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No Backing Down

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We choose to begin where Mayor A C Wharton ended in his Monday luncheon presentation to members of the Memphis Rotary Club. "Yes!" said the mayor, most emphatically, when asked after his remarks if he and the city council were prepared to go all the way, if necessary, with an ordinance to annex the Gray's Creek community, just east of Cordova in the city's annexation reserve.

By pre-arranged schedule, the council was then but hours away from passing on the first reading, and council chairman Bill Morrison had served notice last week that he intended to expedite passage through the second of three required readings. Wharton's statement of determination to proceed further — again, if need be — was in a tradition that began in 1997 when then-Mayor Willie Herenton was faced with the infamous "Toy Town" bill, a stealth measure that, before it was found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, threatened to surround Memphis with a score or more of diminutive ad hoc "municipalities," choking off all possible avenues of future expansion for the city.

That earlier crisis was finally resolved with a formal accord in 1998 emanating from the legislature in a new statute and involving all of Shelby County's municipalities — as well as its unincorporated areas, which, as Wharton pointed out Monday, had been represented in negotiations by then Shelby County mayor Jim Rout. This is a key point in the current controversy, since apologists for the triad of suburban legislators who have just introduced a pair of controversial bills that would once again close off Memphis' future options affect to believe that people in the unincorporated areas had not been so spoken for.

As Wharton explained things Monday, it was not just the immediate threat of the legislation that concerned him, nor the fact that neither he nor anyone else in city government had been consulted before the bills were introduced — a breach that went beyond discourtesy to the point of being a provocation. The crowning outrage for the mayor was the fact that the legislative accord of 1998, which established agreed-upon annexation reserves for all the entities of Shelby County, had the status of a formal contract, one that the rogue lawmakers were prepared to willfully breach.

He compared the situation to the last previous such usurpation of local authority by suburban legislators in Nashville — the Norris-Todd bill of a year ago, which co-opted the ongoing merger of Memphis and Shelby County school systems. That bill was designed by state senator Mark Norris and state representative Curry Todd of Collierville, the authors, along with state representative Ron Lollar of Bartlett (a contributor to Norris-Todd) of the current bills on annexation. "At least they could say back then that there was no body of law governing the merger of the city and county school systems," Wharton pointed out. "They can't do that with annexation. The law is on the books!"

No one in city government, so far as we know, had previously entertained the thought of annexing Gray's Creek or any other adjacent area. If such annexation occurs, the city will have been forced into it by scofflaws in Nashville.

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