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News from Huddlestan

A fragmented county commission slips further into stalemate.

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It is hardly uncommon for members of local legislative bodies to wink at the requirements of the state Sunshine Act, which, strictly speaking, calls for full public access to meetings and discussions of public business involving two or more officials.

"The General Assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret." So, in clear language, states the preamble of Title 8, Chapter 4, of the state legal code.

The state goes on to say, "The circuit courts, chancery courts, and other courts which have equity jurisdiction, have jurisdiction to issue injunctions, impose penalties, and otherwise enforce the purposes of this part upon application of any citizen of this state."

But there's a caveat: The law applies only to Tennessee, not to the various enclaves of Huddlestan scattered here and about, including the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission. Huddlestan operates under different regulations, like those that apply to any foreign embassy or legation, the denizens of which operate under de facto immunity from the statutes of their host jurisdiction.

A further caveat in the case of the Shelby County Commission: The local jurist having most direct supervision of that body these days is Chancellor Arnold Goldin, who has made it clear that he is somewhat vexed with having to intercede in the commission's affairs because of commissioners' inability to make up their mind about certain essential matters.

At the moment, this specifically includes the issue of the commission's redistricting itself. Like all other elected bodies in Tennessee, the county commission was to have reached agreement by January 1st of this year on new district lines in conformity with the Census of 2010. The city council did so last year, well in advance of the deadline. The General Assembly itself had its lines drawn by year's end. So it was elsewhere in Tennessee.

Only the Shelby County Commission could not find it within itself to agree on the matter. Hence, after a long battle between adherents of large, multi-member districts and advocates of smaller, single-member districts reached  deadlock, three commissioners — Democrat Walter Bailey and Republicans Mike Ritz and Terry Roland — filed suit to have the process adjudicated, and it ended up in Chancellor Goldin's court.

To make that long story short(er), Goldin eventually did rule — in favor of 2-J, a single-member plan from among what seemed like hundreds of varieties considered at one time or another by the commission. Plan 2-J got the nod because it achieved clear majority-vote status in three consecutive readings by the commission.

Ah, but that did not resolve the issue. A new dispute had arisen on the commission regarding whether the county charter, which mandates a two-thirds majority in three consecutive readings of redistricting plans, or state law, which requires only a simple majority in the three such readings, should predominate. Single-member advocates Ritz and Roland had withdrawn from the original suit over this new issue, leaving only Bailey as the (victorious) commission plaintiff.

Goldin's ruling had been what was probably the expected one — that state law predominates. Ron Krelstein, the first lawyer hired by county attorney Kelly Rayne to represent the commission, had forecast as much and withdrew from the case, to be replaced by the more compliant Rick Winchester, when a commission majority voted, some weeks before Goldin's ruling, to insist on a defense of charter supremacy. (Upon departing, Krelstein had an anatomical suggestion or two for the commission majority, though not within a formal brief.)

Now the apparent settlement in favor of 2-J threatens to unravel with a new resolution passed by the commission at its Monday meeting. The resolution confirms a committee's recommendation last Wednesday in favor of Winchester's continuing a defense of the county charter requirement, up to and including a motion to Goldin to reconsider his ruling.

That vote was 9-0-2-1. Nine votes for, no votes against, two abstentions (Democrats Henri Brooks and Chairman Sidney Chism), and one recusal (Bailey).

"Huddlestan" indeed: Though there was ample discussion of the matter before the formal vote, the decision may have been reached by commissioners caucusing semi-privately in small groups, a practice which has become more the rule than the exception and which may have reached its all-time zenith on another vote, the matter of naming a new commission chair.

Brooks, Chism, Ritz, and Republican Wyatt Bunker: Those were the four basic contenders. Given the absence Monday of Democrat Steve Mulroy and the fact that Ritz (always) and Brooks (for the most part) passed rather than voting in those rounds that did not contain their names as candidates, the resultant pool of 10 voters was never able to find the seven votes needed to elect someone.

Among the factors: Bunker, who, as the current vice chair, is considered by most commission Republicans to be the chair-apparent under the old system of rotation by party each year, is regarded as too hardline by Democrats. Chism, who last year managed a second straight term, thanks to GOP resentment of former Commissioner Mike Carpenter, then vice chair and considered by some Republicans a "RINO," may be pushing the envelope in his quest for a third straight term. Ritz, who has voted with the Democrats on school and redistricting issues, has inherited some of Carpenter's ostracism. And Brooks is regarded as overly headstrong by several members.

So yet another deadlock ensued, despite the aforesaid record number of small-group huddles, all technically in violation of the Sunshine Law. At some point, a voice from one of the huddles suggested, to nervous laughter, "Let's get Chancellor Goldin to pick our chairman." 

Only in Huddlestan.

The commission deferred its decision on the chairmanship and will try again in two weeks.   

• 9th District U.S. representative Steve Cohen, running for reelection to a fourth term, long ago made peace with a onetime antagonist, former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr., now a Floridian for most of the year but a Cohen supporter who, as an influential lobbyist, stays in touch with the current congressman.

For his part, Cohen has begun to regard himself as an extender of several Ford traditions, including, as he demonstrated at an event at his headquarters Monday, the issuance of a sample ballot endorsing other candidates. The 2012 Cohen Ballot, successor to the old Ford Ballot, isn't on the streets or in the mails yet, but several of its beneficiaries, endorsers of Cohen in their turn, were on hand with the congressman Monday. Among them were Unified School Board candidates Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Freda Williams; state representative Mike Kernell; state senator Beverly Marrero; Shelby County assessor Cheyenne Johnson; and Shelby County general sessions court clerk pro tempore Ed Stanton Jr. Not present Monday was at least one other endorsee, state representative Antonio Parkinson.

Present Monday and also conferring their endorsements on Cohen were Mayor A C Wharton; City Council members Lee Harris and Janis Fullilove; and Unified School Board vice chair Jeff Warren. Not present but listed by the Cohen campaign as endorsers were council members Wanda Halbert, Myron Lowery, Bill Morrison, and Jim Strickland; Unified School Board chairman Billy Orgel; and Shelby County commissioner Mulroy.

Cohen did not endorse in the District 90 House race involving Democrats John DeBerry, Ian Randolph, and Jeanne Richardson, "all friends," he said, or in the district attorney general's race, where he acknowledged the experience of incumbent Republican Amy Weirich, who has several Democratic supporters. The Democratic attorney general candidate, former legislator and council member Carol Chumney, was someone, however, that "I gave birth to in 1990," said Cohen, a vigorous supporter of Chumney for a House seat that year.

On Tuesday, Chumney announced endorsements by Lowery, the Memphis Labor Council, A.F.S.C.M.E., and the I.B.E.W.

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