surprise — Commissioner Ritz, who would say later that he thought 2-O carved out a more equitable division for outer-county residents. There would not be enough votes to put 2-O over, but neither, given the leakage, were there enough to create a super-majority for 2-J, which topped out at 7.

Krelstein had meanwhile interpreted his charge to mean espousal of the majority-backed plan, which remained 2-J. And to support his position, he stated in his initial brief the belief that the aforesaid state law requiring only a legislative body’s majority in a final redistricting vote was the governing element, overruling the requirement in the county charter for a final two-thirds vote. Hence the dispute with Ritz, who contended Thursday that Krelstein could support 2-J in court without an outright disavowal of the charter provision.

Is legal hair-splitting really the basis of the current standoff? Maybe not, in the judgment of several commissioners, a couple of whom attribute Ritz’s pivotal switch-over to 2-O to be based on that plan’s provision, in two different versions, for colleague Heidi Shafer to be located in a district where her reelection in 2014 would be imperiled.

Ritz was known to be displeased at Shafer for favoring a censure vote aimed at him some weeks ago, one based on his having used the term “bribe” to describe an acknowledged inducement that colleague Brent Taylor had loaded into a would-be compromise version of a multi-district plan.

In the event, Ritz defended himself ably in debate before the full Commission, and the censure resolution was shelved, but Shafer had meanwhile cast a vote for it in committee, and she, unlike some of the others favoring censure, was in a relatively tenuous geographical situation vis-à-vis potential district lines.

So, coincidentally or not, in version One of 2-O, the residence of Shafer, a white Republican, was located on the margins of a preponderantly black and Democratic inner-city district; when Shafer let her discontent be known, she found herself shifted in Version Two of 2-O to a majority-white East Memphis district, one which, as Ritz himself observed on Monday, contained a large concentration of the city’s Jewish population.

Again, It may have been pure coincidence, but the revised version also contained the residence of Steve Basar, a Shafer friend and ally who happens to be Jewish, who became a Republican nominee for the Commission on March 6, and who, if elected in August, would also be seeking reelection in 2014 in the proposed District 5, same as Shafer.

Neither Basar nor Shafer cared much for that prospect. While he acknowledges having had a hand in drawing some of the lines in both versions of 2-O, Ritz — who had also, like Shafer, supported Basar on March 6 — professes utter innocence of arranging any gerrymandering for personal reasons.

Likewise, it may have been pure coincidence that Millington Republican Terry Roland found himself dumped into a provisional inner-city district of one of the permutations of the Ford Plan in the immediate aftermath of a heated public clash with Ford over redistricting.

To unravel all the personal (and political) motives involved in the months-long redistricting squabble is beyond the scope of the present article. Suffice it to say, in something of an understatement, that such motives have been numerous, accounting for an almost infinite number of changes of mind on the part of individual commissioners.

(The most remarkable metamorphosis involves the gradual transformation of the single-member district -- in the beginning a concept advanced only by one commissioner, Steve Mulroy -- into the dominant end pattern.)

In any case, one way or another, in the presence of howsoever many teams of lawyers, Chancellor Goldin, who had hoped the Commission could decide on redistricting for itself, will probably have to make the call himself on April 5 or soon thereafter.

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