Opinion » Editorial

Invitation to Chaos

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Time was when the Memphis City Council had the patent locally on eccentric conduct and discordant ways, while, across the downtown government plaza, the Shelby County Commission had a reputation for reserved, even staid behavior. No more.

In the last several months, the council has been made to seem a Ladies' and Gentlemen's Society by comparison with the commission, whose members have gotten themselves involved in near fistfights, censure resolutions, and, most notoriously, an endless disagreement on what should be the simple matter of redistricting themselves.

The Census of 2010 has been in the books for a while, and the redistricting plans of other governmental bodies have long since been concluded. The county commission, unable to agree, has an April 5th date with Chancellor Arnold Goldin, who will be asked to act in the role of Solomon.   

The problem is not that the commission, which has debated the issue ad infinitum over the last several months, has deadlocked on a given hot-button matter. The points at issue have proliferated and varied wildly since discussion began last fall. To convey some sense of how kaleidoscopic disagreement has been: Last fall a distinct majority of commissioners favored an updated version of the current plan, one involving four districts of three members each and one swing district with a single member. Sentiment has shifted to the opposite viewpoint. Whereas only one member was holding out for 13 single-member districts in December, that position now represents the consensus, with only a distinct minority publicly favoring multimember districts. The breakdown now is over just how the lines are to be drawn, dividing the 13 districts-to-be. Every kind of motive — personal, political, racial — has intruded to prevent the achievement of the nine-vote commission supermajority which the county charter mandates.

And therein, for a body which loves above all to disagree, lay the opportunity for an ultimate disagreement that could lead to profound institutional crisis.

Given her responsibility to represent the entire factionalized commission, county attorney Kelly Rayne availed herself at year's end of a sensible remedy: the appointment of seasoned lawyer Ron Krelstein as special attorney. Both because he believes that state law, which requires only a final majority of seven to achieve redistricting, trumps the county charter and because such an interpretation allows him to actually take into court a plan of some kind, Krelstein proposes to argue for "2-J," a single-member plan that has successfully passed three readings with a majority of at least seven.

At this week's commission meeting, however, dissenting commissioners prevailed on a majority to pass a resolution directing Rayne to force the county's representative in court to defend the county charter's requirement for a nine-vote supermajority. Krelstein has made it clear he will not act against his own best legal sense, embedded in a pleading already entered, and will resign from the case if required to. It is now up to Rayne to decide, among other things, whether the commission can legally enjoin her to enjoin Krelstein.

As if Chancellor Goldin, who will probably have to decide that matter, too, didn't already have enough to unravel.

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