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On Changing Charters

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In what was almost certainly the first of many such appearances to come, three elected county officials showed up at the conservative-oriented Dutch Treat Luncheon last Saturday to argue against making their positions and those of two other county officials appointive rather than elective.

The three -- Sheriff Mark Luttrell, Trustee Bob Patterson, and Register Tom Leatherwood -- noted for the record that the issue will almost certainly be adjudicated in the courts. That's because Shelby County is one of two Tennessee counties enjoying home rule, the other being Knox County, subject of a recent state Supreme Court decision allowing for the possible appointment of constitutionally mandated county officials.

The court's ruling was based on the fact that the Knox County charter did not provide specific establishment of the offices of sheriff, trustee, assessor, county clerk, and register. Since Knox County's governmental system was modeled precisely on that of Shelby County, the precedent there clearly indicates that our own system is vulnerable to revision by a similar judicial ruling.

Saturday's meeting was further energized by a claim from the three Shelby County officials that county mayor A C Wharton was sponsoring legislation already before the General Assembly in Nashville that would facilitate a changeover into an appointive system. That generated something of a state of alarm among the listeners, who seemed to concur with Luttrell, Patterson, and Leatherwood that appointed officials are more remote from the population they serve than elected ones, less subject to direct monitoring, and, by definition, immune from a change in their status at the hands of the electorate.

As it turns out, the bill now pending in Nashville failed by a narrow margin to achieve support from the Shelby County Commission at the commission's Monday meeting -- a fact which probably dooms it to defeat in the legislature at large. And the scope of the bill was somewhat less than advertised, as well. As Wharton explained on Tuesday, the bill -- the only one on the subject that he has personally approved -- would merely have amended current state requirements to the end that referenda on changes in the county charter could be scheduled by the commission for special elections rather than awaiting regularly scheduled countywide general elections. "I just wanted us to be ready earlier, just in case," Mayor Wharton said, somewhat ambiguously.

Though we are predisposed to the arguments made by the three officials on Saturday, we are open-minded about the issue in general. We urge Shelby Countians, official and otherwise, to avail themselves of ample study and debate on the matter while there's still time to consider alternatives.

Meanwhile, we congratulate the members of the city Charter Commission, who on Monday announced a series of public meetings on possible changes in that charter.

The schedule: March 21st, 6 p.m., at City Council chambers, 125 N. Main; March 29th, 6 p.m., at Hollywood Community Center, 1560 N. Hollywood; March 31st, 1 p.m., at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar; April 18th, 6 p.m., at Whitehaven Community Center, 4318 Graceland.

Further information is available at www.memphischartercommission.org.

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